The Savoy operas heavily influenced the course of the development of modern musical theatre. They have also influenced political style and discourse, literature, film and television and advertising, and have been widely parodied by humorists. Because they are well-known, and convey a distinct sense of Britishness (or even Victorian Britishness), and because they are in the public domain, songs from the operas appear "in the background" in many movies and television shows.
The operas have so pervaded Western culture that events from the "lives" of their characters from the operas are memorialized by major news outlets. For instance, a New York Times article on 29 February 1940, noted that Frederic, from The Pirates of Penzance, was finally out of his indentures (having reached his 21st birthday, as described in that opera).
Noel Coward wrote:
According to theatre historian John Kenrick, Pinafore, in particular, "became an international sensation, reshaping the commercial theater in both England and the United States. Adaptations of Pinafore and Mikado have played on Broadway and the West End including The Hot Mikado (1939), George S. Kaufman's 1945 Hollywood Pinafore and, more recently, Pinafore Swing, first produced at the Watermill Theatre in 2004, in which the actors serve as the orchestra, playing the musical instruments. Many other musicals parody or pastiche Pinafore.
However, according to Gilbert and Sullivan expert and enthusiast Ian Bradley:
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, a lifelong fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, quoted lyrics from the operas in law cases, parodied the lyrics in his writings at the Court, and added gold stripes to his judicial robes after seeing them used by the Lord Chancellor in a production of Iolanthe. The Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, on the other side of the Atlantic, objected so strongly to Iolanthe's comic portrayal of Lord Chancellors (like himself) that he supported moves to disband the office. British politicians, beyond quoting some of the more famous lines, have also delivered speeches in the form of Gilbert and Sullivan parodies. These include Conservative Peter Lilley's pastiche of "I've got a little list" from The Mikado, listing those he was against, including "sponging socialists" and "young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue".
Other government references include postage stamps issued to memorialize the operas and various other uses by government entities. For instance, the arms granted to the municipal borough of Penzance in 1934 contain a pirate dressed in Gilbert's original costuming, and Penzance had a rugby team called the Penzance Pirates, which is now called the Cornish Pirates.
The law, judges, and lawyers are frequently subjects in the operas (Gilbert briefly practiced as a lawyer), and the operas have been quoted and otherwise mentioned in a large number of legal rulings and opinions. Some courts appear to reach approximately the same conclusions as Gilbert and Sullivan: "Where does this extraordinary situation leave the lower... Courts and State Courts in their required effort to apply the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States...? Like the policeman in Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance," their 'lot is not a happy one.' A few refer to the law as shown in Gilbert and Sullivan as being archaic.
The pronouncements of the Lord Chancellor in "Iolanthe" appear to be a particular favourite in legal quotations. One U.S. Supreme Court case even discussed a contempt citation imposed on a pro se defendant who, among other conduct, compared the judge to something out of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Comedian Allan Sherman sang several parodies and pastiches of Gilbert and Sullivan songs in the 1960s:
Anna Russell performed a parody called "How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera. The Two Ronnies' Gilbert and Sullivan parodies include their 1973 Christmas special. In addition, numerous G&S song parodies and other references to G&S are made in the animated TV series, Animaniacs, such as the "HMS Yakko" episode, which includes its well-known parody of the Major-General's Song, "I Am the Very Model of a Cartoon Individual", as well as pastiches of "With Cat Like Tread" (Pirates) and "I am the Captain of the Pinafore" and "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore" (H.M.S. Pinafore) Animaniacs also presented a version of "Three Little Maids" used as an audition piece in the episode Hello Nice Warners. Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck as the Three Musketeers used music from The Pirates of Penzance and the overture to Princess Ida Major news outlets continue to refer to the operas in news commentaries and to parody songs from the operas.
