The Pirates of Penzance
As one of most popular of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, The Pirates of Penzance is one of those most commonly referred to in popular culture. It’s difficult to say whether, however, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance or The Mikado receives the most cultural references.
References to The Pirates of Penzance can be quite modern, including the following 2010 take in which President Obama is told that he’s of not living up to the country’s expectations. In response, he breaks into song, to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.”
The most famous popular cultural reference to The Pirates of Penzance, however, may be Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements” song, written in 1959, and sung to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.”
“The Elements” song made an appearance in Better Call Saul’s season 4, episode 3, “Something Beautiful,” first broadcast on August 20, 2019. Gus Fring, played by Giancarlo Esposito, is a major distributor for a Mexican drug cartel, who meets with Gale Boetticher, played by David Costabile, a chemistry graduate student at the University of New Mexico. Fring had asked Boetticher to analyze methamphetamine samples to determine their chemical purity. When Fring arrives at the lab, Boetticher has his back to the door, his headphones on, and is happily singing along with Tom Lehrer’s recording of “The Elements” song.
Along with the world of science, the many worlds of science fiction seem to have an affinity to Gilbert and Sullivan. During the fourth season of Babylon 5, in an episode titled, “Atonement,” Captain Sheridan sends Marcus Cole and Dr. Stephen Franklin on a long, slow mission to Mars. In order to pass the time, and to irritate his fellow passenger, Marcus sings “I am the very model of a modern Major General” to Dr. Franklin’s discontent.
It is somewhat surprising that British native Jason Carter misquoted Gilbert and Sullivan as he did. It is, of course, the “fights,” and not the “facts” historical. His shifts in key are, perhaps, more forgivable.
In the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Disaster” episode, Dr. Crusher is apparently casting a shipboard production of The Pirates of Penzance. She asks Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge to sing. He is reluctant but eventually does so, singing “I am the very model of a modern Major General …” in tuneless monotone, after which Dr. Crusher immediately casts him in the role. If Geordi’s mediocre, half-hearted audition wins him the leading role in the operetta, one has to wonder about the rest of the cast and the quality of the production.
Star Trek Discovery included broadcasts of ten-to-fifteen-minute stand-alone short stories called Star Trek: Short Treks that allowed Star Trek fans to delve deeper into the key themes and characters in the Star Trek universe. In one such episode, aired on October 5, 2019, Ensign Spock’s. played by Ethan Peck, first day aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise doesn’t go as planned when he and the ship’s First Officer, Una Chin-Riley, or “Number One,” played by Rebecca Romijn, become stuck together in a turbo lift. To pass the time, Spock asks Number One a wide range of questions, ultimately leading Number One to tell him, “If you want to command, you’re gonna have to learn to keep your ‘freaky’ to yourself.” Number One demonstrates that her own “freaky” is being a Gilbert and Sullivan fan by singing “I Am The Very Model of A Modern Major General.” Somewhat dazed at first, Spock suddenly seems to understand Number One as he sings the chorus back to her. When their rescue from the turbo lift happens moments later, Number One orders Spock to forget that it ever happened. Spock swears that he will do so. Star Trek Discovery Writer Michael Chabon hit upon the idea of including the song after inquiring into what special skills actress Rebecca Romijn possessed. She listed badminton, skill at foreign languages, and the fact that she was a trained Gilbert & Sullivan singer! The rest is history … or the future, depending on your perspective!
Out of his deep loyalty to Number One, however, Spock must break his promise to her in Star Trek: Strange New World’s season 2, episode 2, titled “Ad Astra per Aspera,” aired on June 22, 2023. In this episode, the U.S.S. Enterprise crew is attempting to help Number One who is being court martialed as to whether she lied about being an Illyrian. Spock takes the stand and testifies in the hope of helping his friend. During the trial, the prosecutor, Captain Batel, played by Melanie Scrofano, asks Spock, “Did you ever get the sense that Commander Chin-Riley was hiding something?” Spock answers, “Yes, I did get the sense that she was hiding something.” Batel asks, “What was she hiding? Spock responds, “An affinity for Gilbert and Sullivan musicals.”
