The Pirates of Penzance
A hilarious farce of sentimental pirates, bumbling policemen, dim-witted young lovers and an eccentric Major-General.
Show Essentials
+ Ensemble

Full Synopsis

Act One

Lights reveal a backdrop layered much like a pop-up book. A small cut-out of a pirate ship passes between the cut-out waves of the drop, firing a cannon to mark its entrance. The pirates themselves appear ("Pour, Oh Pour, the Pirate Sherry"), celebrating because their young apprentice, Frederic, attains adulthood today, and is now a full-fledged member of their band. But Frederic announces that he will leave the pirates immediately. He had done his best for the pirates until now only out of his deep devotion to his duty under his apprenticeship which, after all, had been a mistake.

The pirates are deeply wounded, and Ruth, Frederic's nanny, explains ("When Frederic Was a Little Lad"). She had been directed by Frederic's father to apprentice Frederic to a pilot, but misheard, and bound him to a pirate instead.

Frederic forgives Ruth her mistake, and addresses the pirates: "Individually, I love you all with affection unspeakable, but, collectively, I look upon you with a disgust that amounts to absolute detestation." He tearfully vows to exterminate them all. But, since the time is only half-past eleven and he is a pirate until twelve, he explains why they don't make very good pirates: their reputation for nobleness has gotten about, so that every person captured claims to be an orphan and invokes the pirates' mercy.

Ruth is worried about her own fate, and proposes herself in marriage to Frederic. Frederic accepts, but with some reservation. Ruth is the only woman he knows; what if he meets another and finds out that Ruth is plain? The pirates, only too glad to let her go, assure him that "there are the remains of a fine woman about Ruth." The Pirate King bids Ruth and Frederic farewell, joyously returning to his pirate's life ("Oh, Better Far To Live and Die").

Left alone, Frederic seeks reassurances from Ruth about their upcoming alliance, which she gives as best she can without outright lying. Their parley is interrupted by singing voices, and Frederic spies a group of beautiful young women. Looking upon them, he realizes he has been tricked by Ruth ("Oh, False One, You Have Deceived Me"), and dismisses her. Frederic, ashamed of his piratical appearance, hides from the approaching young women.

Major-General Stanley's daughters enter, seeking a secluded spot for a picnic ("Climbing Over Rocky Mountain"). Seeing them about to take off their shoes and play in the water (how indecent!), Frederic reveals himself to them, warning them that their picnic spot is a pirates' lair ("Stop, Ladies, Pray!"). The daughters are frightened of him as a pirate, but attracted to his youthful good looks. He proposes marriage to all of them at once ("Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast"), but they reject him.

Suddenly, Mabel appears. She is another of the Major-General's daughters, and she is astonishingly beautiful. She chides her sisters for their lack of pity, and consoles Frederic ("Poor Wandering One!") As Frederic and Mabel make each other's acquaintance, the other daughters pretend to give them some time alone while they chat about the weather ("What Ought We To Do").

Frederic hears the pirates approaching ("Stay, We Must Not Lose Our Senses"), and urges the daughters to flee before them. But they stand so long singing about their need to escape that they fail to actually do so. The pirates capture the girls, although their notion of "rape" is to carry the girls off to a minister and marry them on the spot. Mabel stops them ("Hold, Monsters!"), warning them that their father is an illustrious personage: a Major-General! And he appears, boasting of his knowledge and abilities ("I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General").

Once the Major-General has been apprised of the situation, he objects to having pirates as sons-in-law. The Pirate King responds, "We object to Major-Generals as fathers-in-law. But we waive that point." The Major-General begs them not to rob him of his daughters, "the sole, remaining propos of [his] old age," as he is (of course) an orphan boy ("Oh, Men Of Dark and Dismal Fate"). The pirates let him go, and everybody celebrates, except poor abandoned Ruth, as the curtain falls.

