Election Section

Arts: Sousa in Song: A Musical Biography at the Freight By KEN BULLOCKSpecial to the Planet

Friday October 14, 2005

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 nine actors to play 37 roles, including Eastenders’ Peter Matthews and John Hutchinson as the younger and elder Sousa, with opera singer Sheryl Blalock as his wife Jenny. 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 mo re than his signature marches before his death in 1932. He also wrote 16 operettas, 28 fantasias, 24 dances, five overtures and 70 novelty songs, besides penning seven books and 138 articles. Sousa co-founded ASCAP, and was sole composer of all the number s in the first Columbia 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 operetta Desiree and substituting Gilbert’s lyrics from a number in ‘Ruddigore’—Gilbert & Sousa! And 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 conduc t, 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 hel ped 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. 

“Chester A. Arthur berated Sousa playing ‘Hail To The Chief’ for him, when Sousa led the Marine Corps band, telling him it was just an old Scottish boating song and told him to come up with something really patriotic,” Malucelli said. “Sousa wrote ‘Semper Fidelis.’ In the meantime, Arthur had died, and it became the Marine’s marching tune. I got a call from Bo Jones, publisher of the Washington Post; in their lob by 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. That’s a vignette in Act I, with Sousa declaring, ‘It’ll make a man with a wooden leg get up and dance!’” 

The Bay Area tour, with four-hand piano accompaniment, will culminate in a birthday tribute at the Napa Opera House, where Sousa played in 1905, with a 22-piece orchestra.