The Despicable Me minions are yellow pill-shaped creatures who, in the Despicable Me film series, have served evil villains throughout history. They are characterized by their unique language and childlike behavior. In Despicable Me 3, the Minions are arrested for trespassing onto a talent show set. As a part of the competition, they sing their own unique rendition of ““I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.”
There were multiple references to Gilbert and Sullivan in the Frasier television series.
In They’re Playing Our Song, the thirteenth episode of the seventh season, which aired on January 13, 2000, Frasier proposes a new theme song for his radio show.
Although it’s not included in the video, Daphne Moon comments on Frasier’s theme song with the response, “It’s like Gilbert and Sullivan, only frightening.“
In Fathers and Sons, the twenty-second episode of the tenth season, which aired on May 6, 2003, Frasier, Niles, and Leland Barton sing “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” together, leaving Martin to wonder if Leland, his wife’s research assistant, could be his boys’ father.
Later in the episode, Martin, who is reassured that Frasier and Niles are his sons, enters their home, sees the two together at the piano and proudly says, “My boys.” Then, when they begin singing “Willow, Titwillow,” and exasperated Martin puts on his headphones and turns on the television.
Writer, Producer and Actor Aaron Sorkin is a well-known Gilbert and Sullivan fan. In The West Wing, his series about the lives of President Bartlet’s White House staff, the episode titled “And It’s Surely to Their Credit,” included the story of Republican attorney Ainsley Hayes who was asked to join the otherwise Democratic staff, much to the chagrin of the man who was to be her supervisor, White House Counsel Lionel Tribbey. While, no doubt, a brilliant attorney, Lionel appears to have a somewhat incomplete knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan …
The best line in the argument over whether “He is an Englishman” is from H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance or Iolanthe, of course, is when Ainsley states, in regards to Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, “They’re all about duty!”
Later in the episode, after Ainsley has had a rough first day on the job, her colleagues kindly surprise her with a Gilbert and Sullivan themed welcome to the White House team.
In addition, the West Wing included a number of other Gilbert and Sullivan references. While attending college, Sam Seaborn, Deputy White House Communications Director, had been the Recording Secretary of the Princeton University Gilbert and Sullivan Society.
In the Mandatory Minimums episode, Sam discovers that someone he trusted was actually trying to dupe him. In a conversation with his supervisor, Communications Director Toby Zeigler, the following Pirates of Penzance themed exchange takes place:
Sam: “He’s trying to practice on my … my …”
Toby: “Credulous simplicity?”
In the Lord John Marbury episode, White House Press Secretary C.J. Crege describes Lord John as “the Earl of Sherbourne, he is the great great grandson of a former Viceroy and for thirteen years served as the Queen’s minister to either India or Pakistan. Lord Marbury is here to counsel the President, and if you think this is all starting to sound like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, I don’t blame you a bit.”
Finally, in the Inauguration Part I episode President Bartlet described Deputy White House Communications Director Will Baily’s father as “the very model of a modern Major General.”
Mad About You is a sitcom that aired from 1992 to 1999. The show starred Paul Reiser, as Paul Buchman, and Helen Hunt, as Jamie Stemple Buchman, a newly married couple in New York City. The series focused on the newlyweds dealing with everything from humorous daily minutiae to major struggles. In Season 6, Episode 5, titled “Moody Blues,” Paul is directing his parents in a production of The Pirates of Penzance for charity. The rehearsal scenes can be seen at the 3:30, 4:25 and 8:10 minute marks, while the performance occurs at the 16:25 minute mark. The performance includes some impromptu “alternate lyrics” when Paul’s father forgets the words to “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” It should also be noted that Paul and Jamie also sing alternate lyrics about the show’s credits at the 20:35 minute mark!
Hamilton is the extraordinarily popular Broadway musical about the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, with music, lyrics and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The show was inspired by the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, by historian Ron Chernow, and has achieved both critical acclaim and box office success. An admitted “musical theater nerd,” Miranda includes a number of subtle references to other musical theater works in Hamilton, from classics such as South Pacific, West Side Story and Camelot. In Act I, Miranda makes an obvious reference to The Pirates of Penzance when George Washington introduces himself in, “Right-Hand Man,” during which he states, “Now I’m the model of a modern major general, the venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all lining up to put me up on a pedestal.” This line can be heard at the 1:23 minute mark.
