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Kyle Blaire as Frederic and Gabrielle Jones as Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance.

Cylla von Tiedemann

Moving from rock operas to operetta, is the Stratford Shakespeare Festival on the aesthetic retreat?

When Des McAnuff, the internationally acclaimed American-Canadian director of Jersey Boys and The Who's Tommy, took over as the head of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, he took the classical theatre festival in loud and fruitful new directions – toward Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar.

But this year, as McAnuff's acclaimed production of Superstar plays on Broadway, Stratford has time-warped back in its musical programming – to Gilbert and Sullivan's 1879 operetta, The Pirates of Penzance.

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From the earnest angst of Judas to a frivolous comedy about pirates and major-generals frolicking on the beach, this seems like an odd reversal. And yet, if you think Gilbert and Sullivan's 19th-century satires are dusty relics, while rock operas are a hipper art form, you might have it exactly backward.

Parody That Became a Genre Unto Itself

Certainly, it will always be fashionable in some circles to write off British lyricist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan's parodies of opera as a niche entertainment whose popularity only endures due of a small pack of Anglophile amateurs.

Savoyards – as the hard-core fans of the duo are known, named after the London theatre built to present their works in 1881 – can't be that tiny a group, however: Stratford has already added three shows of Pirates, making it a hit before it has even officially opened.

The latest heavy-hitter of musical theatre to bash G&S and their admirers was Stephen Sondheim in his 2010 book, Finishing the Hat. The Pulitzer-winning composer of Sweeney Todd dismissed Gilbert as "the master of prattle" and Sullivan's music as "decorative."

"It baffles me when I hear an audience laugh at a Gilbert and Sullivan song; such enjoyment requires a taste for archness that eludes me," he wrote.

Though Sondheim might not appreciate the humour of shows such as The Mikado and HMS Pinafore – which combine unabashed silliness with gentle jabs at British bureaucracy, politics and the law – arguably their brand of comedy is the dominant one in pop culture today.

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From The Daily Show or The Colbert Report's fake news programs to Judd Apatow's bromantic comedies, parodies that then become genres unto themselves are everywhere.

In the past decade or so, musical theatre in particular has turned away from the earnestness of the rock opera and megamusical toward the loving self-mockery of meta-musicals – a movement that has perhaps reached its apotheosis with Trey Parker and Matt Stone's runaway hit, The Book of Mormon.

Orchestrator Michael Starobin, who has worked on many of Sondheim's musicals on Broadway and has written a new arrangement of Pirates of Penzance for Stratford, sees a clear line of influence.

"I definitely think Gilbert uses conventions in the same way a Urinetown or Book of Mormon will take musical-theatre numbers then camp it up, winking at the audience," he says.

W.S. Gilbert is still the humorist with the mostest

While updated revivals of classic American musicals are another rising trend on Broadway – this season, Porgy and Bess and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever were given facelifts – it's long been fashionable to tweak Gilbert and Sullivan shows. For instance, Brian Macdonald's 1986 production of Pirates at Stratford – one of a string of huge G&S hits the festival had that decade – inserted gags about John Turner and Trivial Pursuit into the famous patter song I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.

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For the new production at Stratford, however, while the light opera has been given a steampunk design, otherwise director Ethan McSweeny is trying to fiddle with the original text about an ex-pirate who falls in love with the daughter of a major-general as little as possible, treating it as he would a classic text by Shakespeare or Shaw. "The radical presumption that I had was that Gilbert is seriously funny on his own," he says.

McSweeny's respect for Gilbert and Sullivan is in keeping with their rather astonishing continuing influence. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Mike Leigh's 1999 movie Topsy-Turvy, the pair's music has made regular forays into the movies, while television auteur Aaron Sorkin stuck in references to them every chance he got on his show The West Wing. (Indeed, Sam Seaborn, the White House communications director played by Rob Lowe, was a former recording secretary of the Princeton Gilbert and Sullivan Society.) It's in contemporary cartoons, however, that the Victorian-era partnership continues to have the most currency. Many of the most memorable scenes from the heyday of The Simpsons referenced Gilbert and Sullivan – notably, the episode in which Bart implores Sideshow Bob to sing the entire score of HMS Pinafore before killing him.

And a love of G&S is just one more thing Family Guy has borrowed from The Simpsons. In fact, creator Seth Macfarlane has demonstrated a stronger allegiance – going so far as to dip into their more obscure operettas, such as when, in a scene from a 2006 episode, members of Peter Griffin's football team called the London Silly Nannies suddenly began to dance around a maypole to a tune from The Sorcerer.

Sullivan's music is astonishingly versatile – and full of earworms. While few people deny that Gilbert was a comic genius, Sullivan frequently gets the short end of the stick despite having supported his partner's lyrics so brilliantly.

" Pirates is filled with those melodies that get in your head and don't go away," says Starobin. "It doesn't have the dramatic depth of a Sondheim musical or a more serious opera, no, but then I don't think it's aiming to."

Just as Gilbert's lyrics are regularly updated, so Sullivan's scores have proven truly adaptable. A Caribbean-inflected production of Pirates at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey premiered in 2007 – and helped paddle the New Jersey theatre away from perilous waters – while a recent production of HMS Pinafore at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Minn., arranged the songs into tango, disco and even rock opera.

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A recent lauded, beach-themed production of Pirates by Chicago's The Hypocrites, meanwhile, went the actor-musician route that has become particularly popular with Sondheim revivals. Mabel, the love interest, plucked a banjo as she sang, "Oh dry the glistening tear."

McSweeny marvels at the way Gilbert and Sullivan are able to be constantly reinvented and adapt to the music conventions of the time. "The Linda Ronstadt Pirates [made into a 1983 movie with Kevin Kline]was totally a 1980s musical, of a piece with Starlight Express," he says. "And when Brian [Macdonald]set his 1995 production at Stratford on a movie soundstage, that was also characteristic of what was popular and current then."

As for rock operas, no matter how popular revivals may be, they inevitably seem tethered to the era in which they were written. As Scott Brown of New York recently wrote of the return of Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar to New York, "When Sondheim revivals suffuse Broadway, we talk about timelessness. When Lloyd Webber marches back to town, three shows abreast, we mostly just feel old."

McAnuff – who programmed Pirates of Penzance for what has become his final season as artistic director at Stratford but is rumoured to be returning in 2013 to direct The Who's Tommy – sees no reason why rock operas and operetta can't live in harmony at Stratford.

"There's a certain tradition of eclecticism here," says McAnuff. "Frankly, I'm a huge fan of this form – I love these guys.… I wouldn't mind doing Pirates side by side with Chess."

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