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Sunday, January 11, 2004


I finished reading Hesketh Pearson's 1935 biography of Gilbert and Sullivan today. Interesting tidbit: Pearson refers at one point to 3 popular songs Sullivan wrote in the 1860s without Gilbert that were still well known in 1935, 70 years later. I'd never heard of any of them. It's now 69 years since the book came out. I know a lot of songs from 70 years ago, but not very many from 70-plus-70 years ago. I bet the same was true in 1935 -- Pearson probably didn't know a whole lot of songs from the 1790s.

One song of Sullivan's I have heard, which I didn't know he wrote until I read this book: "Onward Christian Soldiers," which Pearson mentions some time other than with the "3 still well-known songs" reference. (Sullivan wrote music only.)

My parents took me to a G&S show when I was a kid of about 10. I remember liking it. It was either Pinnafore or Penzance. I remember a late middle-aged braggart soldier doing what later became Groucho's Captain Spalding dance. When I saw the G&S bio-movie "Topsy-Turvy," I saw that dance again. I didn't make the Groucho connection until I saw the movie. I love that dance. Loved it when I was a kid, love it now.

The only G&S tune I can hum a few bars of is "I am the very model of a modern major general." Catchy tune.

Pearson quotes a critic who takes Gilbert to task for the sadistic violence of some of his "humorous" lyrics. I have the same reaction to many of Alan Lerner's lyrics in "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot." A bloody vicious sense of humor sometimes that doesn't appeal to me. Though I love a lot of Lerner's lyrics. (And his memoir, "The Street Where I Live," is a very funny and surprisingly moving elegy for the passing of the prime of his life, his friends and his father and the culture in which they lived.)

One more thing. Both G&S got knighted. Gilbert, the cynical sentimental patriotic military veteran, had to be talked into it by his friends. He made derogatory comments about the honor. A more rockin' attitude than Sir Mick Jagger. As an American, it's hard to imagine bending the knee to the hereditary monarchy.

Pearson is a witty and thoroughly engaging writer. Some day I'll get around to renting a G&S video. I'm sure I'll enjoy parts of it.
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