Act Two

As Act Two opens, the Major-General's daughters try to comfort him ("Oh, Dry the Glistening Tear"). He is disconsolate because he has dishonored his ancestors by escaping the pirates through a lie. Frederic reminds him that he has only recently bought his lands and title, and therefore cannot do too much damage to his family legacy. The Major-General explains that there are indeed somebody's ancestors buried on his land, and since he bought the land and all its contents, they are therefore his ancestors.

The Major-General says he will be much more comfortable when Frederic has exterminated the pirates ("Then, Frederic, Let Your Escort Lion-Hearted"). Frederic summons his army of policemen ("When the Foeman Bares His Steel"), who are less than eager to go to battle. Mabel and the other daughters urge them on, and the policemen vow to go and do their duty. But they keep vowing for a long time before they are finally persuaded to go.

Frederic's relief at finally atoning for his years of piracy ("Now For the Pirates' Lair!") is interrupted by none other than Ruth and the Pirate King. They know of Frederic's love of paradoxes, and propose a most ingenious one to him ("When You Had Left Our Pirate Fold"). It seems Frederic was born on Leap Day, February 29, which only comes once every four years. Frederick is twenty-one years old, therefore, but has had only five birthdays. Unfortunately, the terms of his pirate apprenticeship are until his twenty-first birthday. By the terms of his indenture, he will remain a pirate until he is eighty-four years old! Frederic, bound by his sense of duty, agrees to go with them, bemoaning his fate and his consequential loss of Mabel ("My Eyes Are Fully Open"). Further constricted to duty, Frederic informs the Pirate King of the Major-General's deception. The Pirate King vows revenge ("Away, Away! My Heart's On Fire!").

Frederic is left alone with Mabel ("All Is Prepared"), and he informs her of the sad situation. She begs him to ignore his duty ("Stay, Frederic, Stay!"), but he cannot. They vow to remain true until Frederic is free to marry her, in 1940. Frederic leaves to join the pirates, and Mabel mourns ("Sorry Her Lot"). But she is determined to go on ("No, I Am Brave,") and urges the policemen on to fight the pirates even though their commander has switched sides. The policemen don't like their job - after all, criminals are people too - but they set off to do it ("When a Felon's Not Engaged In His Employment").

The pirates approach ("A Rollicking Band of Pirates We") to get their revenge, and the policemen bravely hide. The pirates plot their burglary ("With Cat-Like Tread, Upon Our Prey We Steal"). Frederic quiets them ("Hush, Hush! Not a Word") as the Major-General approaches, kept from his sleep by a guilty conscience ("Sighing Softly To the River"). Just as his daughters come out to comfort him, the pirates ambush them, and are in turn ambushed by the police.

A fight ensues. The police duel with billy clubs, the daughters with parasols. The scene is a kind of domestic version of the typical pirate epic battle scene, although no one gets hurt. The pirates win the battle, but the sergeant of the police calls on them to yield in Queen Victoria's name. The pirates surrender immediately, because "with all their faults, they love their queen."

Before the pirates can be led away, Ruth steps forward and reveals them as prodigal sons of titled families. The pirates are instantly forgiven, as "peers will be peers." Frederic is reunited with Mabel, Ruth is swept up by the sergeant, the pirates and daughters pair off, and there is a happy ending for all ("Poor Wandering One").

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Cast Size: Flexible Cast Size
Cast Type: Mainly Men
Dance Requirements: Standard

