October 26, 2014

My theory about Buttercup's aria in "Pinafore"

The first principal character to sing a solo in H.M.S. Pinafore is Mrs. Cripps, the robust vendor known to the crew as "Little Buttercup". She launches into a coy introductory song in which she seems unduly concerned that we completely internalize this nickname:
Vintage "Pinafore" poster

I'm called Little Buttercup,
Dear Little Buttercup,
Though I could never tell why.
But still I'm called Buttercup,
Poor Little Buttercup,
Sweet Little Buttercup I.

She goes on to provide an inventory of her various wares. There is a subtle irony in the girlish simplicity of the number, as the coyness and girlishness is in overt contrast to her (traditionally) matronly appearance.

But I think there is another element factoring in to account for Sullivan's musical choices here.

In the series of lifelong learning classes on this operetta I've been teaching for the past several weeks, I used a DVD of a live performance done years ago by an Australian company. It's a fairly conventional staging, both musically and dramatically, with one glaring exception: the artist playing Buttercup. Rather than a Savoyard-style contralto of classical timbre, this Buttercup mugged, belted and (at times) yelled like Carol Burnett doing her Tarzan impression. In short, she went for laughs. Over the top? Oh, yes.

For W.S. Gilbert, this style of comedy was anathema; he bullied all his comedians into trusting the material and "playing it straight", If he was observing this performance from the viewing lounge in Theater Heaven, he must have buried his face in his hands and cursed.
Stephen Collins Foster

So why did this production team cast it in this way? Why make that choice?

I have a theory.

Listen, I am second to none in my admiration for Sir Arthur Sullivan's genius in the sphere of light comedic opera. Not every musician can strike just the right tone in every situation with the grace, skill and melodic facility of Sullivan.

That said, the melodic material in Buttercup's aria is..... how can I say this and not make you G&S fans upset with me? - a bit banal. A bit basic, really. Neither rollicking like Sir Joseph's entrance aria nor toe-tapping like the Act 2 trio nor convincingly impassioned as in Josephine's solos.

Here  click here and listen for yourself in a traditional performance. Musically, it's pleasant but not especially memorable. I'm inferring that the Australian team decided the number posed the threat of a "dead spot" right at the top of the show and, therefore, in need of over-the-top "punching up" to keep the energy flowing.

This begs another question: when Sullivan was clearly able to manufacture lively, entertaining tunes like Ford manufactures pick-up trucks, why did HE make the choice of such a tame vocal line and undistinguished chord progressions?

I have another theory.

I suspect it was, as much as anything, a business decision. A choice calculated to augment the revenue stream. Of course, in light of the historic success of Pinafore, they were really creating more of a flood than a stream, but then every shilling helps, right?

Think of it this way: if you love a current Broadway musical like The Book of Mormon or Hedgewick and the Angry Inch, you have more ways to consume the music than buying a ticket to see it at the theater. You download it into your iPod, you electronic wizard you, and listen to it while you sweat on a treadmill. And commerce happens; money is paid and made.

Now jump back a few decades to what many consider the heyday of American musical theater with composers like Richard Rogers and Frank Loesser. They, too, were anxious for a healthy portion of their music to achieve popularity outside of the theater. No iPods, but there were 45 RPM records and, even more importantly, RADIO.

Much of the Broadway music of the 40's and 50's was written in a deliberately popular style, to be in sync with the kind of music Tommy Dorsey or Bing Crosby were purveying on the airwaves. There's a great example in Loesser's masterpiece Guys and Dolls in Sister Sarah's ballad of tipsy flirtation "If I were a bell". Click here to hear the recording from the original Broadway cast.

This song proved such a hit that it was recorded in various pop/jazz arrangements, including this notable version by the great Ella Fitzgerald. Radio stations plugged it, records were sold, money was made. Et voila.

Now jump back to 1878 in London. Gilbert and Sullivan, I believe were just as attuned to the market of home entertainment as a revenue source as any 20th-century composers. But what was home entertainment in the mid-19th century?

Sheet music. Parlor music. The same market for which Stephen Collins Foster wrote his great songbook of American songs, robbed of profits though he was by unscrupulous publishers.

The music of Buttercup's aria is of a level suitable for young girls in their formative years to play without much difficulty on the family spinet while Uncle Leroy, Aunt Agatha, Father, Mother and even little Junior gather around and bellow along: "I've snuff and tobaccy and excellent jackey" and so on. Good, innocent fun, and another valuable skill for young 13-year-old Mary Margaret to display, keyboard-wise, to go along with needle-work, pie-baking and the other proofs of her potential to be a good catch for some lucky man.

This video depicts exactly what I'm talking about: a nice teen-aged girl playing Buttercup's repetitive, not-too-challenging melody at a piano. Think that sheet music she's reading from came free? Don't think so. Music was purchased; money was made.

Now, compare that last video with this recording of Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" played on a period instrumet. The simplicity of keyboard texturer and tune is similar in both pieces.

And, I'm certain, at least partly for the same reason. Revenue for the creators.


  1. Most interesting. I am sure you must also know that Sullivan wrote Buttercup's number to confound the barrel organs that were playing popular tunes at the time. Something to do with the key and the amount of notes used I believe. More than that I cannot tell you!

  2. I'm looking for a few bugs in my post. But I think I should have someone look and point out it.