Shock Appeal

Gilbert and Sullivan are stage's original bad boys

Sex sells. It always has, because sex, when properly presented, has always had the ability to shock, and like it or not, people do enjoy the sensation of getting their juices flowing. Shock does that.

It’s part of what makes a box-office success out of a show like The Book of Mormon, with its giddily offensive sense of sacrilege, or the current Broadway sensation Hamilton, with its hip-hop-fueled score and racially blind casting. But will any of that be shocking in another 10 years?

This weekend, Marin County’s Ross Valley Players will unveil a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1878 H.M.S. Pinafore. The show about the crew of a naval vessel and its various interpersonal romantic problems is not just a musical masterpiece that has delighted people for 138 years; it’s an example of how shows that once shocked the establishment and made decent ladies blush, now seem thoroughly mainstream and unquestionably safe.

It goes the other way around, too. The Mikado, another G&S hit, was considered boldly forward-thinking for putting Japanese culture on the English stage. Talk about shocking. Today, it’s difficult to do The Mikado without causing accusations of racial stereotyping, challenging theaters to entirely reinterpret the original show for modern audiences, which are shocked by entirely different things.

That’s why it’s important to trot out such classics every now and then, as a reminder of how far we’ve come, and a test of how far we still have to go. As our culture changes, so do the ways our classic art changes, not in how it is presented necessarily (though punk-rock stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan are definitely a thing), but in how we ourselves react to it.

It’s almost impossible to believe that Gilbert and Sullivan, the great-granddads of British musical theater, were once considered a bit of a dangerous duo. But they were. In the late 1880s, their tuneful confections carried defiantly controversial challenges of the British class system, military incompetence, the bizarre rules of social society and the not-so-subtle absurdities of the ruling minority.

Much of that exists in H.M.S. Pinafore. Oh, and it has sex, too. Sort of. The very title, combining a piece of women’s clothing with a historically male naval designation, was definitely, to the Victorians in the audience, a bit shocking.

And definitely sexy.