Gilbert Was There First

IMG_20150606_0005_NEWGilbert Was There First

The more I listen to my Gilbert & Sullivan records and attend all too rare performances of those “Savoy” operas (operettas? musical comedies?), the more I marvel at how William S. Gilbert anticipated so many bits that show up in musicals written long afterwards.

For example, we have what I call the Negative Love Song. Tired of composing lyrics of the I-love-you variety, Oscar Hammerstein II decided to let the male lead in “Oklahoma!” tell the female lead “Don’t throw bouquets at me, don’t laugh at my jokes too much” and so on, as you well know. That done, he could not return to the clichés of yesteryear; so when “Carousel” came along, the smitten male lead had to sing “If I loved you” in what we might as well call the Conditional Mode Love Song.

However, Gilbert had already invented that sort of thing in “The Mikado.” Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum cannot be intimate in any way, since she is already engaged to Ko-Ko. Therefore the best he could sing back in 1885 is “Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted, I would say in tender tone….” and set the standard that Hammerstein was to take up half a century later.

To end the film version of a particularly plotless musical called “Roberta,”it was  decided to accompany an extended fashion show sequence with a new Jerome Kern song titled     “Lovely to Look At.” In much the same way, the Ascot sequence in “My Fair Lady” opens with what amounts to a fashion show in which the Very Very Rich parade to the tune of “The Ascot Gavotte.” Again Gilbert was there first.

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Act II costumes for “The GrandDuke” in the original production

The second act of “The Grand Duke” opens with these stage directions: “Enter a procession of the members of the theatrical company (now dressed in the costumes of Troilus and Cressida), carrying garlands, playing on pipes, citharae, and cymbals….” In short, a costume parade–and this in 1896.

Praising a character for his bad traits goes back at least to Aristophanes. One of the more memorable numbers in “L’il Abner” is Marryin’ Sam’s hymn to Jubilation T. Cornpone, whose cowardly conduct during the Civil War made him into a local hero in Dogpatch. Yet who is this Cornpone other than the Duke of Plaza Toro who sings his own praises in “The Gondoliers” like this:

 

In enterprise of martial kind

When there was any fighting,

He led his regiment from behind–

He found it less exciting.

But when away his regiment ran,

His place was at the fore, O–

 

and like that.

Of course, any playwright worth his salt must know his theatre history; and certainly anyone working on the book or lyrics of a musical must know his Gilbert & Sullivan. Few lyricists, however, can stand in the same class as Gilbert when it comes to tricky rhymes. Now and then, he would set himself a rhyming challenge such as that in “The Mikado” when Pooh-Bah has to come up with perfect rhymes for the word “executioner.” Results? “Ablutioner,” “diminutioner,” and finally “you shun her.”

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Cole Porter learned a lot from Gilbert

Cole Porter decided to see what he could do with the word(s) “Can-can” in the musical of the same name: “If a sultan in a caravan can” and “If a kilted Scottish clan can” are only two of the incredibly many he produced. (I was urged to mention also “puberty/Schubert-y” from “Kiss Me Kate” by a Porter fan.) And do not forget what Larry Hart did in “To Keep My Love Alive,” in which he rhymes “possibilities/ill at ease/kill at ease” and most notably “a wreck to me/horse’s neck to me/appendectomy.” Now that is in the same class as Gilbert’s “din afore/Pinafore” “strategy/sat a gee” couplings in “The Pirates of Penzance.”

And speaking of patter songs, the only one that is worthy of that description in a 20th century musical is the polysyllabic list of wonders to be seen under the big top in “Barnum.”

One last reminder. Gilbert was at his best in social and political satire. The one musical worthy to stand beside the best of the Savoy series was written in respectful imitation of G&S by the brothers Ira and George Gershwin and is called “Of Thee I Sing.” But that is worth an article all on its own.

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