“…one to which, however, I’ve no desire to be disloyal,
Some person in authority, I don’t know who, very likely the Astronomer Royal,
Has decided that, although for such a beastly month as February,
twenty-eight days as a rule are plenty,
One year in every four his days shall be reckoned as nine and twenty.
Through some singular coincidence – I shouldn’t be surprised if it were owing to the agency of an ill-natured fairy –
You are the victim of this clumsy arrangement, having been born in leap-year, on the twenty-ninth of February;
And so, by a simple arithmetical process, you’ll easily discover,
That though you’ve lived twenty-one years, yet, if we go by birthdays,
you’re only five, and a little bit over!”
Tom Lehrer once described Gilbert and Sullivan by saying they can always be counted on for a rousing finale, full of words and music, and signifying nothing. He wasn’t wrong.
I grew up with Pirates of Penzance. My family is large with musical theatre, and I remember seeing the Joseph Papp Broadway production multiple times back in the early ’80s. Lord knows that musicals in general, and light opera in particular, are not everyone’s jam. That’s cool. However, if I had realized earlier that “anyone who doesn’t like Pirates of Penzance has no place in my life, save in the most peripheral sense” was an appropriate axiom by which to live, I probably would have saved myself some grief over the years.
The movie version of the Papp production came out in 1983. It’s pretty much the same experience as the stage. The biggest differences are some superfluous cuts to the score and the upgrading of the character Ruth. No offense to Estelle Parsons (we love her), but let’s face it—Angela Lansbury would be an upgrade of pretty much anyone.
I’m pretty sure that Kevin Kline in this was my first crush. At least, he set my penchant for shaggy, dark-haired, funny guys, who are just a little too fabulous for their own good. Even those people I should’ve dumped from my life because they dislike this show, most of them acknowledge the glory that is Kevin Kline. I’m pretty sure he’s never had a non-handsome day in his life, even nowadays. I wouldn’t know, however, because while I am sure he was terrific as Belle’s doddering old father Maurice (he’s Kevin Kline, he’s terrific in everything), my head refuses to accept him as anything other than perpetually 35 and swashbuckly. You know all those jokes we used to make in the ’90s about how Harvey Keitel’s penis should get its own billing in his films? You could say the same about Kline’s chest in this. And he did the “cinematic pirate with guyliner” thing a couple of decades before Johnny Depp, and if you ask me, he did it better.
The story is pretty simple. Our young hero, Frederic (Rex Smith), has been apprenticed to a terribly jolly group of pirates all his life. He never wanted to be a pirate, but hey, them’s the breaks. The story opens on Frederic’s birthday. He’s 21 years old today, and his apprenticeship is officially over. As I said, he’s a big fan of all his pirate-y friends, but less so of the profession in general. He throws a big bucket of cold water on the festivities by informing the pirates that since he is not compelled by a sense of duty to serve them any longer (Frederic is very big on duty), he means instead to destroy them all, because generally speaking, pirates are scum. “Individually, I love you all, with affection unspeakable. But collectively, I look upon you with a disgust that amounts to absolute detestation.” I can’t even tell you how much use I’ve gotten out of that line over the years.
Destroy them all? I mentioned that the pirates were jolly, right? During that first scene, it is established that, though they love the high seas and the whole yo-ho lifestyle, these pirates kind of suck at being pirates. Among other things, they won’t attack anyone who seems weaker than they are. That’s kindly and all, but only attacking stronger parties is a good way to get your ass repeatedly kicked. And the big magic word with these guys is “orphan” (say it in your best British accent, for reasons that become relevant later) since our sympathetic pirates know how that feels themselves.
Also, let’s be real—Frederic wants to get laid. Apparently the whole raping and pillaging aspect to piracy hasn’t come up in the years he’s been on the ship. The only woman he’s seen in all that time is his nursemaid Ruth (Lansbury). He’s got an attitude against her, since she is all of 47, and as far as he is concerned, a guy of his years should be looking for some 18 year old. Also, Ruth’s the one who got him into the apprenticeship in the first place (she misheard the word “pilot” when she went down to sign him up), and she’s felt badly about it this whole time. I don’t think she particularly cares about marrying Frederic (which would be a little creepy, considering she used to change his nappies), but neither is she keen to be left behind with the pirates, their handsome King notwithstanding.
