The Mikado, the show Lizzie Blaylock gets taken to by Simeon de Florence in The Bridge of Dead Things, is undoubtedly the best-loved and most-performed of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. And yet the truth is that it nearly didn’t come to be written.
In 1884, when their latest offering Princess Ida proved to be something of a flop, Sullivan refused to set the piece that Gilbert had been working on to music, claiming that it was too similar in tone to The Sorcerer, their first full-length operetta. In fact it was practically identical, a rather uninspired make-over of Gilbert’s favourite theme of “topsy turvy”, where the world’s natural order is turned on its head. The pair would have gone their separate ways had it not been suggested to Gilbert that Sullivan might set a score for a different story, one that was not topsy turvy in character. Gilbert hastily sketched out a new idea and sent it to Sullivan for his approval. Sullivan loved it and the rest is history.
The Mikado made its première at the Savoy Theatre, London on March 14th 1885 to a rapturous reception. According to the baritone Rutland Barrington, who played the role of Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else: “From the moment the curtain rose…it was one long succession of uproarious laughter at the libretto and overwhelming applause for the music.” Of the show’s best-known song he wrote: “‘Three Little Maids’ was received with such enthusiasm and insistent encores as no musical number in my experience, or I believe anyone else’s, has ever equalled.”
The Mikado quickly became an international success. In 1886 it was estimated that on one night alone no less than 170 separate performances were being staged across the United States of America—though it has to be said that nearly 150 of these were unauthorized versions, often poor imitations, which were allowed to go on because there was no international copyright treaty at the time.
Despite their unparalleled success, Sullivan took no pride in his operettas. He was Queen Victoria’s favourite composer and he aspired to loftier things—although he never quite achieved them. The hymn Onward Christian Soldiers is probably his only work (apart from his operettas and an extraordinarily mawkish, overly sentimental song called The Lost Chord) for which he is still remembered today. He died of heart failure in 1900 following an attack of bronchitis. W. S. Gilbert died of a fatal heart attack in 1911 when he dived in to the lake on his estate to rescue a girl who was drowning.
There is a wonderful film by Mike Leigh made in 1999 called Topsy-Turvy which tells the story of the lead-up to The Mikado’s 1885 première. It stars Shirley Henderson and Timothy Spall (Moaning Myrtle and Wormtail in the Harry Potter films), both of whom give riveting performances as actors in the cast. The scenes where Gilbert, sick with opening-night nerves, abandons the theatre and walks the streets of London were filmed outside a deserted warehouse directly below my balcony! If you get the chance, listen to The Overture (track 2), A More Humane Mikado (The Mikado’s Song, track 7), The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze (track 13), and The Grand Finale (track 18) from the film’s soundtrack.