It is no exaggeration to describe Pickwick as the first great Charles Dickens musical, though in its own day it was categorised as an operetta (and, for the scholarly minded, was officially titled a ‘dramatic cantata,’ following the Gilbert and Sullivan Trial by Jury). Musical versions of Dickens’s stories before Pickwick were little more than disjointed spoken plays with a handful of largely incidental songs. Pickwick, by contrast, was essentially conceived in sung music from start to finish, the most celebrated incident in Pickwick Papers, the hilarious misunderstanding between Mr Pickwick and Mrs Bardell, elaborated in a series of sparkling songs and duets. Pickwick was premiered at the Comedy Theatre, London, on 7 February 1889, where it ran for several weeks, getting excellent reviews. It boasted a superb cast, with Arthur Cecil as Pickwick, Lottie Venne as Mrs Bardell and Rutland Barrington as the Baker. Barrington later recalled that Pickwick ‘used to go splendidly’ and that Solomon was ‘absolutely brimming over with melodies that caught the ear at once.’ But the Baker? Who was he? There is a clue in Pickwick Papers, but you’ll have to listen to the operetta to discover the full extent of his ‘roll’ in the fateful misunderstanding!
It is doubtful whether any Dickensian musical theatre work has ever been created with more practical experience of the stage: by 1889, Burnand had written some ninety theatrical works, while Solomon had composed over twenty theatrical scores. Burnand claimed, with good reason, to be the father of the English operetta. He collaborated with Arthur Sullivan several years before W. S. Gilbert did, writing the text of Cox and Box (1866) for him. Solomon, for his part, was regularly compared with Sullivan, so the Burnand and Solomon partnership, which also produced several other works, can be legitimately considered a sort of alternative Gilbert and Sullivan. Pickwick, for its part, was immediately recognised as a work in the Cox and Box vein, so altogether this delightful little musical may be said to connect two of the great pillars of nineteenth-century British culture: Charles Dickens and the Savoy operettas.