A century ago, lyricist William Schwenck Gilbert and composer Arthur Seymour Sullivan met and formed a legendary partnership, out of which some of the world’s best-known and -loved musical theater was created. Including such perennial favorites as H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado, the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan have endured and increased in popularity to this day. Now renowned author and long-time G&S fan Isaac Asimov brings his masterful wit and understanding to a complete annotation of these classic works.

Lucid, authoritative, and thoroughly entertaining, ASIMOV’S ANNOTATED GILBERT & SULLIVAN offers a fresh and illuminating interpretation of the artists’ fourteen famous operettas. Here, Dr. Asimov skillfully guides the reader through every word, reference, and innuendo that needs clarification. With enthusiasm and insight, he identifies all the major characters, describes specific settings, and brings to light pertinent background information, such as when and where each play opened, how it was received by critics and audiences at the time, how its title was derived, and more.

Like Asimov’s Annotated Don Juan, Asimov’s Annotated Paradise Lost, and Familiar Poems, Annotated, this meticulously detailed volume provides a wealth of information essential for a full appreciation of these timeless works. Beautifully illustrated and written in the good doctor’s inimitable style, ASIMOV’S ANNOTATED GILBERT & SULLIVAN at last makes the endearing charm of the world’s favorite operettas accessible to armchair music lovers and seasoned theater afionados alike.

I must confess that this book is a disappointment. My impression of it improved somewhat on rereading, but it’s still disappointing.

I came to it prepared to adore it. Unlike Asimov’s earlier annotations, Asimov’s Annotated ‘Don Juan’, Asimov’s Annotated ‘Paradise Lost’, Familiar Poems, Annotated, and even The Annotated® ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, I love every word here being annotated. Even worse, that’s Asimov’s fault. He’s the one who turned me on to Gilbert and Sullivan in the first place, what with stories like ”The Up-to-Date Sorcerer,” and the poetic parodies like "The Foundation of SF Success". So Asimov talking about Gilbert and Sullivan should have been doubly wonderful.

But it isn’t. The problem is that Asimov shifted his goal. In his previous annotations, as in Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare and Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, he was trying to explain background material the general user might lack but which is really needed to know what’s going on. Here he’s just indulging himself.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the result is that he isn’t as thorough (for one thing) as he should be, and fails to annotated an awful lot that he should by rights have annotated. That’s a quibble. And he talks about his own reactions to the plays—but not very much the music, strangley—which is another. (Of course, Asimov was a writer, not a musician or composer, so his response to Gilbert will be more visceral, and it's hard to talk about music you’re not listening to.)

There remain two major problems, however, with Asimov’s writing here.

One is that he whines. One of the songs in Ruddigore is particularly salted with nautical terms (Gilbert indulging himself, in this case). Asimov dreaded annotating it. It would be tough. He tells us early in the book. Any time a song comes up needing a lot of annotating, he warns us something worse is coming. It’s most unpleasant.

The other is that he points out innumerable places where Gilbert stretches a word to force a rhyme or distorts grammar or uses any of his tricks to distort the language. Personally, I find that one of Gilbert’s charms. Asimov pointing it out over and over, alas, comes across as rather the picking of nits—as if I’m justified in lodging a complaint like that.

This book is also more elaborately produced by Doubleday than any annotation since Asimov’s Annotated ‘Don Juan’, so the resulting $50 price tag (ouch!) really gave one pause. And yet Gilbert’s own Bab drawings are left out.

So I really can’t recommend this heartily. The Savoyard who wants background material on the plays can get it better elsewhere—I’d particularly recommend Martyn Green’s annotations—and the Asimov fan who wants to know about the Good Doctor’s own Savoyardism is better off just reading his autobiographies.

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