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Classical Sprouts: Gilbert and Sullivan's 'The Pirates of Penzance'

Brandon O'Neill (center) as the Pirate King and the cast of 'The Pirates of Penzance' at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN
Molly Shields
Cast of 'The Pirates of Penzance' at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts (Photo: Molly Shields)

Gilbert and Sullivan were a much-loved musical duo from England during Victorian Era of the mid- to late-1800s.

They wrote operettas, which have light and funny storylines, are shorter than operas, and typically have spoken words in addition to singing, sort of like early musical theatre!

W.S Gilbert was the librettist and Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote the music.

Their operettas were so popular that there was even a whole theatre built in London just to produce their work, the Savoy Theatre.

Wood engraving of the Savoy Theatre in London, England. (1881 Universal History Archive/UIG / Bridgeman Images)
Wood Engraving of the The Savoy Theatre in London, England (1881 Universal History Archive/UIG / Bridgeman Images)

"The Pirates of Penzance" is the raucous and joyous tale of a band of pirates off the coast of Cornwall in England. Except, they're not very good at being pirates.

We meet them just as one of their own, Frederick celebrates his 21st birthday, ending his pirate duties with them. There were some mix-ups in his childhood that led him to become a pirate as a child...

As Frederick leaves his pirate servitude and rejoins English society, he meets a woman named Mabel and falls in love!

But then, all of the other pirates come on shore right as he's meeting her father, the Modern Major General Stanley.

He touts his importance with this very famous and tricky patter song, "I am the very model of a Modern Major-General."

Can you keep up with the lyrics?

The Major-General is able to escape the fate of the pirates by telling them a lie, and Frederic finds out that he was actually born in a leap year.

This means that he has only had 5 birthdays as a pirate, not 21, and that he still has pirate duties to complete, taking him away from Mabel.

In the end, all of the misunderstandings, lies, and loopholes are worked out, and Frederic and Mabel are able to be together, and the Pirates of Penzance and the Major-General learn to co-exist.

Listen to the episode to hear all of the fun music and the details of all of these topsy-turvy plot points, and fulfill all of your pirate duties!

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Classical Sprouts is produced by Emily Duncan Wilson.

More from Classical Sprouts:

Kate Botello is a host and producer at Classical IPR.
Emily Duncan Wilson is IPR's digital content manager and is the producer of "Classical Sprouts" and "Kids Commute".