Character Breakdown

A member of the Pirates. He is unaffected and possesses an unself-conscious sex appeal. Youthful, genuine and innocent.
Gender: male
Age: 21 to 21
Vocal range top: G4
Vocal range bottom: Bb2
Daughter of the Major-General. Mabel is a classic beauty similar to Lillian Gish or Mary Pickford. An astute young woman, she is sympathetic in nature. She and Frederic fall in love.
Gender: female
Age: 18 to 21
Vocal range top: Db6
Vocal range bottom: Bb3
Pirate King
The leader of the pirates. Despite his sharp and loud bark, he is actually a whole-hearted romantic with a soft bite. A handsome man typically found with an open shirt and wind in his hair.
Gender: male
Age: 25 to 35
Vocal range top: F4
Vocal range bottom: A#2
A father with many daughters. He resembles a male Queen Victoria in his sensibilities. Possesses kindness, warmth, and good-humor. The love for his daughters is undeniable.
Gender: male
Age: 55 to 65
Vocal range top: E4
Vocal range bottom: Bb2
Frederic's lifelong nanny. A sneaky Mrs. Potts, she is attractive enough for her age but cares very little about such things. She wants nothing more in life than to see Frederic happy, healthy, and by her side.
Gender: female
Age: 47 to 47
Vocal range top: Eb5
Vocal range bottom: G3
Daughter of the Major-General. Quick-witted and rather sassy. She, like her other sisters, is strikingly beautiful.
Gender: female
Age: 17 to 21
Vocal range top: G5
Vocal range bottom: Ab3
Daughter of the Major-General. Though a level-headed girl, she is quite mischievous. Very beautiful and the eldest of the daughters.
Gender: female
Age: 20 to 25
Vocal range top: G5
Vocal range bottom: Ab3
The Pirate King's right-hand man. Perhaps a bit rotund, Samuel is clever but easily manipulated and influenced.
Gender: male
Age: 35 to 45
Vocal range top: F4
Vocal range bottom: Bb2
The leader of the police. He is Groucho Marx-esque and uncomfortably clumsy. Though their duty to protect is clear, the Sergeant and his police are more accustomed to fear and hide.
Gender: male
Age: 35 to 45
Vocal range top: E4
Vocal range bottom: G2
Daughters, Pirates, Policemen
Full Song List
The Pirates of Penzance: Pour, O Pour The Pirate Sherry
The Pirates of Penzance: When Frederic Was A Little Lad
The Pirates of Penzance: Oh, Better Far To Live And Die
The Pirates of Penzance: Oh, False One, You Have Deceived Me
The Pirates of Penzance: Climbing Over Rocky Mountain
The Pirates of Penzance: Stop, Ladies, Pray!
The Pirates of Penzance: Oh, Is There Not One Maiden Breast?
The Pirates of Penzance: Poor Wandering One
The Pirates of Penzance: What Ought We To Do?
The Pirates of Penzance: How Beautifully Blue The Sky
The Pirates of Penzance: Stay, We Must Not Lose Our Senses
The Pirates of Penzance: Hold Monsters
The Pirates of Penzance: I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General
The Pirates of Penzance: Oh, Men Of Dark And Dismal Fate
The Pirates of Penzance: Oh, Dry The Glistening Tear
The Pirates of Penzance: Then, Frederic, Let Your Escort Lion-Hearted
The Pirates of Penzance: When The Foeman Bares His Steel
The Pirates of Penzance: Now For The Pirates' Lair!
The Pirates of Penzance: When You Had Left Our Pirate Fold
The Pirates of Penzance: My Eyes Are Fully Open
The Pirates of Penzance: Away, Away! My Heart's On Fire!
The Pirates of Penzance: All Is Prepared
The Pirates of Penzance: Stay, Frederick, Stay!
The Pirates of Penzance: Sorry Her Lot
The Pirates of Penzance: No, I Am Brave!
The Pirates of Penzance: When A Felon's Not Engaged In His Employment
The Pirates of Penzance: A Rollicking Band Of Pirates We
The Pirates of Penzance: With Cat-Like Tread, Upon Our Prey We Steal
The Pirates of Penzance: Hush, Hush! Not A Word
The Pirates of Penzance: Sighing Softly To The River
The Pirates of Penzance: Finale

Show History


While their previous hit H.M.S. Pinafore was running strongly at the Opera Comique in London, Gilbert was eager to get started on his and Sullivan's next opera, and he began working on the libretto in December 1878. He re-used several elements of their previous works including a one-act piece from 1870, Our Island Home, which had introduced a pirate "chief", Captain Bang, as well as an idea they had first considered for a one-act opera parody in 1876. Playwright Bernard Shaw also believed that Gilbert drew on ideas in Les Brigands for his new libretto, including the businesslike bandits and the bumbling police. Then with the libretto and score sketched out, Gilbert and Sullivan tailored their opera to the particular abilities of the performers they were using.


