Silly high art

I just saw an excellent concert version of The Pirates of Penzance at City Center. I have lost count of how many times I have seen this Gilbert and Sullivan masterpiece, but every time is a fresh revelation.

One thing that struck me this time is how much their work joins together two things that are often kept far apart in today’s society: Silliness and high art. We certainly have room for both, but they rarely get anywhere near each other.

There is plenty of goofy fun to be had in post-millennial pop culture, from Zoolander to Bridesmaids, and everything in between. But as soon as you get to “high art”, things usually go all serious — even things that are supposed to be funny.

But G&S defies those categories. The orchestra might be wearing black tie and formal gowns, the musicians might be highly trained serious practitioners of their craft, but nothing really gets in the way of the underlying zaniness.

The premise of a G&H operetta is always borderline insane, the dialog delectably nutty, the song lyrics outrageously nonsensical, yet everything is done with the perfection and sheen that we associate with high opera. The only other places I can think of today where high culture and sheer nuttiness coexist as gracefully are certain scenes within some of the comedies of Shakespeare.

But for sheer head spinning goofiness matched with high art polish, nothing else even comes close to Gilbert and Sullivan. I look forward to seeing The Pirates of Penzance many more times in the years to come. And every time, if you happen to look my way, I suspect you will see that same deliriously happy grin on my face.

3 Responses to “Silly high art”

  1. bg porter says:

    Hmm. The output of Frank Zappa and Laurie Anderson come to mind from the last 50 years. Maybe the last act of Stockhausen’s opera “Samstag aus Licht”, but that’s perhaps a stern German version of silliness. Peter Schickele/PDQ Bach?

    Personally, I’d love to see Linnell & Flansburg from They Might Be Giants tackle something like this, because it could be epic.

  2. sally says:

    We saw it at Stanford a few years ago — they had a lot of fun changing MMG lyrics to reflect modern times.

  3. Margaret says:

    Am grateful to have seen the terrific Broadway version with Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt , and Rex Smith. Before and after that, I’ve been to numerous terrific community, college, and middle school productions. And just singing the songs around a piano at my parents’ parties when I was a kid was the greatest.

    Do others agree that pre-1980 (anyway 50’s to 1980), G&S appreciation and production seemed to be more “fannish” and nerdy, with dedicated G&S societies, etc. And the Broadway production coincided with G&S entering the mainstream again, being seen as closer equivalent with musical theater?

    Another point of G&S gratitude: without them, we wouldn’t have Tom Lehrer’s “Elements” song.

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