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Musical of the Month: "The Charlatan" with Guest Blogger Tracey Chessum

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A note from Doug: Occassionally throughout this series I will invite other musical theater scholars with expertise in a particular show to write a few guest blog posts. This month I have invited Tracey Chessum, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland, to write about one of the topics of her dissertation: the 1898 John Philip Sousa musical, The Charlatan. As she describes below, Chessum has provided a transcript of the show based on a copy of the text at The British Library. I have encoded her transcript in the ususal formats, so any formating errors are mine, not hers. 

Guest Blogger: Tracey Chessum
When Americans hear the name John Phillip Sousa (1854-1932), they most likely think of the Fourth of July holiday and little American flags waving to the sounds of a brass band — a fitting association for the self-proclaimed “Salesman of Americanism.” Sousa is not usually linked with musical theater, even though he wrote at least 10 complete comic operas (many more remain unfinished) between 1879 and 1915, which had varying degrees of success and influence on and off Broadway. In fact, some musical theater historians position Sousa as one of the four most influential composers of American operetta between 1880 and 1920 (the others being Victor Herbert, Reginald DeKoven, and Julian Edwards).


Of Sousa’s comic operas, El Capitan (libretto by Charles Klein) stands out as his most popular in its own time, and is still performed sporadically today (its libretto and score is still widely available). The Charlatan was written as a follow-up to El Capitan, and was intended to be a star vehicle for comedian DeWolf Hopper (El Capitan’s star). Sousa again collaborated with Charles Klein; however, in a departure from El Capitan, Klein only provided the book for The Charlatan, and Sousa wrote the lyrics as well as the music.  Mr. Sousa., Digital ID 1203836, New York Public Library

The Charlatan is set in a Russian village. Prince Boris is obliged to marry a woman of his rank or station or risk losing his fortunes to his uncle, Gogol. Gogol attempts to gain Boris’s property by presenting the peasant Anna, daughter of Demidoff (the charlatan of the title), to Boris disguised as the Princess Ruchkowski. The Prince is tricked into marrying Anna and loses his fortunes to his uncle, Gogol. In the meantime, the real Princess Ruchkowski appears out of nowhere and demands to see the imposter, Anna, who by this time has fled. Demidoff (played by Hopper), says he has made Anna disappear by “magic” and is consequently arrested for witchcraft. At his trial, the missing Anna returns to tell the court that she fled because she had brought suffering to Prince Boris and that her father could not do magic. All ends well.

The Charlatan debuted at the Academy of Music, Montreal on August 29, 1898, and at the Knickerbocker Theatre in New York City on September 5, 1898. The initial press was far from complimentary. The New York Morning Telegraph ran a story following its New York opening — the headline read:

De Wolf Hopper in Sousa’s Worst
Score of “The Charlatan” appears to have been made to Order
Klein Book No Inspiration
The Star did his best […]

NY Times production photographNY Times production photograph

The press did not improve in spite of the continuous changes made to the work by Sousa, Hopper, and others; nor did it fare any better when Hopper took the show on an American tour. The show was again revamped and taken to London, where it was re-titled The Mystical Miss due to copyright issues, and opened at the Comedy Theater in the West End on December 13, 1899. Overall, The Mystical Miss was extremely well received in London; the Daily Mail commented: “It is just a roaring farce set to music […] ‘The Mystical Miss’ is really well worth seeing. It prevents one thinking.” After The Charlatan’s successful London run, the DeWolf Hopper Opera Company continued to perform the work in New York City and on tour — to much better reviews — making the work almost as popular as El Capitan.

The copy of the libretto transcribed below was taken from the script that the DeWolf Hopper Opera Company registered with the Lord Chamberlain’s Office in London in 1899, as was required by British copyright and censorship law. The date of license on the front of the script is December 28, 1899, and indicates the title change (although all title references within the printed script remain “The Charlatan”). By virtue of the Lord Chamberlain’s registry requirements, this particular libretto was meant to accurately portray the production. This did not mean, however that it included all material performed within the show. As I say in my transcriber’s note (see below), the London script often shortens situational comic moments by indicating “BUS” (or Business) between dialogue, allowing the spoken words of that “business” to remain un-printed. Additionally, the London script did not always include all verses of the music, or, obviously, any of the musical and theatrical interpolations made during the London run. Therefore, this transcription, while completely faithful to its source, does not give us a completely accurate version of the production, as it does not spell out the physical comedy so integral to the show’s plot. However, what this particular production copy does show is how the work had been changed before its London opening (indeed, even more changes are suggested in the show’s press). These changes give readers insight into the performers and audiences (Why were these changes made?  Who made them?), and the enormous flexibility and adaptability of librettos during this time period. It is this flexibility and adaptability of librettos which will be the subject of my next post.

Transcriber’s Note:
Because the DeWolf Hopper Opera Company did not originally plan to present The Charlatan in London, a new libretto most likely had to be transcribed quickly in order to meet English registration deadlines. Thus, the libretto held by the British Library’s Lord Chamberlain’s Archive is full of typographical errors (each Act was, most likely, typed by a different typist). For this edition, I corrected obvious typos, and inserted additional punctuation only where I felt it was absolutely necessary for easy reading. All the uses of the dash are original to the script. I have not included missing lyrics or dialogue suggested in the score, choosing instead to indicate where there are departures from the published piano/vocal. I took care to include any and all written and typed information included in the copy.

A “playable” reconstruction of the libretto was done in the 1980s by musicologists William Martin and Jerrold Fisher, in conjunction with the Sousa family.  These have not been commercially published, but there is a copy of this finished libretto at the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at the University of Illinois. The Martin/Fisher libretto is based around the original published piano/vocal score, and does not take into account any of the departures from the original material from the New York, Touring, or London production runs.  Additionally, as with many reconstructions, Martin and Fisher were forced to make choices of their own when sufficient information was not available to fill in the comedic details, or to make the work accessible to modern audiences. I have compared the London production libretto to the reconstructed libretto, and while the book and dialogue are nearly identical, the reconstructed libretto is far more polished. Where the London script often shortens situational comic moments to (BUS — or comic BUSiness), the polished score flushes them out. I feel more comfortable allowing the reader to insert their own interpretation of comic business where appropriate.

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Sousa & Musical Theatre

Very interesting stuff!

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