Gilbert and Sullivan songs are sometimes used in popular music. The popular song, "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here," is set to the tune of "With cat-like tread" from The Pirates of Penzance (in particular, the segment that starts, "Come, friends who plough the sea." The musical group Peter, Paul and Mary included the song, "I have a song to sing, O!" from The Yeomen of the Guard on one of their children's albums, Peter, Paul and Mommy (1969). In addition, the music has been used in musicals and other entertainments. For example, the song, "My eyes are fully open," (with some changed lyrics) is used in Papp's Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance (1980-81), and the tune of the song is also used as "The Speed Test" in the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002).
In The Producers, a terrible auditioner for the musical Springtime for Hitler begins his audition with Nanki-Poo's song, "A Wand'ring Minstrel I." After only nine words, the director cuts him off abruptly, saying "THANK YOU!" In at least two episodes of Blackadder Goes Forth, parts of "A Wand'ring Minstrel I" are played. The movie poster for The Little Shop of Horrors, shown to the right, parodies the song title, "The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring," changing the word "bloom" to "kill".
References to "Three Little Maids":
References to "Tit-Willow" ("On a tree by a river"): Allan Sherman's parody is described above. In one of his appearances on The Dick Cavett Show, Groucho Marx and Cavett sang the song. Groucho interrupted at the line "...and if you remain callous and obdurate, I shall perish as he did..." to quiz the audience on the meaning of the word "obdurate". The song is featured in the 2003 TV movie And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself. An episode of Perry Como's TV show did a parody titled "Golf Widow". A Muppet Show episode featured Rowlf the Dog singing, with the refrain "Oh, willow, tit-willow, tit-willow" being spoken, under protest, by Sam the Eagle. The song is played during the film Music for Ladies in Retirement (1941)
References to the "Little List" song: Sherman also did a variant on the song, described above. In a Eureeka's Castle Christmas special called "Just Put it on the List," the twins, Bogg and Quagmire, describe what they'd like for Christmas to the tune of the song. Richard Suart and A.S.H. Smyth released a book in 2008 called They’d none of 'em be missed, with 20 years of little list parodies by Suart, the English National Opera's usual Ko-Ko.
References to "The sun whose rays": In addition to the poignant inclusion of the song near the end of Topsy-Turvy (1999; see below), the song has been heard in numerous film and TV soundtracks, including in the 2006 films The Zodiac and Brick and the UK TV series Lilies, in the 2007 episode "The Tallyman."
Songs from Pinafore are also pastiched or referenced in television episodes, including episode #3 of Animaniacs, "HMS Yakko"; "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons; Family Guy's episode 3.1 "The Thin White Line," among others; and the Leave it to Beaver episode "The Boat Builders." "For he is an Englishman" is referenced both in the title's name and throughout The West Wing episode "And It's Surely To Their Credit".
Other examples of television renditions of the song, in addition to the Animaniacs example mentioned above, include The Muppet Show (season 3, episode 61), which staged a duet of the song with guest host and commedienne Gilda Radner and a six-foot tall talking carrot. Radner was said to have requested a six-foot tall talking parrot, but was misheard. In an episode of "Home Improvement", Al Borland, thinking he was in a sound-proof booth, belts out the first stanza but is heard by everyone. Others include the Babylon 5 episode "Atonement"; the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Disaster; the episode of Frasier titled Fathers and Sons; the episode of The Simpsons entitled "Deep Space Homer"; two VeggieTales episodes: "The Wonderful World of Auto-Tainment" and "A Snoodle's Tale"; and the Married With Children episode "Peggy and the Pirates" (Season 7, Episode 18).
Parodies or pastiches of the song in television programs have included, the computer-animated series ReBoot ended its third season with a recap of the entire season, set to the song's tune. The Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip episode "The Cold Open" (2006), the cast of Studio 60 opens with a parody: "We'll be the very model of a modern network TV show...." In the Doctor Who Big Finish Productions audio, Doctor Who and the Pirates, the Doctor sings, "I am the very model of a Gallifreyan buccaneer" (and other songs, from Pirates, Pinafore and Ruddigore, are parodied). When he hosted Saturday Night Live, David Hyde Pierce's monologue was a parody of the song. In The Wild Thornberrys episode "Sir Nigel," Nigel Thornberry sings a song about the family to the tune of the song. In an episode of Pinky and The Brain, The Brain sings a typically megalomaniacal parody of the song. In Scrubs episode "My Musical" (Season 6, Episode 6), the song is parodied as Dr. Cox sings about why he hates J.D.
