Show History



While their previous hit, H.M.S. Pinafore, was running strongly at the Opera Comique in London, Gilbert was eager to get started on his and Sullivan's next opera and he began working on the libretto in December 1878. He reused several elements of their previous works, including a one-act piece from 1870, Our Island Home, which had introduced a pirate "chief," Captain Bang, as well as an idea that they had first considered for a one-act opera parody in 1876. Playwright, Bernard Shaw, also believed that Gilbert drew on ideas in Les Brigands for his new libretto, including the businesslike bandits and the bumbling police. Then, with the libretto and score sketched out, Gilbert and Sullivan tailored their opera to the particular abilities of the performers they were using.


The Pirates of Penzance is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. The opera's official premiere was at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City on December 31, 1879, where the show was well received by both audiences and critics. Gilbert directed and Sullivan conducted music rehearsals. The show's London debut was then on April 3, 1880, at the Opera Comique, where it ran for 363 performances, having already been playing successfully for over three months in New York.

The show remained popular for generations, living first in the music halls, later on the stages of operetta companies and later still through Gilbert and Sullivan companies and other nostalgic producers. In 1979, producer, Joe Papp, of the Public Theater in New York decided to revive the piece again and reconceived it as a flavorsome, ensemble-driven romp. The new version, directed by Wilford Leach and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, ran for 45 free performances in the summer of 1980 in Central Park's Delacorte Theatre. With Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, Rex Smith as Frederic, Linda Ronstadt as Mabel, George Rose as Major-General Stanley and Patricia Routledge as Ruth. The Pirates of Penzance was again an incredible smash.

Because of the success at the Delacorte, Papp brought his new The Pirates of Penzance to Broadway's Uris (now Gershwin) Theatre on January 8, 1981, with most of the same cast, Estelle Parsons replacing Routledge. This Broadway mounting lasted for 20 previews and 787 performances, at one point, even having to move to the Minskoff Theater. It was also later turned into a film in 1983, with most of the cast remaining intact, except for Angela Lansbury replacing Estelle Parsons as Ruth.

Aside from these productions, there have been countless tours, as well as regional and international productions of this crowd and critical favorite over the last century. Due to its staggering success, Papp's version has become the preferred performance version.

Cultural Influence

  • Countless recordings have been made of The Pirates of Penzance, starting in 1921 with recording artists under the direction of Rupert D'Oyly Carte.
  • In addition to the 1983 film based on the 1981 Broadway production, The Pirates of Penzance has inspired a number of other movies, television shows, musical comedies and theatrical events, as well as (perhaps even more so) being a point of reference in pop culture for decades.
  • "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," often referred to as the "Major-General's Song" or "Modern Major-General's Song," is perhaps the most famous song in all of Gilbert and Sullivan's operas. It has been used numerous times in commercials, been referenced in a plethora of popular movies and television shows and is a mainstay audition song among performers.


  • Beyond the awards it has won, The Pirates of Penzance was nominated for an additional four Tony Awards, three Drama Desk Awards and two Olivier Awards, including one for Outstanding Musical Production.
  • Before The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan had just had an incredible smash with H.M.S. Pinafore – the entire world was still singing its tunes on the streets. According to one count, there were no fewer than a dozen companies of H.M.S. Pinafore playing in New York at the same time, none of them legal. Since copyright laws were virtually nonexistent for British authors in America, to get a firmer hold on their property, the great Gilbert and Sullivan decided to premiere their next work, The Pirates of Penzance, in New York.
  • When Gilbert and Sullivan set sail from London to New York to mount the premiere of The Pirates of Penzance, they realized that they'd left the nearly finished score at home. The team spent the next few weeks furiously rewriting for the premiere.
  • The Pirates of Penzance was the fifth Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration and the only one to have its official premiere in the United States.
  • The original Broadway production of the MTI version of The Pirates of Penzance boasted an all-star cast led by Rex Smith and Linda Rondstadt and included Kevin Kline, Estelle Parsons and George Rose.