She’s just about got him persuaded to ignore the age gap when of course, our plot twist comes in the form of a bunch of young girls, the daughters of one Major-General Stanley (George Rose). These girls are naturally everything Frederic thinks he should be dating, especially do-gooder Mabel (Linda Ronstadt). In a trice, Ruth is abandoned, and Frederic sets his sights on greener pastures.
Unfortunately, the pirates have noticed the girls too. It never occurred to me as a kid that the pirates’ plan to sack, pillage, and marry these girls was part of the comedy. There are all these lyrics about calling in the nearest clergyman, and the pirates are very excited for sudden nuptials. Luckily for the ladies, their dear old dad isn’t far behind them. He’s a Major-General, which is terribly impressive (just ask him), and once he’s done with his very model of an introduction and is appraised of the situation, he’s got an idea. He asks the pirates if they have ever known what it is to be an orphan (remember, British accent or the joke doesn’t work). When they reply, “often”, this show gets its very own “Who’s On First” bit of schtick. The pirates are suddenly besties with their new orphan/often bro, and revelry brings down the curtain on Act 1.
In Act 2, Major-General Stanley has a fit of the guilts over the lie he told to save his daughters from piratical matrimony. Frederic has organized a posse of local law enforcement (picture the Keystone Cops, only with better choreography, thanks to Graciela Danielle), and he plans to lead them to do away with the pirates that very night. In comes another plot twist, in the form of the Pirate King and Ruth. Apparently, once officially rejected by Frederic, Ruth went back to the pirates who not only welcomed her, they got her a fabulous makeover to boot. Not going to lie, my boyfriend and I have this headcanon in which the Pirate King and Ruth wind up together since he knows better than to be prejudiced against a hot older woman. They do their best to frump her up for Act 1 but let’s face it—Queen Angela. Need I say more?
Anyway, they show up with a bit of information previously unknown by young Frederic. Frederic’s birthday is (you guessed it) February 29th, and as any Leap Day baby knows, you technically only get an official birthday every four years. Frederic had thought his apprenticeship to the pirates ended when he reached his 21st year, but oh no. They’ve got documentation stating that Frederic isn’t out of his indentures until his official 21st birthday in 1940. Frederic, ever the Slave of Duty (it’s the subtitle of the show), knows what he must do. He blows the whistle on the not-actually-an-orphan Major-General, implores Mabel to wait for him, and rejoins the pirate band.
The pirates are furious at having been duped, and Mabel has informed the Sergeant (Tony Azito) that they must go forth and fight the pirates without Frederic to lead them. A rumble ensues…and let me tell you, as fight scenes go, this one was already pretty goofy in the stage production. It’s as if, when sitting around thinking up ways to make the film more extra than the stage version, someone said “I know how we can make this better than it already is! We’ll add in a bunch of dogs for no reason! Everything is better with dogs!” They weren’t wrong. A big chase sequence that just keeps getting more and more ridiculous ensues, and running around with everyone else are roughly half a dozen dogs. I’m pretty sure they have no idea why they’re there either.
The pirates are not screwing around anymore, and don’t even want to hear the word orphan. The Sergeant, however, has one last ace up his sleeve—he tells the pirates to lay down their arms, in the name of Queen Victoria. How’s that for a Hail Mary? And it works. With virtually no hesitation, the Pirate King says “we yield at once, with humbled mien, because, with all our faults, we love our queen”.
He turns over his sword to the Sergeant, and the pirates are about to be taken into custody when Ruth comes to their rescue. “They are no members of the common throng”, she says. “They are all noblemen who have gone wrong.” It’s never really made clear whether she is stating a fact, that these guys all have titles and estates to go home to, or that this is a clever fib on her part, to save their butts. I’m probably not supposed to put that much thought into it. In any case, it works. Charges are dropped, consent is given for the daughters to marry the pirates of their choice, and one of those big finales that Tom Lehrer was talking about ends the show. In the film (and in most stage productions I’ve seen), Ruth gets paired off with the Sergeant, but I’m sticking with my headcanon.
Of course, light opera isn’t everybody’s thing. When you know Gilbert and Sullivan as well as I do (and they’re all about duty, ask any West Wing fan), it’s like being in Fight Club, only with wordplay instead of punching. I got to bond with Aaron Sorkin (creator of The West Wing etc., and a big G&S nerd) over a Penzance reference he snuck into an early episode of The West Wing. He said, “anyone who gets that reference is okay by me”. Growing up as I did, my initial reaction was, “but doesn’t everybody?” No, Cat. Not always. Sometimes they get it, but not orphan.