Add all ingredients to a mixing glass.
Shake with ice and strain into a coupe.
Finish with a lemon twist.
* * *
The choices were: we wait until February 29th, 2012 to run this drink, or we run it today and repost it again next year. Guess which option won? As you might expect, this one was created to celebrate a leap year – 1928 in particular – and it is one of the few drinks in the mighty Savoy Cocktail Book which is actually attributed to the author, Harry Craddock. Why celebrate Leap Year 1928? Well, given that Craddock took over the Savoy bar in 1925 and published his book in 1930, it was the only leap year he had to celebrate – so why not? In his shoes, we certainly would have done the same. In the Savoy book, the note below the recipe for the drink states that “it is said to have been responsible for more proposals than any other cocktail that has ever been mixed,” an understandable claim, as although our version packs lots of booze, it’s so light and goes down so easily — and deliciously — that two will have you agreeing to anything. Which got us thinking…
Placing leap year on hold for a moment, let’s instead begin with New Year’s Eve, 1879, a night when both February 29th and marriage play a significant role in the goings-on at New York’s Fifth Avenue Theatre. A strapping young man by the name of Frederic is celebrating his twenty-first birthday and the end of his apprenticeship to a band of pirates. His apprenticeship has been a tragic mistake, as his hard-of-hearing nursemaid believed that she was turning him over to the care of a “pilot,” but now, that is all behind him. All that remains is for Frederic to slay his comrades – after all, it’s his civic duty to thwart piracy – even though they are his closest friends in the world. Fortunately for the pirates, before the bloodshed can begin, a group of beautiful young ladies – all sisters – appear from over the rocks, and the men, especially Frederic who has never seen a woman outside of his old nursemaid, turn their thoughts from weapons to woo.
Among the flock of fine fillies, doe-eyed Frederic discovers his paramour in Mabel – only after asking all of Mabel’s sisters to marry him, of course, and suffering rejection. You’ve got to admire the boy’s persistence. Feeling it is the honorable thing to do, Frederic warns the girls of the pirates lurking nearby, but his notice comes too late – the pirates are upon them. As the pirates take the girls captive, the sisters caution that their father is an army Major-General, and he will have none of this. Soon, the Major-General makes his grand entrance and convinces the pirates to release his daughters while Frederic calls in the local police and vows to put an end to his ex-brethren once and for all.
There’s just one problem, Frederic’s nurse and the Pirate King turn up to inform him that it isn’t his twenty-first birthday – it’s his fifth, well, fifth-and-a-quarter. As it turns out, Frederic was born on February 29th – leap year day – making him just over five years old, if you go by actual birthdays, and thus still indentured to the pirates for another 63 years. Things escalate until the sergeant of the police declares that the pirates yield in the Queen’s name, which, being loyal British men, they naturally do. In fact, as luck would have it, they’re not really pirates at all but noblemen gone wrong. Of course, the Major-General is only too happy to surrender his daughters to noblemen, and everyone, including Frederic and Mabel, lives happily ever after.
Many of you caught up with the plot from the first sentence, but if the above sounds strange and quite bizarre to you, welcome to the world of Gilbert and Sullivan, emperors of the musical comedy. Definitely two of the most successful men to ever compose for the stage, W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan put together a body of work – fourteen works in twenty-five years – that define the very notion of comic opera. The plot above, of course, is from The Pirates of Penzance. Aside from the leap year bit and the enormous amount of proposing, what does any of this have to do with the Savoy Cocktail Book? Good question – we’re coming to it.
Key to the whole riddle is why G&S would debut Pirates in America, not their native London. No sooner had the curtains opened on their previous effort, H.M.S. Pinafore, than unauthorized copies were mounted all across America. In an effort to protect their copyright, the pair, along with their manager-producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte, decided to premier the first run of Pirates on Broadway – with a single makeshift staging occurring in London the day before the American debut, all in the name of copyright protection. Many musical theatre scholars have noted that the titular “pirates” refer to both those in the play and those against whom Gilbert-Sullivan-Carte were taking a stand.
Sullivan was particularly excited about the production, as indicated in a letter home to his mother: “I think it will be a great success… The music is infinitely superior in every way to Pinafore — ‘tunier’ and more developed, of a higher class altogether. I think in time it will be more popular.” And, he wasn’t wrong. Like H.M.S. Pinafore before it, Pirates was a hit. The New York Tribune claimed it “a most brilliant and complete success”. The New York Times wrote: “The performance was received with the utmost enthusiasm, and it was evident that the new piece was a success.” And, when the piece premiered in London, The Times offered: “On the first night the satisfaction of the crowded audience was boundless.”
With the double-whammy of Pinafore and Pirates, Gilbert and Sullivan were sitting at the top of the musical comedy world, but the battling of the copyright pirates was achieving very little. Carte decided on a new tactic – he would build his own theatre to house their next production, Patience, although the theatre wasn’t finished until part way through Patience’s run, mostly due to lengthy government delays (Carte had started his plans for the space several years before). Upon its opening, The Times claimed of the new opera house – the first in London to be entirely lit by electric light – “a perfect view of the stage can be had from every seat in the house.” Apparently it made a difference, as Patience became Gilbert and Sullivan’s biggest hit to date.
While a great deal of the musical duo’s success was no doubt due to their infinite talent, Carte’s efforts as a promoter were second to none. The sale of sheet music was a big source of revenue in the day. If you bought one Gilbert and Sullivan libretto, you also bought an advertisement for another. Billboards proclaiming the success of the works in America – Pinafore was being produced simultaneously at over 100 venues – were plastered about London. And when it came time to promote his new theatre, the Savoy, Carte shamelessly plugged it as the one true home of Gilbert and Sullivan, built upon a site (the long-gone Savoy Palace) dedicated to the history of England. Carte had designed the Savoy to “be appreciated by all persons of taste” and claimed it a respite from other houses, which were decorated “in a more or less garish manner”. More than anything, however, the Savoy Theatre was the house that Gilbert and Sullivan built.
If you’ve read our post on the Savoy Cocktail Book, you’ll know that it was just a handful of years later that Carte would decide to extend his empire of luxury by erecting a hotel, also the Savoy, adjacent the theatre. Without Gilbert and Sullivan, we think it safe to say that there would be no Savoy Theatre nor, in turn, a Savoy Hotel. No Savoy Hotel, of course, means no job for Harry Craddock, and no cocktail book. Indeed, this is truly a case of one unfortunate leap year – that from Pirates – begetting another delicious one.
Today’s Lagniappe (a little something extra):
So skilled were Gilbert and Sullivan that they can make the latter day work of George Lucas almost watchable:
Here’s the visual part of that same piece with some new music: