Music: Arthur Sullivan
Lyrics & Book: W.S. Gilbert
The idea for The Mikado first sprang into W.S. Gilbert’s mind when an old Japanese sword, which had been hanging on the wall of his study for years, suddenly fell from its place. Gilbert took this as an omen and determined to leave his own country alone for a while and turn his biting satire instead towards the East. He did not have to look far to research the subject of his new play. He found all the material he wanted in Knightsbridge, a little village of Japanese immigrants within a mile of his own home in South Kensington. Here, he witnessed the strange arts, devices and lifestyles of this proud race.
The story of The Mikado revolves around a young fellow named Nanki-Poo who has banished himself from the little town of Titipu. Nanki-Poo, it seems, has fallen in love with a beautiful young lady called Yum-Yum. Unfortunately, Yum-Yum is engaged to be married to her guardian, the tailor Ko-Ko. However, when Nanki-Poo hears that Ko-Ko has been condemned to death for the capital crime of flirting, he hastily returns to Titipu, only to learn that Ko-Ko has not only been granted a reprieve, but has been promoted to the post of Lord High Executioner. Apparently, those in power, wishing to slow down the rash of executions, reason that since Ko-Ko was next in line for execution, he can’t cut off anyone else’s head until he cuts off his own! The Mikado, however, soon takes notice of the lack of executions in Titipu and decrees that if no executions take place within the time of one month, the city shall be reduced to the status of a village. Ko-Ko, desperate to avoid cutting off his own head, vows to find a substitute, and as luck would have it, just at that moment, Nanki-Poo wanders onto the stage with a rope determined to take his own life rather than live life without his beloved Yum-Yum. Ko-Ko immediately siezes on this opportunity and offers the young lad one month of luxurious living at the end of which he would be relatively painlessly decapitated. Nanki-Poo agrees on the condition that he be married to Yum-Yum right away so that he can spend his last month in wedded bliss. But just as the wedding celebration begins, a law is discovered, much to Yum-Yum’s distress, which decrees that a condemned man’s wife must be buried alive with his corpse!
The Mikado was originally staged at the Savoy Theatre in London on March 14, 1885 with Mr. R. Temple as the Mikado, Durward Lely as Nanki-Poo, George Grossmith as Ko-Ko, Rutland Barrington as Pooh-Bah and Leonora Braham as Yum-Yum. The official New York premiere took place on August 19, 1885 at the Fifth Avenue Theatre with a cast that included George Thorne (Ko-Ko), Fred Federici (Mikado), Geraldine Ulmar (Yum-Yum), Courtice Pounds (Nanki-Poo), Fred Billington (Pooh-Bah) and Elsie Cameron (Katisha). A Broadway revival was staged in 1927 at the Royale Theatre with Fred Wright as Ko-Ko, and another revival was staged in 1987 at the Virginia Theatre with Eric Donkin, Marie Baron, John Keane and Arlene Meadows.
The 1938 film version features Martyn Green as Ko-Ko, Jean Colin as Yum-Yum, and Kenny Baker as Nanki-Poo. The 1969 film version features John Reed as Ko-Ko and Valerie Masterton as Yum-Yum. The 1998 film version features Eric Donkin and Gidon Saks.