Fresh off the smashing success of their operetta H.M.S. Pinafore, the unstoppable British duo comprised of composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and lyricist/librettist W.S. Gilbert decided to premiere a new project in New York City. Part of the reasoning for this was the staggering number of illegal productions being mounted in the United States of Pinafore in the days before copyright laws protected British authors in America. The pair decided that they would need more of a physical presence stateside. Drawing inspiration from one of Gilbert’s previously written stories, Our Island Home, their new work The Pirates of Penzance began to take shape in 1878, when they traveled to America with a group of talented singers to first mount a legitimate production of Pinafore, and then to premiere Pirates. Halfway across the Atlantic, Sullivan realized that while he had completed the music for Act II, he had left his sketches for the first act behind, and so he constructed what is now Act I from memory once he arrived in New York.
To ensure that the copyright to the work remained British, the D’Oyly Carte company staged a haphazard production of Pirates in Devon, England, the afternoon before the real premiere in New York. This premiere, in the final hours of the year on New Year’s Eve 1879, was an immediate smash hit with audiences and critics alike.
Since then, Pirates has been performed by companies at every level, for amateur to professional, almost nonstop. A brief Broadway production was mounted in 1952, and, In January 1981, a slightly modified version hit the Great White Way for another 771 performances. It was this production, starring Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, and Kevin Kline as Mabel, Frederic, and the Pirate King, that became a film in 1983. Today, the operetta is often performed by light opera companies, colleges, and even high schools.
*A note on dialect: Most companies choose to perform this (and other Gilbert and Sullivan shows) in a British accent, though some directors may choose not to. Be prepared to read lines in dialect at an audition for this show, particularly for a professional production.