Among the many great names in musical theater, English operetta masters William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were two of the earliest to gain global acclaim. Starting in 1871, the two collaborated on fourteen comedic operas, many of which are still widely performed around the world.
The most famous of their works, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado, have influenced culture on both sides of the Atlantic and have had a massive impact on musical theater. It is fair to say that Gilbert and Sullivan were the greatest creators of musical theater of their generation.
Most Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts will already know the story of their first collaborative work, an opera called Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old. It premiered on December 26, 1871 and ran for 63 performances, far more than the standard for that time. While it was well received, few realized at the time that it was the start of such a successful partnership.
Gilbert and Sullivan had met two years earlier, introduced by a mutual friend named Frederic Clay at a performance of one of Gilbert’s early operas. Neither had experienced widespread success prior to their meeting, but both had been active in the British musical theater community for some time. When they were finally brought together, it was to create entertainment for the Gaiety Theatre, where they first presented Thespis.
As with all their collaborations, Gilbert wrote the libretto while Sullivan wrote the music. The opera is the story of aging Greek gods and their decision to bring in a troupe of 19th century actors and actresses to take over their duties for a time. The resulting calamity was a satire of modern politics and parody of the grand operas popular at the time. Unfortunately, while the libretto survived, most of the musical score was lost to time. Only two pieces are extant, “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain” and “Little Maid of Arcadee”. Sullivan rescored the former for The Pirates of Penzance while the latter was released individually as a parlor ballad.
In the years following the disappearance of the majority of the score, troupes wishing to perform Thespis would use Gilbert’s text with selections of Sullivan’s music from their other existing operettas. Some daring individuals would create their own music for the show, but it became extremely difficult to bring Thespis to an audience. However, in celebration of the show’s centennial, composer Bruce Montgomery set out to create a definitive score composed in the style of Arthur Sullivan. A complete production of Thespis received a hearty reception at the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in 2000. Since then, the complete opera has been produced by professional, university, and community groups, and received critical acclaim.
Until now, however, Montgomery’s score has never appeared in print. This year, Wingert-Jones released the full orchestration with extensive program notes, the rights for which are available on rental to those interested in performing this piece of theater history.
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