The Pirates of HMS Pinafore

Piracy by partners and rival producers plagued Gilbert and Sullivan when HMS Pinafore first set sail from London's Opéra Comique in May 1878. An original story derived (pirated?) from Gilbert's own earlier Bab Ballads "Captain Reece", "Joe Golightly" and "The Bumboat Woman's Story", Pinafore received largely excellent reviews praising Gilbert's militarily drilled and punctiliously designed production. Indeed, not only were the roles like Sir Joseph Porter and Captain Corcoran tailor-made for George Grossmith and Rutland Barrington, but also the costumes, tailor-made by top naval tailors in Portsmouth, where the plot of the operetta takes place.

All this should have ensured smooth passage for G & S's fourth collaboration, but a rare enough long, hot London summer combined with the sleazy location of the Opéra-Comique meant that despite a largely enthusiastic press reception, the piece's box-office takings began to sink rapidly and the producers put up closing notices, thus almost fulfilling the prophecy of one critical Cassandra that this was "a frothy production destined soon to subside into nothingness."
Poised between shrewdness and desperation, Sullivan included a Pinafore selection in a Prom Concert he was conducting at Covent Garden. So successful did this prove that almost overnight, HMS Pinafore was not just refloated - 10,000 copies of the score were sold in a single day - but set sailing full steam ahead towards its 571 London performances, not to mention two touring companies playing the length and breadth of England - with Ireland thrown in! Pinafore mania swept London, with most people delighting in Sullivan's jaunty airs and Gilbert's ribbing of class distinction, the navy and in particular of the First Lord (W.H. Smith) who rose to prominence despite the fact that the only ship he had ever sailed in was a junior partnership. The lines "What never? Well, hardly ever!" became a national catch-cry.
All this should have been the happy ending that all but one of the Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas resolve in, but a squall arose in the form of D'Oyly Carte's greedy co-producers who decided to dump their partner and set up a pirate production of the newly-rescued hit at the not inappropriately named Aquarium Theatre. To this end, they hired a band of thugs to invade the Opera- Comique on the last night before their partnership agreement lapsed. A surprised Sir Joseph Porter (Grossmith) not to mention a bewildered audience, witnessed a backstage battle as the invaders tried to take away the scenery mid-performance, only to be repulsed by the faithful stage-hands. The illegal production did, in fact, take place but survived only 91 performances, while the official HMS Pinafore never looked back.
But international pirates now attacked the box-office treasure ship, and all over America there was outbreak of pirate productions of dubious artistic value. Ralph Rackstraw was played by a woman in New York, while in another version, a seven foot man played Buttercup in drag. There were at least two all-black versions, while in another New York interpretation, Handel's Hallelujah Chorus was thoughtfully added. All these productions made handsome profits for their buccaneer impresarios with not a penny going to the writers or their partner, D'Oyly Carte. By March 1879, New York had eight different companies playing Pinafore, while Philadelphia had six, including a German language version. D'Oyly Carte decided to take on the New World privateers, and his company sailed into New York's harbour past a line of boats with banners hailing HMS Pinafore and with bands pumping out its melodies. There was even a protest ship in the form of a minstrel version flying a "No Pinafore" flag. The authentic American Pinafore opened on December 1st, 1879. One rather unexpected member of the chorus was a bearded sailor named W.S. Gilbert.
And in the southern hemisphere, American and Australian pirates sailed into Sydney on May 3rd, 1879 with an unauthorised HMS Pinafore at the School of Arts. Soon there were two Melbourne pirate versions opening simultaneously, one an extraordinary Stewart family affair starring the twenty-one-year-old and soon to be famous Nellie as Ralph (what is it about Pinafore that attracts cross dressing?) with her sisters (though not her cousins and her aunts) as Josephine and Buttercup, her brother as Captain Corcoran and her father as Sir Joseph.
On top of all this, there was an illicit production by a juvenile company also playing in the southern capital, inspired no doubt by Gilbert and Sullivan's own Children's Pinafore which, while very popular, saddened Lewis Carroll "beyond words...at sweet, innocent girls...singing with bright, happy looks "Damn me! Damn me!"
Australia's first authorised HMS Pinafore was under the banner of J.C.Williamson and premiered in Sydney at the Theatre Royal with the entrepreneur himself playing Sir Joseph and his wife, Maggie Moore, as Josephine. The line of succession of First Lords Down Under was to continue with Howard Vernon, George Lauri, Ivan Menzies, Grahame Clifford, Dennis Olsen, Norman Yemm, Paul Eddington and now originally for Essgee is Drew Forsythe.
With The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore has always been a Savoy favourite. It was revived by D'Oyly Carte in London in 1887, 1899 and 1908 and subsequently was always played in D'Oyly Carte repertoire. There was an authorised German version in Berlin in 1881 entitled Amor an Bord (Love on Board) and in 1901, a French production at St Edmund's College in Douai, though how the Normandy natives responded to the anthem "He is an Englishman" is not recorded.
There are at least seven separate recordings of Pinafore, the first a two-record set made in 1930 and featuring Sir Henry Lytton, the only performer ever to have been knighted for services to Gilbert and Sullivan.
That HMS Pinafore had sailed into the harbour of international familiarity might have been guessed from the fact that in 1893, Gilbert introduced the character of Captain Corcoran in his second-last libretto, Utopia Limited. This made Captain Corcoran the only Savoy character to appear in two operas.

