Gilbert & Sullivan’s operettas have captivated audiences worldwide for decades… and chances are they have snuck into the soundtrack of your life at some point too. The influence of the Savoy Operas on the Western World is nothing short of astonishing. Not only they are tunes we still hum and quotes that have become a part of our current language: they showed that subjects like politics and social issues could be addressed in a deliciously witty way, without foregoing entertainment principles.
The Pirates of Penzance is one of G&S’s most well-known pieces — from Scrubs to Family Guy, from The Muppets to Captain Underpants, there are a gazillion references and variations.
Remember in Pretty Woman, when Edward takes Vivian to the opera? Vivian is moved to tears by the story of the prostitute who falls in love with a rich man, and when a fellow audience member asks her how she liked the opera, she replies, “It was so good, I almost peed my pants.” Edward quickly covers for her saying that she had said that she “liked it better than Pirates of Penzance.”
‘I am the very model of a modern major general,’ has been sung, spoken and parodied ….and even became a viral sensation when US comedian Randy Rainbows crafted new lyrics to make fun of Donald Trump’s tweets.
In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical Hamilton (2015), the character of George Washington references the song when he sings: “Now I’m the model of a modern major general/ The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all/ Lining up to put me up on a pedestal.”
In 2017, the adorably chaotic minions from Universal’s animated film Despicable Me 3 turned the song into giddy gibberish with their helium-high voices. You can imagine Gilbert laughing from beyond the grave.
Let’s talk about love…The narrative of a working-class man falling in love with an upper class girl, is a tale as old as time, some suggest H.M.S. Pinafore has a lot to do with bringing that into the pop culture vernacular.
‘He is an Englishman’ is perhaps most famous of G&S anthems (helped, no doubt, by being featured in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire) and the last in which Gilbert and Sullivan indulged in more-or-less straight patriotism. Almost as famous, ‘A British Tar’ is the glee supposedly composed by Sir Joseph Porter, sung by his loyal crew in Act I of the operetta. Its opening lines, ‘A British tar is a soaring soul, As free as a mountain bird, His energetic fist should be ready to resist A dictatorial word’ are sung by Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark; a great deal more is sung by Jean-Luc Picard and his crew in Star Trek: Insurrection to distract a malfunctioning synthetic life-form.
TV has not been left out. The Simpons may be amongst the most well-known nod to H.M.S. Pinafore. In the “Cape Feare” episode, Bart tries to distract and stall his possible murderer, Sideshow Bob. With one last “final request” for Bob to sing him the entire score of Pinafore. The highlights are sequenced, as Bart munches on popcorn, joins in with the choreography, coming to a dramatic end with the boat colliding with a rock and Side Show Bobs getting arrested.
How I met Your Mother, jumps on the G&S ship too. It incorporates H.M.S. Pinafore into it’s long and winding eventful series. Picture this, the character known as The Captain is greeted by his maids at home, such as Corcoran is greeted in his ship.
Towards the end of said episode The Captain states that Lily never smokes.. The interaction is text book G&S:
Captain asks, “What, never?”
Ted replies, “Well, hardly ever.”