Cultural influence of Gilbert and Sullivan

For the past 140 years or so, Gilbert and Sullivan have pervasively influenced popular culture in the English-speaking world. Lines and quotations from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas have become part of the English language, such as “short, sharp shock“, and “let the punishment fit the crime.”

The Savoy operas heavily influenced the course of the development of modern musical theatre. They have also influenced political style and discourse, literature, film and television and advertising, and have been widely parodied by humorists. Because they are well-known, and convey a distinct sense of Britishness (or even Victorian Britishness), and because they are in the public domain, songs from the operas appear “in the background” in many movies and television shows.

The operas have so pervaded Western culture that events from the “lives” of their characters from the operas are memorialized by major news outlets. For instance, a New York Times article on 29 February 1940, noted that Frederic, from The Pirates of Penzance, was finally out of his indentures (having reached his 21st birthday, as described in that opera).

The American and British musical owes a tremendous debt to Gilbert and Sullivan, who introduced innovations in content and form that directly influenced the development of musical theatre through the 20th century. According to theatre writer John Bush Jones, Gilbert and Sullivan were “the primary progenitors of the twentieth century American musical” in which book, music and lyrics combine to form an integrated whole, and they demonstrated “that musicals can address contemporary social and political issues without sacrificing entertainment value.” Johnny Mercer said, “We all come from Gilbert.” Alan Jay Lerner wrote that Gilbert “raised lyric writing from a serviceable craft to a legitimate popular art form,” and, despite professing not to be a Gilbert fan, Stephen Sondheim wrote “Please Hello” for Pacific Overtures (1976), a song that has been called “an homage” to Gilbert.

Sullivan was also admired and copied by early composers such as Ivan Caryll, Lionel Monckton, Victor Herbert, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Ivor Novello, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

However, the influence of Gilbert and Sullivan on goes beyond musical theatre to comedy in general. Professor Carolyn Williams notes: “The influence of Gilbert and Sullivan – their wit and sense of irony, the send ups of politics and contemporary culture – goes beyond musical theater to comedy in general. Allusions to their work have made their way into our own popular culture”.  According to Gilbert and Sullivan expert and enthusiast Ian Bradley writes in his book, Oh Joy! Oh Rapture! The Enduring Phenomenon of Gilbert and Sullivan, “The musical is not, of course, the only cultural form to show the influence of G&S. Even more direct heirs are those witty and satirical songwriters found on both sides of the Atlantic in the twentieth century like Michael Flanders and Donald Swann in the United Kingdom and Tom Lehrer in the United States. The influence of Gilbert is discernible in a vein of British comedy that runs through John Betjeman’s verse via Monty Python and Private Eye to… television series like Yes, Minister… where the emphasis is on wit, irony, and poking fun at the establishment from within it in a way which manages to be both disrespectful of authority and yet cosily comfortable and urbane.”

It is not surprising, given the focus of Gilbert on politics, that politicians, cartoonists and political pundits have often found inspiration in these works. The phrase “A short, sharp shock,” from the Act I song “I am so proud” in The Mikado, has been used in political manifestos. Likewise “Let the punishment fit the crime,” from the title character’s Act II song, is particularly mentioned in the course of British political debates.  In October 2010, Ron Butler released a YouTube video pastiche of the Major-General’s Song in Pirates of Penzance in character as, and mildly lampooning, President Obama.

US Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, a lifelong fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, quoted lyrics from the operas in law cases, parodied the lyrics in his writings at the Court and added gold stripes to his judicial robes after seeing them used by the Lord Chancellor in a production of Iolanthe.

Aside from politics, the phrase “A short, sharp shock” has appeared in titles of books and songs (most notably in samples of Pink Floyd‘s “The Dark Side of the Moon“). Likewise “Let the punishment fit the crime” is an often-used phrase in popular media. For instance, in episode 80 of the television series Magnum, P.I., entitled “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime,” Higgins prepares to direct a selection of pieces from The Mikado to be staged at the Estate. The phrase and the Mikado’s song also are featured in the Dad’s Army episode, “A Soldier’s Farewell.” In the movie The Parent Trap (1961) the camp director quotes the same phrase before sentencing the twins to the isolation cabin together.

The character of Pooh Bah in The Mikado, who holds numerous exalted offices, including “First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chief Justice, Commander-in-Chief, Lord High Admiral… Archbishop of Titipu, and Lord Mayor” and Lord High Everything Else, has inspired the use of the term Pooh-Bah as a mocking title for someone self-important or high-ranking and who either exhibits an inflated self-regard or who has limited authority while taking impressive titles. The term “Grand Poobah” has been used on the television shows, including The Flintstones and Happy Days as the title of a high-ranking official in a men’s club, spoofing clubs like the Freemasons, the Shriners, and the Elks Club.

Other references to songs in The Mikado:

  • Many television programs have featured the song “Three Little Maids”, including the Frasier episode, “Leapin’ Lizards,” the Angel episode “A Hole in the World” The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare”, Alvin and the Chipmunks 1984 episode “Maids in Japan”, and The Animaniacs Vol. 1 episode “Hello Nice Warners.”
  • References to the “Little List” song include the Family Guy episode “Lois Kills Stewie”, Stewie, after taking over the world, sings the “little list” song about those he hates, including Bill O’Reilly’s dermatologist.
  • References to “Tit-Willow” are A Muppet Show season 1 episode (aired on 22 November 1976) featured Rowlf the Dog and Sam the Eagle singing the song, with Sam clearly embarrassed at having to sing the word ‘tit’ (also asking the meaning of “obdurate”) and In John Wayne’s last movie The Shootist, made in 1976, Wayne and Lauren Bacall sing several lines from “Tit-Willow”, before he departs with the intention of dying in a gunfight instead of from cancer.
  • In the 2010 episode “Robots Versus Wrestlers” of the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother, an exchange concerns a gong described as “a 500-year-old relic that hasn’t been struck since W. S. Gilbert hit it at the London premiere of The Mikado in 1885!”
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