Other songs from Pirates that have been referenced frequently include the chorus of With cat-like tread, which begins "Come, friends, who plough the sea," which was used in the popular American song, "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here," popularized by Fred Astaire. For instance, the song is featured in Chariots of Fire (1981; discussed in more detail below). The song was also pastiched in an episode of Animaniacs in a song about surfing a whale. In the movie "An American Tail," Fievel huddles over a copy of the score to "Poor Wandering One," and as he wanders the streets of New York, the song plays in the background. The theme song of the cartoon character Popeye bears some similarity to "For I am a Pirate King". The pirate king's song is heard on the soundtrack of the 2000 film The Last of the Blonde Bombshells. "Ah, leave me not to pine alone" is featured on the soundtrack of the sentimental 1998 British film Girls' Night as well as the 1997 film Wilde. In the pilot episode of the 2008 CBS series, Flashpoint, a police officer and his partner sing the policeman's song.
P. G. Wodehouse makes dozens of references to Gilbert and Sullivan in his works. Wodehouse sometimes referred to Gilbert at length, and he based his PSmith character on Rupert D'Oyly Carte or his brother. Wodehouse also parodied G&S songs. In Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (1889), a description is given of Harris's attempts to sing a comic song: "the Judge's song out of Pinafore - no, I don't mean Pinafore - I mean - you know what I mean - the other thing, you know.", which turns out to be a mixture of "When I, good friends" from Trial by Jury and "When I was a lad" from Pinafore.
Several mysteries include a G&S theme, including Death of a Pooh-Bah by Karen Sturges; The Ghost's High Noon by John Dickson Carr, which quotes the song of the same name from Ruddigore; The Plain Old Man by Charlotte MacLeod, concerning a production of The Sorcerer; Murder and Sullivan by Sarah Hoskinson Frommer, which involves a production of Ruddigore; Ruddy Gore by Kerry Greenwood concerns murders taking place during a 1920s revival of the opera; and The West End Horror, by Nicholas Meyer, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche involving the murder of a member of the ladies' chorus in The Grand Duke. The Dalziel and Pascoe books of Reginald Hill contain many references to G&S. One of the recurring characters, Sergeant Wield is a G & S fan. In the Ruth Rendell mysteries, Chief Inspector Wexford likes to sing G&S in the shower.
Science fiction author Isaac Asimov, a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan, found inspiration for his famous Foundation Trilogy while reading Iolanthe. Asimov was fascinated by some of the paradoxes that occur in their works and mysteries surrounding their manuscripts. He wrote several stories exploring these, including one about a time-traveller who goes back in time to save the score to Thespis. Another, called "The Year of the Action" (1980), concerns whether the action of Pirates took place on March 1, 1873, or March 1, 1877. That is, did Gilbert forget, or not know, that 1900 was not a leap year? In "Runaround", a story in I, Robot, a robot, while in a state similar to drunkenness, sings snippets of "There Grew a Little Flower" (from Ruddigore), "I'm Called Little Buttercup" (from Pinafore), "When I First Put This Uniform On" (from Patience), and "The Nightmare Song" (from Iolanthe). He also wrote a short story called The Up-To-Date Sorcerer that is a parody of and homage to The Sorcerer. In addition, Asimov wrote "The Author's Ordeal" (1957), a pastiche of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song similar to the Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song from Iolanthe, depicting the agonies that Asimov went through in thinking up a new science fiction story. Another such pastiche is "The Foundation of S.F. Success" (1954). Both are included in his collection of short stories Earth Is Room Enough. Another science fiction author, Robert A. Heinlein, referred to the "Little List" song in his Hugo Award-winning novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. There, Jubal Harshaw, discovering Valentine Michael Smith's ability to make objects (including people) disappear, mulls, "I've got a little list... they'd none of them be missed."
