The film's failure at the box office had nothing to do with the reviews, which were often quite positive. The real problem lay with Universal's decision to release the film simultaneously to SelectTV and to theaters. Theater owners were so angry that they boycotted the film; in the end, a grand total of 92 theaters agreed to show it, and it enjoyed a long run at only one of them (in Washington, DC, where it became a cult success and played several weeks).
Star Kevin Kline won the 1981 Tony Award (New York City) for Best Actor in a Musical for "The Pirates of Penzance" Broadway 1981-1982 production and recreated his role in this cinema movie. It was Kline's second Tony Award after having won one for "On the Twentieth Century". Kline also starred in the precursor New York Central Park stage production and that park production's subsequent made-for-television filmed tele-feature The Pirates of Penzance (1980).
In Act II, there is an extra song ("My Eyes Are Fully Open") that is not originally from "The Pirates of Penzance." It's a modified version of a song from W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's "Ruddigore". The inclusion of this song required Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury, and Rex Smith to sing one of most dizzyingly rapid songs in the entire Gilbert and Sullivan catalog.
The source Broadway stage production of "The Pirates of Penzance" by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan opened at the Uris Theater in New York on 8th January 1981 until it closed there on 8th of August 1981. The production then moved to the Minskoff Theatre where it opened the day next day on 9th August 1981 and played there until the production closed on 28th November 1982. At the two venues combined the production ran for a total of 787 performances.
Estelle Parsons was the only member of the principal cast of the 1982 Broadway production (Kline, Smith, Rondstadt, Azito, Rose, Parsons) not to appear in the film. She was replaced with Angela Lansbury for Ruth.
Sir Arthur Sullivan's original orchestrations, nearly always used in stage revivals of all of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas, as well as in the 1939 and 1967 film versions of "The Mikado", were completely discarded and rewritten for the 1982 revival of "The Pirates of Penzance" and this film version of it.
The music used in this film written for the recitative dialogue between Mabel Stanley (Linda Ronstadt) and the Sergeant of the Police (Tony Azito), with single note responses from his cadre of policemen, does not appear in the original piano-vocal score of "The Pirates of Penzance" comic opera. Nor is it indicated to be sung in the most common copies of the script save for the policemen's monosyllabic responses, and can only be found in the handwritten manuscript reproduction of the conductor's full orchestral and vocal score.
This filmed production The Pirates of Penzance (1983) was shown on a Los Angeles television movies channel, "SelecTV ", simultaneously with its theatrical release. Apparently, this was only the second time that something like this had been tried. In 1956, Laurence Olivier's 1955 film version of William Shakespeare's Richard III (1955) had its U.S. theatrical premiere in New York City and a parallel television premiere of Richard III (1955) on the NBC network both debuting on the same day on 11th March 1956. The film Richard III (1955) had previously world premiered in London on 13th December 1955. Like "The Pirates of Penzance", "Richard III" was also a box office flop, but unlike the former film, "Richard III" won universal acclaim from the critics, became a film classic, and was not boycotted during its theatrical run.
Linda Ronstadt was a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan's "HMS Pinafore", but didn't even know of the existence of "Pirates of Penzance" until the role of Mabel was offered to her. She previously performed the part for US $400 per week on the stage.
The film's source Broadway stage production was actually preceded by a 1980 Joseph Papp production of "Pirates of Penzance" which was part of a "Shakespeare in the Park" series of free plays in New York City's Central Park which had the same cast of principals as the movie and the Broadway stage production (except for Ruth).
Show-business trade paper 'Variety' reported that "with the exception of Angela Lansbury . . . all other principal cast members have repeated their Broadway performances here". Moreover, 'Allmovie' states that this cinema movie "features Angela Lansbury as Ruth (the sole major casting change from the Broadway production - Estelle Parsons played the role on stage)."
The part of Ruth played by Angela Lansbury was played on stage in the Broadway theatre production by actress Estelle Parsons who was the only lead cast member who didn't reprise her role in this movie version. In the 1980 television version of the New York Stage production, the character of Ruth was portrayed by Patricia Routledge.
A number of the cast and crew from the New York stage production, who worked on this cinema movie adaptation, also previously worked on a made-for-television version, The Pirates of Penzance (1980). This was taped live at the Delacorte Theater, in New York's Central Park, during the Summer of 1980. The tele-film production was first broadcast about three years earlier before this cinema movie in 1980. It was co-directed by Joshua White and the 1983 cinema movie version's director Wilford Leach. Common lead major cast that appeared in both the cinema and television movie versions included Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, Tony Azito, and George Rose.
The film's source stage production, according to the IBDb (Internet Broadway Database), gives the following details: "Category: Musical, Operetta, Revival, Broadway" ; "Description: A comic operetta in two acts" ; and "Setting: A rocky seashore on the coast of Cornwall. A ruined chapel by moonlight".
