The Operetta on Both Sides of the Pond

If the initial phase of American Musical Theatre was the operetta, then the sad fact is that the era failed to produce any writer of note, meaning that, for the most part, the librettos contained contrived plots with one-dimensional characters.  The shows were carried by the music and ran just long enough on Broadway to ensure a sound run for touring companies.  Thus, the production of operettas became a “replication” factory, where new product could be “ground out” in perpetuity by adding new music to old story lines.  It was hard to introduce “freshness” into a rigid, standardized process.

W.S. Gilbert Portrait, English Librettist

W. S. Gilbert

Yet, even when we recognize the rigid structure of the operetta form, we cannot find any American playwright with the wit and “irrational” logic equal to that of English playwright W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911).  English director and playwright, himself, Mike Leigh recently described Gilbert’s style:  

“With great fluidity and freedom, [Gilbert] continually challenges our natural expectations.  First, within the framework of the story, he makes bizarre things happen, and turns the world on its head.  Thus the Learned Judge marries the Plaintiff, the soldiers metamorphose into aesthetes, and so on, and nearly every opera is resolved by a deft moving of the goalposts….  His genius is to fuse opposites with an imperceptible slight of hand, to blend the surreal with the real, and the caricature with the natural.  In other words, to tell a perfectly outrageous story in a completely deadpan way.”

We are not suggesting that American playwrights needed to copy Gilbert or anyone else, for that matter; however, the fact is that the lack of a “serviceable” libretto has served to bury American operettas deep in the dusty archives, while Savoyards around the world keep Gilbert and Sullivan operettas alive and fresh for modern audiences.  The lack of a competent book does not imply that the writers were incompetent.  The writers did what they were asked to do; although, perhaps, the flawed American model resulted in a bad outcome for posterity, something that no one involved had ever considered.