If you don't know anything about The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert & Sullivan and are hesitant to watch it because of the "classic" and "operetta" labeling, please let me clarify a few things. First of all, The Pirates is not your typical opera--a traditional opera consists of singing and recitatives (G&S call them 'chants' in the Pirates libretto). This operetta is more like a hybrid of an opera and a singspiel, which is more audience-friendly and has singing and regular dialogs as you find in The Magic Flute. And the movie version of the Pirates has a lot of Broadway flavor to it. Better still, since the Pirates libretto is in English, you can easily follow the story without the subtitles. And if you think this is only an old, stuffy story penned by a couple of prim and proper Brits in the late 19th century, you are sadly--or, in this case, hilariously--mistaken.
The Pirates has some of the zaniest characters who keep you howling with laughter. These pirates are too tenderhearted to prey on the weak and get maudlin when they meet an orphan, real or alleged. The Major-General tells you he knows so much about almost everything imaginable, and yet, he's generally clueless as to his surroundings. The policemen are a bunch of scaredy cats, or a pride of cowardly lions, who may faint with fright if you say "boo!" Yes, the entire premise is absurd, but the Joseph Papp production takes this absurdity to a higher level.
Pirate King a la Joseph Papp looks great on the outside: tall, dark and handsome with a rakish mustache; agile and athletic. Too bad that he has the attention span and dexterity of a hyperactive preschooler. You don't want to let him loose with a pair of scissors, let alone with a sword. Pretty Mabel is in love with young Frederick--and her own voice. Once she starts singing, even Frederick, an apprentice pirate, becomes a second fiddle. The cops may lack in courage and confidence facing criminals, but they sure can dance up a storm and rival Ziegfeld girls. And, in the With Cat-like Tread number, the producer hammers the glaring (in the Pirates, nothing is subtle) discrepancy between the libretto and the music with the sound of a cannon at the end, in the 1812 overture fashion.
Yes, I get a real kick out of watching this movie. So, you may ask why I give it only 7.5 out of 10. One of the reasons is that someone in the production decided to pare down some of the songs. Let's see, they took out some parts of I Am The Very Model of A Modern Major General, Oh Men of Dark and Dismal Fate (Orphan Boy song), Paradox song, to name a few. A short chorus by the pirates, We Triumph Now, is totally eliminated. Pray Observe the Magnanimity, which is the last chorus of Act I, is moved up and out of place, and the last scene with Ruth (Frederick's former nursery maid) at the end of Act I is gone. Hello? The Pirates is an operetta. Feel free to add more songs and scenes (which they did), but please don't take out the songs that are in the original libretto. Another reason for demerit is that the movie lacks spontaneity and raw energy of a live performance. Stage veterans like George Rose (Major General), Kevin Kline (Pirate King), Tony Azito (Police Sergeant) feed on the audience's laughter, and their characters truly come alive on-stage.
Some people don't like the recording of the live performance (also produced by Joseph Papp) at Delacorte Theater in New York on DVD, and I can see why. The sound quality is uneven, the camera work is erratic. There are many what-were-they-thinking moments--like a shot of George Rose, where he sings his solo number and you see the dancing feet (and the feet only) of the policemen in the background. But the problem of the DVD version is purely technical, in the audio/visual department. As far as the acting goes, it is exhilarating and dazzling. If you have seen the movie and know it forward and backward but haven't seen this live performance, you don't know what you're missing. Compared to the boisterous rendition of With Cat-like Tread on-stage, the same scene in the movie looks well-choreographed but flat. The DVD version is faithful to the original script almost to a T--it has all the songs G&S wrote for the Pirates and some extra ones (which you also find in the movie).
In my opinion, the movie and the theater versions of the Pirates are companion pieces; one makes up for the other's deficiencies. But, if you haven't seen either one, I recommend the movie first because of the aforementioned problems of the DVD. Think of it as a starter kit. If you like the movie, I guarantee you, you're gonna LOVE the theater version.