The 1981 film, Chariots of Fire includes multiple Gilbert and Sullivan references. The protagonist, Harold Abrahams, is a devoted Gilbert and Sullivan fan. Abrahams sings “With Catlike Tread,” from The Pirates of Penzance, accompanying himself on the piano, during the channel crossing to Paris before the Olympic Games. Chariots of Fire also features “He is an Englishman” from H.M.S. Pinafore, “The Soldiers of Our Queen” from Patience, “Three Little Maids from School Are We” from The Mikado and “There Lived a King” from The Gondoliers.
The Animaniacs was Steven Spielberg’s animated comedy television series, which aired on from 1993 to 1998. Featuring three main characters, Yakko, Wakko and Dot, it was a variety show, with short skits, music, character catchphrases, and humor directed at an adult audience.
One episode from the first season was titled, H.M.S. Wakko / Slappy Goes Walnuts / Yakko’s Universe and included a parody of “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” rendered as “I am the Very Model of a Cartoon Individual.” The episode also included allusions to “With Cat Like Tread” and “Away, Away,” as well as musical allusions to H.M.S. Pinafore.
The 2004 Disney film, Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers, was an animated adaptation of Alexandre Dumas novel, The Three Musketeers. The film was a musical comedy which included parodied version of famous pieces, including works by Strauss, Offenbach, Grieg and Bizet, as well as Sullivan. The L’Opera portion of the film featured part of the overture to Princess Ida and four songs from The Pirates of Penzance, including With Catlike Tread, Poor Wandering One, Climbing Over Rocky Mountain and I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.
The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants is an animated television series based on the Captain Underpants series of books by Dav Pilkey. The series was produced by Dreamworks Animation and released via streaming on Netflix, on July 13, 2018. The series revolves around the adventures of pranksters and comic book artists George Beard and Harold Hutchins, and their strict principal Mr. Krupp, who was hypnotized by George and Harold to become their creation: Captain Underpants, a brief-wearing superhero. In the third season, George and Harold are in summer camp and have to deal with Mr Krupp as their camp instructor. In Episode 5, they tell Mr. Krupp about the kind of camp they’d dreamed of to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.”
Phineas and Ferb was a Disney Channel animated musical comedy series which aired from 2007 to 2015. The show followed stepbrothers Phineas and Ferb as they embarked on unrealistic, even impossible adventures during their summer vacation. In Season 4, Episode 12, titled Love at First Byte / One Good Turn, first broadcast on August 2, 2013, the story includes a sub-plot in which Phineas and Ferb’s pet platypus, Perry, is working as a spy for OWCA, the “Organization Without a Cool Acronym,” to defeat the evil mad scientist, Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz. After OWCA’s commander, Major Monogram sends Perry out on his next mission, he is joined by a chorus of animals and breaks into song for no apparent reason, singing, “I am the very model of a modern Major Monogram, I’ve information, vegetable and animal and hologram …”
In the Death Has a Shadow episode, Brian the dog sings a brief snippet from “Sighing Softly to the River.”
During the Christmas at the 53rd episode of Car 54, Where Are You?, broadcast in December 1961, in which the police officers put on a Christmas review, Officer Francis Muldoon sings “A Policeman’s Lot Is Not a Happy One.” Many will better remember Officer Muldoon actor, Fred Gwynne, from his role as Herman Munster, in The Munsters television series that ran from 1964 to 1966.
Parodies of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”
“I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” may be the most popularly parodied Gilbert and Sullivan song. Alternate lyric versions have been written in regards to Biblical Scholars …
… Psychopharmacologists …
… Boy Scout merit badges …
… and Network Television, to name only a few!
Yet another reference to “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” occurs in the action role-playing video game, Mass Effect 2, sung by Salarian scientist Mordin Solus.
In the 1990 film, Pretty Woman, the character of Edward Lewis, played by Richard Gere, engages a prostitute named Vivian Ward, played by Julia Roberts, to portray his girlfriend for an extended period of time for business purposes. As the two unexpectedly grow closer, Edward takes Vivian to see a production of La Traviata. Vivian is moved to tears by the story of the prostitute who falls in love with a rich man, which further deepens Edward’s feelings towards her. After the opera, a fellow audience member asks Vivian how she liked the opera. She replies, “It was so good, I almost peed my pants.” Edward quickly covers for her saying that she had said that she “liked it better than Pirates of Penzance.”
