A historic play made the transition to the big screen but didn’t attract the same audience with the film version of The Pirates of Penzance.
Written and created by noted Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert was first staged on December 31, 1879, and became a successful addition to the catalogue of the two musical dramatists.
In 1981, Broadway producer Joe Papp remounted the play, winning a Tony Award for Best Revival, leading to the creation of the film. Produced by Papp, the film version was written and directed by Wilford Leach.
With Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury, Linda Ronstadt, George Rose and Rex Smith, the Broadway cast was used for the movie (except Lansbury who replaced Estelle Parsons). Filmed at Shepperton Studios in London, the secondary and minor characters were done by British actors.
Following the same story as the play, Smith is young Frederic, now 21 and wanting to explore the world and fall in love instead of wanting to be the next Pirate King, played by Kline.
His nursemaid Ruth (Lansbury) allows him to explore, while Mabel (Ronstadt) becomes his temptation as Frederic realizes he is still a pirate because of his leap year birthday and stages a battle against the pirates with the Major-General (Rose). The film included all the musical numbers of the play.
Will the pirates win or lose? Will Frederic be able to be with Mabel and not be a pirate? In the end, the film version didn’t attract the audiences like the play, because of a dispute between studio and theatre owners.
Released in February 1983, Universal Studios simultaneously released the film musical in theatres and on their new TV services SelecTV and OnTV. Because of this, movie theatre owners boycotted showing screenings of the film, which led to very few people seeing the movie.
Although paired with fairly positive reviews from critics, the lack of screens showing the film led this popular musical to become a box office bomb. The musical film was quickly released to VHS in spring 1984.