Pinafore is the third and final part to the Essgee historic trilogy. After closing their New Zealand production of The Pirates of Penzance in early November 1996, later the same month, the Essgee group commenced rehearsals for their version of HMS Pinafore in Brisbane Australia for a Melbourne opening due in January 1997. Much of the pre-production and conceptualising had been taking place on the road between Australia and New Zealand for over a year, and it was common knowledge that the company and its players were set to create a new Pinafore. The set was the most unusual of the three Essgee productions as it was a three-dimensional rotating version of a ship as conceptualised by designer Graham Maclean. The opportunity was therefore taken to capitalise on the revolving stage, incorporating a lot of the action at different angles of the ship and even whilst in rotation. It was therefore decided that the set be fully built and completed prior to commencement of rehearsals and a giant warehouse was hired for the rehearsal stage equipped with stage crew so the cast and creative crew could invent much of the revolving action during the rehearsal process. This later was to minimise lengthy technical rehearsals in the theatre saving time and money.

About the only new recruit to the company was actress Amanda Muggleton who had captivated the hearts of all Australians with her definitive interpretation of Shirley Valentine. Pinafore was to be Amanda's first singing role and she immediately captured the spirit that director Craig Schaefer was looking for in creating a new and original Buttercup to play opposite a strong and sexy Captain Corcoran played by David Gould. However Amanda was not available to play the New Zealand portion of the tour which fell in the middle of the tour. A local New Zealand star was sought to replace her for this section of the season and the show hit the jackpot in casting Rima Te Wiata who was showbusiness royalty having both parents as famous artists. Rima joined the company in Sydney (two months after opening) to commence rehearsing the role in preparation for the New Zealand premiere and immediately was a firm favourite with all company members. With the initial rehearsals in Brisbane, all other cast members had worked together for some time now with the other ESSGEE repertoire and this created a unique form of 'short-hand' in rehearsals when workshopping various ideas. Rehearsals went very smoothly and after breaking for Christmas, the company all transferred to Melbourne ready for the premiere opening at the Victorian Arts Centre's State Theatre. A New Year's Eve preview was followed by two other previews before the gala opening which was met with roars of approval from the fans and theatre goers along with unanimous and rave reviews. "A twenty four carat triumph" said The Australian's Peter Birch.

Essgee had succeeded where others had failed. They had achieved what no other theatrical company could - three hit musicals in a row - a trilogy at that. This appears to be unmatched in modern times as there are no comparisons in having succeeded in presenting a trilogy of musicals with common writers; producers and actors. Gallaher was originally prompted by the marketing success of various film trilogies but had created something altogether unique in the way a modern stage musical was view and marketed. This new and innovative way was enticing people back to the theatre over and over again as well as new recruits to the genre who were by now absolute converts.

The finale was the ultimate topper. Not only was there to be a mega-mix as in the previous two shows, but a Mega-Mega-Mix (or 'Omega-Mix' as the director coined it) where all three G&S shows were revisited in a slick seven minute compilation equipped with original costumes from Pirates and Mikado with all actors playing their former roles. The Omega-Mix starts exactly as the previous MegaMix does and introduced by Buttercup and the sailors but this time with US Navy caps which are suddenly flung into the audience. The Absolutely Fabulettes (as they had now become) lead the audience through the various melodies to introduce The Mikado. With that, David Gould is revealed on the revolving deck dressed in the character that made him so loved. The audience goes mad. Drew Forsythe suddenly appears as Ko-Ko to more screams of delight as this potpourri of colour and movement unravels. Helen Donaldson skips out as Yum Yum and one-third of the ensemble is dressed in the original Mikado costumes designed by Graham Maclean. The final group of ensemble players reappear dressed as pirates and all then know who is about to be revealed - but from where? Suddenly from high above comes Frederic and The Pirate King (Gallaher & English) flying in like Peter Pan and Captain Hook. The audience roars and cannot help but be swept up in the excitement of this true Grande Finale. Fireworks spark for the final chorus of Cat-Like Tread and the trilogy has come to an end. Nearly four year later, there are capacity theatre houses still screaming for more.

A video was also recorded of this production and as with Essgee's The Mikado, it was again recorded in New Zealand during the season in Auckland. The show was actually recorded twice as it was felt that Australian audiences would still wish to see Amanda Muggleton in the recorded version of the show as she had played it right across Australia. It was also felt that New Zealanders may prefer to see their own Buttercup played by Rima Te Wiata. Amanda Muggleton was therefore flown to New Zealand after not playing the role for over two months and given a couple of days of intensive revision in readiness for the live video recording. The version with Amanda contained a more colloquial version for Australian audiences and Rima played the role for her local following. The video version starring Rima was released through TV-NZ and the Australian version directly by Essgee. The Australian version has recently been released to DVD and continues to sell as strongly as Pirates and Mikado. All three videos in this trilogy of musicals are now available on DVD and all have attained Platinum status. The video broadcast of Pinafore has recently been sold to pay-tv in Australia and The United Kingdom.