The very first performance of The Pirates of Penzance was at the Royal Bijou Theatre, Paignton, on December 30, 1879. This, however, was produced for copyright purposes. On the next night, at the New Fifth Avenue Theater in New York City, the primary production of The Pirates of Penzance opened, with the subtitle "Love and Duty." After some revision, the show was given in London at the Opéra Comique Theatre on April 3, 1879, with the subtitle "The Slave of Duty." This production ran for 363 nights.
Pirated productions of H.M.S. Pinafore had prompted producer Richard D'Oyly Carte to bring the British version of the operetta to New York. In addition, Carte, Gilbert, and Sullivan were contracted to provide a new operetta for the New Fifth Avenue Theater. This would become The Pirates of Penzance. When the receipts for the Pinafore run began to dwindle, Gilbert and Sullivan, now in New York, were asked to rush ahead with the new work, and secret rehearsals began, with the score kept in a safe to discourage pirates. Gilbert suggested lifting "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain" from the team's earlier Thespis to use for the entrance of General Stanley's daughters (No. 5). Sullivan composed the overture the night before the premiere, Gilbert, Alfred Cellier and Frederic Clay helping write out the orchestra parts.
To obtain British copyright, Carte sent the libretto and score to Devon, England, only days before the New York premiere. His touring company gave a matinée performance in Paignton wearing their Pinafore costumes and reading their parts from scripts. Thus, Carte was able to establish copyright in both England and the United States.
Gilbert continued his practice of throwing his characters into an utterly ridiculous situation and then treating the drama with great seriousness. The Pirates of Penzance does have its comic moments, but the portrayal of the civilized Pirates themselves seems to have endeared audiences to the show. Having pledged never to harm an orphan, as they are orphans themselves, the pirates are a well mannered bunch, so much so that Major-General Stanley's daughters want to marry them only moments after they meet. The setting, on the coast of Cornwall in the late nineteenth century, creates a romantic, not-too-exotic atmosphere.
Musically, The Pirates of Penzance is a more ambitious work than its predecessor, H.M.S. Pinafore, to which it is often compared. Aspects of serious opera, which appear briefly in the earlier work, are expanded upon in The Pirates of Penzance. The duet for Frederic and Ruth in Act One, for instance, sounds conspicuously like Verdi, and Mabel's soaring entrance aria is drawn from a Gounod waltz. Sullivan employs a substantial double chorus in the impressive "When the Foeman bares His Steel." Sullivan's contrapuntal skill comes to the fore in the clever accompaniment of Mabel and Frederic's duet by the group of sisters, singing about the weather to an independent melodic line, as well as in the "Paradox" trio in Act Two. Most popular, however, are the simpler songs, especially "A Policeman's Lot Is Not a Happy One," and "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," a perfect patter song.
In 1980, a New York revival of The Pirates of Penzance, starring Linda Ronstadt as Mabel, Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, and Rex Smith as Frederic, met with great success. Originally given by the New York Shakespeare Festival during the summer, the production moved to the Uris on Broadway on January 8, 1981, becoming the most lucrative production of a Gilbert and Sullivan work ever undertaken. A film version followed the next year.