The Morning Show is an Apple TV Plus drama series, first broadcast in 2019, about the lives, loves, ambitions and betrayals of the people who bring a top-rated television network morning program to the air. In the fifth episode of the series’ first season, “No One’s Going to Harm You, Not While I’m Around,” first broadcast on November 15, 2019, Alex Levy, the Morning Show’s senior anchor, played by Jennifer Aniston, is hosting a Broadway Development Fund Charity Fundraiser at which the guests are invited to sing their favorite musical theater show tune for a donation. When Alex asks the Morning Show weatherman, Yanko Flores, played by Nestor Carbonell, if he’d like to sing, he responds, “I’m thinking “Modern Major General, ‘cause I can talk-sing it … and I learned it in boarding school.” Alex responds, with a bit of satiric insincerity in her voice, “Ah, Gilbert and Sullivan. What a crowd pleaser. I can’t wait for that!”
Hart of Dixie is a comedy-drama series that aired on the CW from September 2011 to March 2015. It tells the story of Dr. Zoe Hart, a new physician from New York, who comes to the small town of Bluebell, Alabama to take over a medical practice and struggles as a New Yorker to fit into the quirky Southern community. In Season 1, Episode 19, titled Destiny & Denial, first broadcast on April 23, 2012, the town stages a musical revue comprised of Gilbert and Sullivan songs, including, “I Am a Pirate King,” “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” “I’m Called Little Buttercup,” and “Three Little Maids from School.”
Ghosts is a British sitcom first broadcast on BBC One in April 2019. Alison Cooper inherits the vast but crumbling mansion from a distant relative. The house is haunted by numerous squabbling ghosts from different historical periods who died on its grounds. Alison and her husband Mike decide to move in and renovate the property, with the idea of turning the house into a luxury hotel. The ghosts are not very happy with the plans and conspire to get rid of the newcomers. At first the couple is blissfully unaware of the ghosts. After a near fatal accident, however, Alison is able to see and hear them. As the Coopers cannot leave the house for financial reasons and the ghosts are bound to the mansion’s land until they can ascend into the afterlife, both sides eventually agree to coexist as best they can. In Season 1, Episode 2, titled Gorilla War, first broadcast on April 22, 2019, the ghost of a World War II army officer, The Captain, played by Ben Wilbond, sings, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” to annoy Alison while she is trying to sleep.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s award winning science fiction trilogy, “Red Mars,” “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars” envisions the colonization of Mars. In chapter 12 of Red Mars, the narrator describes the creation of genetically engineered plants to aid in Mars’ terraforming. He describes the process of synthesizing organisms, using various DNA strands with desirable traits. As the final step in the process, the selected cells receive a “short, sharp, shock” of electricity to bring them to life. In chapter 3 of Blue Mars, the socially inept, but brilliant Martian colonist physicist Saxifrage “Sax” Russell reflects on the fact that he has acquired a large following of young scientists who have been called “Saxi-clones,” all of whom admire him as “the very model of the modern Martian scientist.” Are these intentional quotes from The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance or are they simply phrases that Mr. Robinson had heard … somewhere? Either way, they stand as a testimony to Gilbert and Sullivan’s pervasive influence in popular culture.
Those of us who know and love the delightful works of Gilbert and Sullivan hope that future generations will also come to appreciate their beautiful music and delightful humor. One way that this might be accomplished is through educational materials. A good example of this is ABCya.com, a website that provides educational games and activities for school-aged children. The games on the website are organized into grade levels and subject categories such as letters, numbers, and holidays, all of which are covered in individual topic units. Each unit is hosted by a cartoon character with its own, appropriate background music. The unit that covers the concepts of longitude and latitude is titled “Treasure Hunt,” is hosted by a pirate, and its theme music is, “With Cat-Like Tread.” Perhaps children using this program will hear this music in the future, wonder about its origins and may discover The Pirates of Penzance and the wonderful world of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Gilbert and Sullivan references can be cleverly or unexpectedly placed in modern contexts. Sometimes they’re just silly. In that spirit, we give you the Daleks singing selections from The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado.