Opera House presents tribute to the 'King of American music'
By L. PIERCE CARSON, Register Staff Writer
If you lived in a small town, like Napa, 100 years ago, nothing short of a presidential whistle stop could match the thrill of a concert staged by a traveling band led by march king John Philip Sousa.
In fact, a century ago, the Sousa band marched into town for a rousing performance at the Napa Valley Opera House.
On Sunday afternoon, in celebration of that long-ago concert and the birthday of Sousa -- he was born Nov. 6, 1854, in Washington, D.C., where his father played trombone in the U.S. Marine Band -- Napa Valley residents will be able to catch the world premiere of a concert band tribute to America's "march king."
Sousa, hailed by composer Claude Debussy as "the King of American music," is the focus of "Oh Mr. Sousa!," Ken Malucelli's 24-number musical biography of the composer of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" and 135 other popular marches, debuting at the Napa Valley Opera House Sunday at 3 p.m.
Premiered last year at Arizona State University's Sundome with a 70-piece college band, "Oh Mr. Sousa!" employs nine actors to play 37 roles, including Bay Area actors Peter Matthews and John Hutchinson as the younger and elder Sousa, with opera singer Cheryl Blalock as his wife, Jennie.
According to Malucelli, there have been a few regional preview performances of the work with piano accompaniment, but the Napa Valley Opera House staging with concert band marks the professional premiere as the show's creator intended. The 22-member concert band will be conducted by Sacramento's Lester Lehr.
Malucelli wrote the script and selected the variety of Sousa's music included in the program. The musical frames the best known works composed during Sousa's long and prolific career.
"About 80 percent of the musical material in the show comes from Sousa charts," Malucelli added. "In Act II, there are some ragtime songs...a medley of Scott Joplin tunes, actually. It was Sousa who introduced ragtime in France and before long it was a craze throughout Europe.
"There's a famous quote of Sousa's regarding his feelings about jazz. Someone asked him what he thought of it. He said: 'There's good jazz and bad jazz, but most of it would scare your grandmother to death.'"
Born "in the shadow of the Capitol dome" in Washington, D.C., as the nation was gearing up for a divisive Civil War, Sousa composed more than his signature marches before his death in 1932. He also wrote 16 operettas, 28 fantasies, 24 dances, 5 overtures and 70 novelty songs, besides authoring seven books. Sousa co-founded ASCAP, and was sole composer of all the numbers in the first Columbia Records catalog.
"He wanted to be the American Gilbert & Sullivan, but he never could find a good lyricist," Malucelli said.
Sousa was an international star during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Malucelli noted that 40,000 people once crowded into a pavilion that seated 2,500 to hear him conduct, 60,000 saw him at one New York performance and 153,000 turned up at the Glasgow Exhibition in Scotland.
A national treasure
"The Stars and Stripes Forever" was declared America's national march in 1987, and is also the title of the 1952 feature film -- starring Clifton Webb, Robert Wagner and Debra Paget -- that dramatizes Sousa's life.
Many of his famous marches were written by fiat as much as commissioned, says Malucelli. "President Chester A. Arthur berated Sousa playing 'Hail To The Chief' for him, when Sousa led the Marine Corps band. Sousa told him it was just an old Scottish boating song, so President Arthur told him to come up with something more patriotic. Sousa then wrote 'Semper Fidelis,' but Arthur never got a chance to hear it, as he had passed away. The march became the Marine's signature tune."
Another of Sousa's best known compositions gets its title from a newspaper in the nation's capital. Sousa wrote "The Washington Post" march in only three days after being commissioned to come up with something to publicize a school essay contest sponsored by the paper.
"There's a vignette in Act I, with Sousa declaring: 'It'll make a man with a wooden leg get up and dance!'," Malucelli said. "The march started an international dance craze and spread the name and fame of the newspaper worldwide."
Malucelli admits to having a fascination with Sousa's music since he was "a kid. It punches my buttons. I got in touch with Keith Brion, who administers the Sousa estate, and told him I wanted to put together a tribute where the band and the music would be the stars of the show. He was very supportive. He gave me biographies and other written material, along with a copy of a PBS-TV show that he did. The result is that I kind of channeled (Sousa)."
He began work on the show in 2001. "These are Sousa's words and this is his music. I felt people should know more about him -- after all he is the composer of our national march and a lot of people aren't aware of that. So you could say this is my campaign to acquaint others in this country with one of the most important musical figures of our country."
Malucelli said there is considerable interest in mounting the show in other parts of the country. "We're getting inquiries from everywhere. This show is taking on a life of its own."
Tickets for this full band, birthday tribute celebration at 3 p.m. Sunday are $25 and $30. They can be ordered at the Opera House box office by calling 226-7372 or by logging online at www.nvoh.org.