Several film scores draw heavily on the G&S repertoire, including The Matchmaker (1958; featuring Pinafore and Mikado music), I Could Go On Singing (1963; featuring Pinafore music), The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978; the score features many excerpts from The Mikado), The Adventures of Milo and Otis (1989; using several G&S themes), The Browning Version (1994; features music from The Mikado), and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992; featuring songs from Pinafore and Pirates). In Chariots of Fire, the protagonist, Harold Abrahams, marries a woman who plays Yum-Yum in The Mikado with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Abrahams and his friends from Cambridge sing "He is an Englishman" (H.M.S. Pinafore). The soundtrack of Chariots also features "Three Little Maids from School Are We" (The Mikado), "With Catlike Tread" (Pirates), "The Soldiers of Our Queen" (Patience), and "There Lived a King" (The Gondoliers). In The Naughty Victorians, an X-rated film subtitled A Man with a Maid, the entire score is G&S music, and many musical puns are made, with the G&S music underlining the dialogue appropriately for those familiar with G&S. In The White Countess (2005), the overture to H.M.S. Pinafore is used in the soundrack.
In other films, characters sing songs from the operas. In Star Trek: Insurrection (1998), Captain Picard and Lt. Commander Worf sing lines from "A British Tar" from Pinafore to distract a malfunctioning Lt. Commander Data. In Kate and Leopold (2001), among other Pirates references, Leopold sings the "Major-General's Song," accompanying himself on the piano. In The Good Shepherd (2006), Matt Damon's character sings Little Buttercup's song falsetto in an all-male version of Pinafore at Yale University. In another Matt Damon film, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), the song "We're Called Gondolieri" is featured in the soundtrack. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the character Sallah sings Pinafore tunes, including "A British Tar". In the 2003 fantasy movie Peter Pan, the Darling family sings "When I Was A Lad". The 1969 film Age of Consent featured the song "Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes" from The Gondoliers. In the 1988 drama Permanent Record, a high school class performs Pinafore.
In a number of films, a significant part of the action is set during a G&S opera. Foul Play (1978) features an assassination attempt that culminates during a showing of The Mikado. The thwarted assassin falls into the rigging used as a backdrop for H.M.S. Pinafore. Similarly, in Walt Disney's cartoon Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers (2004), the finale occurs at the Paris Opera during a G&S performance. The score features "With cat-like tread", "The Major General's Song", "Climbing over rocky mountain", "Poor wandering one", and the overture from Princess Ida and a performance of The Pirates of Penzance that becomes the setting for the climactic battle between the Musketeers and Captain Pete.
In other films, there have simply been prominent references to one or more of the operas. For instance, in Pretty Woman, Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) covered a social gaffe by prostitute Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts), who said that the opera La Traviata was so good that she almost "peed in [her] pants" by saying that she had said that she liked it almost as much as "The Pirates of Penzance." In Making Love (1982), Michael Ontkean and Kate Jackson are a happy G&S-loving couple until he leaves her for another man (Harry Hamlin).
The following television examples of references to some of the best-known G&S operas include:
The operas are also referred to in video games. For example, in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a casino is called "Pirates in Men’s Pants", a crude play on Pirates of Penzance. In addition, the operas and songs from the operas have often been used in advertising. For example, Gimbels department store had a campaign sung to the tune of the Major-General's Song that began, "We are the very model of a modern big department store." Trading cards were also created, using images from some of the operas to advertise various products. There was also a series of Currier and Ives prints.
Both Nelson Eddy and Danny Kaye recorded albums of selections from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. The 1970s popular music singer Gilbert O'Sullivan adopted his stage name as a pun on 'Gilbert and Sullivan'.