Of the "Pirates of Penzance" parody The Pirate Movie (1982), the 'A Gilbert and Sullivan Discography' said: "This send-up of 'The Pirates of Penzance' was clearly inspired by the success of Papp's Pirates on Broadway", the latter which was the precursor stage production to this The Pirates of Penzance (1983) picture.
The source musical revival Broadway stage production of "The Pirates of Penzance" in 1981 received 7 Tony Award nominations including Best Choreography and four noms for acting: George Rose (Best Actor in a Musical), Tony Azito (Best Featured Actor in a Musical), Kevin Kline (Best Actor in a Musical), and Linda Ronstadt (Best Actress in a Musical). The production in the end won 2 Tony Awards, for Best Direction of a Musical for Wilford Leach, who also directed this movie version, and Best Reproduction (Play or Musical) for producer Joseph Papp, noting that this production was originally produced by The New York Shakespeare Festival. Rose, Azito, Kline, and Rondstadt all also appeared in this theatrical feature film version.
Joseph Papp's Broadway revival of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta 'The Pirates Of Penzance' was an enormous success in 1981. When Universal Pictures announced plans to faithfully adapt the show as a film utilizing the Broadway cast, 20th Century Fox hurriedly pushed their send-up The Pirate Movie (1982) that they had been developing into production in a successful attempt to beat Universal to the screen. Fox's The Pirate Movie (1982) was theatrically issued about six months before Universal's The Pirates of Penzance (1983) was first released. Both films were considered theatrical flops but each went on to garner loyal cult followings due to heavy exposure on television and home video.
Debut theatrical feature film of actress Linda Ronstadt. This filmed production remains her first, final, and only ever performance in a live action cinema movie apart from voicing uncredited The Balladeer in An American Tail (1986). Ronstadt though did earlier play the same character of Mabel Stanley in the precursor made for tele-movie feature version The Pirates of Penzance (1980) which was her feature film debut in either medium of film and television.
This cinema movie version of the "Pirates of Penzance" by Gilbert and Sullivan [W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan] was actually the fourth incarnation of its precursor stage production. This version of the classic 1880 comic opera was first was staged in New York's Central Park in 1980 before being filmed as a tele-feature, The Pirates of Penzance (1980), and then produced on Broadway during the years1981-1982, and then was made as this cinema movie The Pirates of Penzance (1983).
This theatrical feature film's precursor source stage production of "Pirates of Penzance" produced in New York's Cental Park in 1980 was veteran English actor George Rose's first ever part in a Gilbert & Sullivan [W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan] opera.
The movie's cast features two pop singers: Rex Smith and Linda Ronstadt. The pair also appeared in the film's precursor New York Central Park production, the park's filmed version The Pirates of Penzance (1980), and in both these production's subsequent Broadway stage musical.
This film was made and released about 103 years after its source Gilbert & Sullivan [W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan] comic opera musical "The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty" had been first performed in 1880. This movie was made and released about three years after its precursor tele-film version The Pirates of Penzance (1980). Both of these filmed productions had as their source the 1980 New York Central park production with this cinema movie version also being a filmed adaptation of the later 1981-1982 Broadway production, itself an adaptation of the 1980 park production. The 1980 made-for-television filmed version The Pirates of Penzance (1980) was taped live at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park, and actually debuted, like the 1980 park stage production season, in the actual Centenary year of the famed Gilbert and Sullivan [W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan] comic opera.
Director Wilford Leach with this cinema movie knew what kind of picture he wanted to make. Leach wanted to create an "illusion of reality" which actually was "reality askew". Leach, who also penned the screenplay for this theatrical feature film, according to the January-February 1983 edition of 'Coming Attractions' magazine, "tried to delineate a colorful and comic world that is always true to its own logic."
Wilford Leach, this movie's director and principal director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, said of the precursor Central Park in New York stage production whilst doing press for this cinema movie: "We must keep to the simplicity and directness of the original [Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera]. A kind of waywardness, roughness, energy, tenderness and purity are required, rather than chic, self-consciousness or cuteness".
This cinema movie's director, Wilford Leach, once said of this theatrical feature film: "This might be a silent film comedy that suddenly bursts into song. Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Jacques Tati, and Lillian Gish would all be at home here. This is a world without cynicism. There's no one in it we would not like to have to dinner."
Second consecutive filmed "Pirates of Penzance" production for director Wilford Leach whose previous directing film and television credit had been for the TV tele-feature version of the 1980 New York Central Park stage production of the comic opera [See: The Pirates of Penzance (1980).
The only ever Broadway stage production that Linda Ronstadt saw prior to performing in "The Pirates of Penzance' on stage between 1980 and 1983 was Peter Shaffer''s "Equus" which like "The Pirates of Penzance" has also been filmed [See: Equus (1977)].