Gilbert-Sullivan Feud Subject Of Children's Book

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After creating several operettas together, composers Gilbert and Sullivan split up. Sullivan became tired of doing the same kind of music over and over again. They reunited years later when Gilbert came up with the idea for their masterpiece, The Mikado. Jonah Winter, the author of a children's book called The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan, says an episode in Gilbert's life turned their relationship around.


Gilbert and Sullivan are often credited with inventing the modern musical. In the late 1800s, lyricist William Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan wrote 14 operas, including "The Pirates of Penzance."

(Soundbite of stage play, "The Pirates of Penzance")

(Soundbite of song, "The Major-General's Song")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I am the very model of a modern major general. I've information vegetable, animal and mineral. I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical from Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical.

WERTHEIMER: Also "H.M.S. Pinafore."

(Soundbite of stage play, "H.M.S. Pinafore")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (unintelligible)

WERTHEIMER: And "Yeomen of the Guard."

(Soundbite of stage play, "Yeomen of the Guard")

(Soundbite of song, "I Have a Song to Sing, O!")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) I have a song to sing, O!

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Sing me your song, O!

WERTHEIMER: The pair is also known for their famous breakup, which is the subject of a new children's book called "The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan." It was written by author Jonah Winter, who joins us now. Good morning, Mr. Winter.

Mr. JONAH WINTER (Author): Hello.

WERTHEIMER: I'd like to begin by asking you to read the first page of your book.

Mr. WINTER: Absolutely. There was a time when jolly old England was not so jolly. Children worked in factories. Queen Victoria frowned. Everything was grim. Everything was dark, except the make-believe kingdom of Topsy-Turvydom.

WERTHEIMER: The make-believe kingdom of Topsy-Turvydom was the term for the land of Gilbert and Sullivan. Is that right?

Mr. WINTER: That is correct. Topsy-Turvy was a word actually used by theater critics back in Gilbert and Sullivan's time to describe the wacko plotlines that Gilbert came up with. And, you know, in order to try to communicate that to children, I decided to create a kingdom called Topsy-Turvydom.

WERTHEIMER: Which has two kings named Gilbert and Sullivan.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: You go on to write that Sullivan got tired of working with Gilbert because Gilbert kept writing the same story over and over again. What is that story?

Mr. WINTER: Basically, it's where some sort of plotline gets turned on its head, some clever pun which actually ends up directing the entire narrative, such as in "Pirates of Penzance," the confusion between the word pirate and pilot ends up becoming a major plot element.

(Singing) La, da, bum-ba, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, a pilot.

By the end of "Princess Ida," Sullivan had just had enough of it. He felt like he was just spinning his wheels, and he wanted to write great classical music. So it appeared to all the world that Gilbert and Sullivan were done as a duo.

(Soundbite of stage play, "H.M.S. Pinafore")

(Soundbite of song, "Things Are Seldom What They Seem")

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Things are seldom what they seem. Skim milk masquerades as cream.

WERTHEIMER: But then they made up.

Mr. WINTERS: Almost the way their - the plotlines of their operas have a way of getting turned on their head, their actual collaboration also got turned on its head through an episode in Gilbert's life.

(Soundbite of stage play, "The Mikado")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WINTERS: Japan was all the rage in London at that time, and he was walking by a Japanese street fair and happened to see a Kabuki play, which I think -just to use a modern term - sort of just blew his mind, and the proverbial light bulb went off above his head. And that became the inspiration for "The Mikado."

(Soundbite of stage play, "The Mikado")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (unintelligible)

WERTHEIMER: "The Mikado" reunited Gilbert and Sullivan, and you sort of pronounce a benediction on this couple and this opera on the last page of the book. Can we hear you read that?

Mr. WINTERS: It was the best music Mr. Sullivan had ever written and the funniest words Mr. Gilbert had ever written. The audience applauded as they never had before. The two kings of Topsy-Turvydom took their bows, side by side. Could they have gotten here without the arguing? Who knows? Sometimes even the best of friends fight. One thing is for certain, though: Had they not made up, their greatest opera would have never been written. They needed each other.

WERTHEIMER: Mr. Winter, thank you very much.

Mr. WINTER: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Jonah Winter is author of the book "The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan."

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