One day in third grade the music teacher led us into a big room, where various musical instruments ? clarinets, flutes, bassoons, violins ? were on display. On that day, without any preamble or direction, we were to select the instrument the practice of which would torture the ears of our parents for the foreseeable future.
I chose the viola, mostly because the instrument they brought to the room looked so cool. It had a nicer sheen than the violin, a deeper espresso finish. By sheer coincidence, my best friend, Max, also picked the viola. So that was a plus ? but it was the only one.
The viola is the ultimate middling instrument. You never play anything but rhythm; never, ever a melody line. And unlike the violin or the cello, which use the treble and bass clefs respectively, the music is written on the arcane alto clef, so the notes you learn are completely inapplicable to any other instrument, unless you happen to sing alto for an opera company.
Because there were so few viola players, in the summer between seventh and eighth grade I was asked to play in the pit for an off-season tradition in my suburban New Jersey town ? every July, Madison High School kids and returning college students combined forces to put on a big musical production. That summer, by chance, it was Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. It would become my all-time favorite piece of art.
I love The Pirates of Penzance more than anything else there is. I will drive fifty miles out of the way to watch a college production of it. When they staged it at SUNY New Paltz two summers ago, right near my house, and nailed it, I had a smile on my face for a full week afterward. I mean, I love it.
The story is screwball enough to make the Marx brothers ? and the Coen brothers, the Zucker brothers, and the brothers Karamazov ? aquamarine with professional envy. When action begins, the eponymous pirates are toasting one of their number, Frederic, who is celebrating both his twenty-first birthday and the end of his apprenticeship to the plunderers of the sea. (What happened was, years before, his hard-of-hearing nursemaid, Ruth, when asked to apprentice Frederic to a pilot, misunderstood the instruction. This is funny because it implies that the pirates had a booth at the job fair ? the earliest HR joke on record, I think). Frederic could have fled, of course ? these were pirates, after all, not barristers ? but he stayed out of obligation; his tragic flaw was a hyperactive sense of duty.
But once freed from his indentures, he vows to wipe the pirates off the map. Whereupon the pirates, who are of course his closest friends, ask him if he means it. Frederic replies, in one of the best lines ever written, "Individually, I love you all, with affection unspeakable. But collectively, I look upon you with a disgust that amounts to absolute detestation."
Things take a turn through a paradox ? Frederic is in thrall to the pirates until his twenty-first birthday; but he was born, we discover, on February 29th, so what he thought was his twenty-first birthday was actually his fifth-plus-a-quarter. Things get more madcap from there, building to an ending as silly and abrupt as anything Mel Brooks ever conceived.
The music is exquisite, the writing sublime ? poetical and funny, often at the same time. And there's the riff on the fact that orphan and often are ? to Gilbert's ears anyway ? homonyms, which plays like a sort of precursor to Who's On First:
? I ask you, have you ever known what it is to be an orphan?
? Yes, orphan. Have you ever known what it is to be one?
? I say, often. Often, often, often.
? I don't think we quite understand one another. I ask you, have you ever known what it is to be an orphan, and you say "orphan". As I understand you, you are merely repeating the word "orphan" to show that you understand me.
? I didn't repeat the word often.
? Pardon me, you did indeed.
? I only repeated it once.
? True, but you repeated it.
? But not often.
? Stop! I think I see where we are getting confused. When you said "orphan," did you mean "orphan," a person who has lost his parents, or "often," frequently?
? Ah! I beg pardon. I see what you mean. Frequently.
? Ah! you said "often," frequently.
? No, only once.
? Exactly. You said "often," frequently, only once.
This, to me, is dialogue to die for ? meaning, if I ever write fifteen lines that good, I'll go to the grave a happy man. The Pirates of Penzance is both a spoof of many of the day's popular operettas, and, at the same time, a finer operetta that anything it spoofs. That's some trick. Even the title is funny. Real-life Penzance is a sleepy coastal town; its American equivalent would be something like The Pirates of Wildwood, N.J.
While there are several film adaptations of the show ? and while I was in it myself senior year of high school (I played the Major-General, and can still do the famous patter song on cue) ? in my mind, the definitive version is the one I watched for weeks on end from the pit in seventh grade. This poses problems, because I can't ever go back and watch it. But it lives in my memory.
The Pirate King is not Kevin Kline, but some guy named Jim, who had long hair and a beard and was kind of short. George Rose is not the Major General ? heck, I'm not even the Major General ? Roddy McRae is. And the great Alison Weller, not the great Linda Ronstadt, is Mabel.
Those guys were just terrific. The whole show was. The only thing lacking in all of that summer production, in fact, was a certain viola player who shall remain nameless.
Tomorrow: Unlikely Influence #5: I Spy a Celebrity