The Pirates Of Penzance is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. The opera's official premiere was at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City on December 31, 1879, where the show was well received by both audiences and critics. Gilbert directed and Sullivan conducted music rehearsals. The show s London debut was then on April 3, 1880, at the Opera Comique, where it ran for 363 performances, having already been playing successfully for over three months in New York.

The show remained popular for generations, living first in the music halls, later on the stages of operetta companies, and still later through Gilbert and Sullivan companies and other nostalgic producers. In 1979, producer Joe Papp of the Public Theatre in New York decided to revive the piece again, and reconceived it as a flavorsome, ensemble-driven romp. The new version, directed by Wilford Leach and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, ran for 45 free performances in the summer of 1980 in Central Park's Delacorte Theatre. With Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, Rex Smith as Frederic, Linda Ronstadt as Mabel, George Rose as Major-General Stanley and Patricia Routledge as Ruth. The Pirates Of Penzance was again an incredible smash.

Because of the success at the Delacorte, Papp brought his new The Pirates Of Penzance to Broadway s Uris (now Gershwin) Theatre on January 8, 1981, with most of the same cast, Estelle Parsons replacing Routledge. This Broadway mounting lasted for 20 previews, and 787 performances, at one point even having to move to the Minskoff Theater. It was also later turned into a film in 1983, with most of the cast remaining intact, except for Angela Lansbury replacing Estelle Parsons as Ruth.

Aside from these productions there have been countless tours, regional, and international productions of this crowd and critic favorite over the last century. Due to its staggering success, Papp s version has become the preferred performance version.

Cultural Influence

  • Countless recordings have been made of The Pirates Of Penzance, starting in 1921 with recording artist under the direction of Rupert D'Oyly Carte.
  • In addition to the 1983 film based on the 1981 Broadway production, The Pirates Of Penzance has inspired a number of other movies, television shows, musical comedies, and theatrical events as well as even more so being a point of reference in pop culture for decades.
  • "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General", often referred to as the "Major-General's Song" or "Modern Major-General's Song", is perhaps the most famous song in all of Gilbert and Sullivan s operas. It has been used numerous times in commercials, been referenced in a plethora of popular movies and television shows, and is a mainstay audition song among performers.


  • Beyond the awards it has won, The Pirates Of Penzance was nominated for an additional 4 Tony Awards, 3 Drama Desk Awards, and 2 Olivier Awards including one for Outstanding Musical Production .
  • Before The Pirates Of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan had just had an incredible smash with H.M.S. Pinafore - the entire world was still singing its tunes on the streets. According to one count, there were no fewer than a dozen companies of H.M.S. Pinafore playing in New York at the same time, none of them legal. Since copyright laws were virtually nonexistent for British authors in America, to get a firmer hold on their property the great Gilbert and Sullivan decided to premiere their next work, The Pirates Of Penzance, in New York.
  • When Gilbert and Sullivan set sail from London to New York to mount the premiere of The Pirates Of Penzance they realized that they'd left the nearly finished score at home. The team spent the next few weeks furiously rewriting for the premiere.
  • The Pirates Of Penzance was the fifth Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration and the only one to have its official premiere in the United States.
  • The original Broadway production of the MTI version of The Pirates of Penzance boasted an all-star cast led by Rex Smith and Linda Rondstadt, and included Kevin Kline, Estelle Parsons and George Rose.

