Adapted from Sir William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan's 1879 comic opera of the same name, The Pirates of Penzance was basically a reprise of Joseph Papp's 1980 Broadway musical, Pirates.
A pirate ship – "The Tarantula" – captained by The Pirate King (Kevin Kline) arrives at Penzance Bay, Cornwall, in England. In a pirate ritual, Frederick (Rex Smith) is thrown overboard on the day he becomes 21 and is freed from his indentureship to become a full-fledged pirate.
But Frederick refuses. See, his nursery maid, Ruth (Angela Lansbury), had mistakenly set him up to be a pirate instead of a pilot. Consequently, he abhors piracy, and when he vows to take his former comrads down, he and Ruth are cast ashore.
Frederick encounters and falls in love with Mabel (Linda Ronstadt) one of Maj. Gen. Stanley's (George Rose) eight beautiful daughters, but the pirates return and capture the girls, releasing them when the general plays his "I am an orphan" card, knowing many of the pirates also are orphans. It works, for pirates won't attack a fellow orphan.
To help him get rid of the pirates, Frederick hires the local police an operatic version of the Keystone Kops – cowardly, clumsy and comical – who are led by the rubber-jointed and fearful Sergeant (Tony Azito).
Unfortunately, due to a consistent occurrence in the calendar, Frederick learns that his indenture is still in effect. See, he is bound until his 21st birthday, but he was born on ... well, you either know or can figure it out, right?
The songs are mightily manly and lusty, or femininely frilly and romantic. My favorites:
· I am the very model of a modern Major-General (the Major-General and chorus) – "I understand equations, both simple and quadratical, about binomial theorem, I'm teeming with a lot o' news – with many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse."
· When the foeman bares his steel (Mabel, the Sergeant, and the chorus of policemen and the girls) – "We go! We go! Tarantarah, tarantarah!"
· When you had left our pirate fold (A paradox) (Ruth, Frederic, and the Pirate King) – "it doesn't matter, matter, matter, matter, matter, matter, MATTER!"
· With cat-like tread, upon our prey we steal (Chorus of pirates and police, sung to the tune of "Hail, hail, the gang's all here") – "Come, friends who plough the sea! Truce to navigation, take another station! Let's vary piracy, With a little burglary!"
Quite a few lines of dialogue and song lyrics were changed for the movie, else they prove incomprehensible to American audiences. There is a running gag involving the words "orphan" and "often," which are often (not orphan) confused with each other.
The dialogue in opera is often (not orphan) difficult to understand and follow; therefore, I recommend that should you watch this on DVD, you turn on the subtitles. It'll help you understand the train of dialogue and lyrics better.
The Pirates of Penzance was a box office flop, garnering revenues of less than $700,000 against its budget of $16 million, the result of a theater owners' boycott. The studio – Universal Studios – had released it simultaneously to a Los Angeles subscription service.
John Travolta lost out to Kevin Kline for the role of The Pirate King.