Estelle Liebling blasts a high note as she and Meredith Willson, Sousa Band alumni, are interviewed on radio. Catherine Sheldon, Todd Schurk, Michael Morris photo: Ken Malucelli
John Philip Sousa, hailed by Claude Debussy as “the King of American music,” heads up the parade once again. "Oh Mr. Sousa!", Ken Malucelli’s 24-number musical biography of the composer of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and 135 other popular marches will debut at Freight & Salvage Sunday before touring other Bay Area venues.
Originally created by Malucelli for Sousa’s 150th birthday last year, "Oh Mr. Sousa!" employs 9 actors to play 37 roles, including Eastenders’ Peter Matthews and John Hutchinson as the younger and elder Sousa, with opera singer Cheryl Blalock as his wife Jennie. The musical frames the famous songs composed during Sousa’s long and prolific career.
Born in 1854 “in the shadow of the Capitol dome” in Washington D. C., 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 penning 7 books and 138 articles. Sousa co-founded ASCAP, and was sole composer of all the numbers in the first Columbia Records catalogue.
“He wanted to be the American Gilbert & Sullivan, but he could never find a good lyricist,” Malucelli said. “One conceit I allow myself is taking a patter song he wrote for his comic opera Desiree and substituting Gilbert’s lyrics from the "Matter, matter, matter" trio in Ruddigore -- Gilbert & Sousa! ... still ‘G & S’!”
Sousa was a big international star at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Malucelli said that 40,000 people once crowded into a pavilion that seated 2,500 to hear him conduct, 60,000 saw him in New York and 153,000 at the Glasgow Exhibition. He introduced ragtime music to Europe in 1901, though he had a mixed opinion of it, saying, “There’s good jazz and bad jazz, but most of it would scare your grandmother to death!” He helped popularize Scott Joplin and the other great Ragtime composers.
“The Stars and Stripes Forever” was declared America’s National March in 1987, and is also the title of the 1952 feature film, with 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.
“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,” Malucelli said. “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. I got a call from Bo Jones, publisher of The Washington Post, wishing us good luck with the show. In the Post's lobby is a bust of Sousa with the sheet music for ‘The Washigton Post’ march, which he wrote in three days to publicize a school essay contest sponsored by the paper. That’s a vignette in Act I, with Sousa declaring, ‘It’ll make a man with a wooden leg get up and dance!’” The march started an international dance craze and spread the name and fame of the newspaper worldwide.
The Bay Area tour, with four-hand piano accompaniment, will culminate in
a birthday tribute on November 6 at the Napa Opera House, where Sousa played
in 1905. This performance will feature a 22-piece concert band.