Critical Reaction

"Brilliant and entertaining." - Chicago Theatre Beat

"The Pirates of Penzance has become a remarkably pliant concoction& more than any other Gilbert and Sullivan confection, it stands up remarkably well as a Broadway-style musical comedy& the kind of melody few modern composers can emulate." - Chicago Tribune

"A veritable treasure chest of riches." - Talkin Broadway

The Pirates of Penzance is arguably the best of the canon, combining the lyricism of The Mikado with the witticisms and almost unbelievable gullibility of the HMS Pinafore characters& Sullivan's music, while being recognizably Sullivan, delights in pastiche moments, including of his own work& Gilbert's book is full of invention and light-hearted puns. A perfect foil for Sullivan's music, Gilbert's characters are the most wonderful clump of dolts ever. - TheatreView

Tony® Award

1953 - Best Conductor and Musical Director, Winner (Lehman Engel)
1981 - Best Direction Of A Musical, Winner (Wilford Leach)
1981 - Actress (Musical), Nominee (Linda Ronstadt)
1981 - Best Reproduction (Play or Musical), Winner (Pirates of Penzance)
1981 - Choreography, Nominee (Graciela Daniele)
1981 - Best Reproduction (Play or Musical), Winner (Pirates of Penzance)
1981 - Direction Of A Musical, Winner (Wilford Leech)
1981 - Featured Actor In A Musical, Nominee (Tony Azito)
1981 - Reproduction Of A Play Or Musical, Winner (Joseph Papp, The New York Shakespeare Festival (producers))
1981 - Best Actor in a Musical, Winner (Kevin Kline)
1981 - Best Actor in a Musical, Nominee (Geirge Rose)
1981 - Best Actress in a Musical, Nominee (Linda Ronstadt)
1981 - Best Featured Actor in a Musical, Nominee (Tony Azito)
1981 - Actor (Musical), Nominee (Geroge Rose)
1981 - Best Choreography, Nominee (Graciela Daniele)
1981 - Actor (Musical), Winner (Kevin Kline)

Best Direction of a Musical

1981 - Tony Award -, Nominee (Best Direction of a Musical)

Drama Desk Award

1981 - Outstanding Actor in a Musical, Nominee (George Rose)
1981 - Outstanding Actor in a Musical, Winner (Kevin Kline)
1981 - Outstanding Choreography, Nominee (Graziela Daniele)
1981 - Outstanding Costume Design, Winner (Patricia McGourty)
1981 - Outstanding Director Of A Musical, Winner (Wilford Leach)
1981 - Outstanding Actor in a Musical, Winner (Kevin Kline)
1981 - Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical, Winner (Tony Azito)
1981 - Outstanding Direction of a Musical, Winner (Wilford Leach)
1981 - Outstanding Musical, Winner ()
1981 - Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical, Winner (Tony Azito)
1981 - Outstanding Set Design, Nominee (Bob Shaw)
1981 - Outstanding Costume Design, Winner (Patricia McGourty)
1981 - Outstanding Set Design, Nominee (Wilford Leach)

Reproduction (Play or Musical)

1981 - Tony Award -, Nominee (Reproduction (Play or Musical))

Outstanding Musical

1981 - Drama Desk Award -, Nominee (Outstanding Musical)

Theater World Award

1981 - Best Debut Performance, Winner (Rex Smith)

Outstanding Actor in a Musical

1981 - Drama Desk Award -, Nominee (Outstanding Actor in a Musical)

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical

1981 - Drama Desk Award -, Nominee (Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical)

Outstanding Director of a Musical

1981 - Drama Desk Award -, Nominee (Outstanding Director of a Musical)

Outstanding Costume Design

1981 - Drama Desk Award -, Nominee (Outstanding Costume Design)

Outer Critics Circle Award

1981 - Outstanding Revival, Winner (The Pirates of Penzance)

Best Actor in a Musical

1981 - Tony Award -, Nominee (Best Actor in a Musical)




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A New Version of

As Presented on Broadway by New York Shakespeare Festival,

Joseph Papp, Producer


Directed by Wilford Leach
Musical Adaptation by William Elliot
Choreography by Graciela Daniele








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