Along with The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore sits at the very top of the Gilbert and Sullivan pantheon, beloved almost since the first performance. It is the piece which transported Gilbert and Sullivan from being an interesting potentiality to being a global phenomenon. The tunes and catch phrases from the operetta have become part of the lexicon, and as such, the operetta is among Gilbert and Sullivan’s crowning achievements. H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor, opened at the Opera Comique in London, on 25 May 1878 and ran for 571 performances, which was the second-longest run of any musical theatre piece up to that time.
The opera’s humor focuses on love between members of different social classes and lampoons the British class system in general. The title of the piece comically applies the name of a garment for girls and women, a pinafore, to the fearsome symbol of a warship. All in all, the themes of class inequality and incompetent authority which remain relevant are present throughout the entire comic opera.
140 years later which style of music could convincing tackle the issues of the class system, inequality and authority? Yes it could only be Rap or Punk. Unfortunately Rap is too busy making stacks and shaking booty. While Punk, or any genre truly worthy of that title had already died and been buried by 1998.
That leaves one man standing. A legend in the underground of loud, fast-moving, dissonant and very aggressive rock music. Someone who blends the sounds of metal guitars and basses, tenor trombone, bass trombone, trumpet, French horn, clarinet, melodica and beat machines.
A man who fervently affronts his musical themes as if there may be no tomorrow…and quite honestly, for the terminally ill Steve Lieberman aka The Gansta Rabbi, ‘tomorrows’ are infinitely precarious affairs. However in his ‘todays’, Steve has tackled a whole bunch of legendary musical works, translating them into thrash punk versions.
I’m not sure why he has done so, but now he has gone back to lifetimes to readapt Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, and precisely to pieces from its final act. Steve’s version is entitled “A BRITISH TAR (Reprise)/ HMS PINAFORE ACT I FINALE”.
The Act I Finale of HMS Pinafore integrates solos, duets, trios, and large scale ensemble work with constant commentary by the chorus in an amazing balancing act that shows absolute mastery from composer and librettist.
It incorporates moments of pathos, threats, and patriotism, a near suicide, a patter song for the chorus and principals at breakneck speed, all of which fall perfectly into The Gansta Rabbi’s strident musical canon. He adds brusque and blaring sonics to piece that has on many an occasion, been described as one of the most difficult arrangements to manage as a conductor.
“A British Tar (Reprise)”, on the other hand, does not merely repeat the previous iteration, but is a major expansion and rethinking complete with one of Sullivan’s delicious harmonic left turns being flung into total dissonance.
The fleshing out of A British Tar feels less like a reprise and more like a payoff, as though this is the way this tune was always meant to be played out, and we are only at this moment hearing it properly. I could be out on a limb here, but this HMS Pinafore looks to me like the loudest, boldest, and most adventurous version of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta to emerge in recent years…or maybe all of time.
And if Gilbert & Sullivan’s intention with H.M.S. Pinafore, was to subtly lampoon the establishment and to overturn conventional social order – in that equation, The Gansta Rabbi throws subtlety completely out of the window, with a musical version that in comparison, is as subtle as a bull in a china shop!