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Musical of the Month: Flexible Operetta and Micro-History (Guest blogger Tracey Chessum)

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A second blog post from guest blogger Tracey Chessum:

Here’s a question: If John Philip Sousa wrote at least 10 comic operas, most of which were well received not only on Broadway but on tour around the United States, and if he has been identified as a composer who filled the void between Gilbert & Sullivan and Victor Herbert, why have most of us never heard of his musicals? The obvious reason is that his marches outshine his musicals, and thus his collection of comic operas is often overlooked. However, I would argue that there is a further explanation: these comic operas are so tied to a specific historical moment that they become impossible to revive without considerable adaptation.

Individuals producing and performing Sousa’s comic operas around the turn of the 20th century continually re-wrote his texts — swapping songs from previous operas by Sousa and other composers, including dialogue from other shows and other poetic interpolations, often until nothing but Sousa’s name survived from its original form (but what a helpful name it was! Sousa was known all over the country making his touring operettas lucrative due to his name recognition alone). This constant re-writing made his scripts extremely difficult to return to any definitive form. As we have seen from the transcription, a good portion of the music contained within The Charlatan’s piano/vocal score was no longer in use by the time the show was produced in London. However, evidence suggests that this was not an anomaly. There was no definitive form of the operettas of this time period — they were meant to be constantly in flux, changing with audience taste, performer and creator agendas, and national and/or regional sentiments. The very flexibility and adaptability that made an operetta so useful and resonant in a particular historical moment now renders it virtually impenetrable to a contemporary audience — unless it is, again, flexibly adapted for a modern audience. The flexibility of these operettas provide a fascinating glimpse into the historical time period, giving insight into popular culture, social and political ideology as expressed from the stage, and the ideas and needs of performers and audiences. Each operetta tells its own story of American history and ideas through its production history — one simply needs to ask what changes were made and why.

The Charlatan provides one such story. When DeWolf Hopper premiered the work in London, re-titled The Mystical Miss, Sousa and Hopper had already made several changes, swapping several songs from some of Sousa’s other comic operas (to make the work sound more “march”-like), adding the Russian national anthem to the end of Act II, and substantially re-writing Hopper’s title character — making him more clown than tricky villain. However, when Hopper decided to produce the show in London, he made new changes to the piece which, curiously, mirror diplomatic propaganda espoused by the U.S. Ambassador to Britain (Joseph H. Choate) on the topic of a stronger U.K.–U.S. alliance (at times, word-for-word).

As Hopper "marched" Sousa’s operas across the Atlantic, Britain was beginning the long road to war in South Africa. This war caused a massive outcry acrossthe world, as many countries believed Britain had taken its imperialism too far and were preparing to arm and fight with the Boers to stop the uncontrolled expansion of Britain. The British public had been inundated with advice from other countries regarding their part in South Africa. Unlike the rhetoric of other countries, however; Hopper’s new production did not berate audiences for British imperialism — he applauded it — utilizing additional music, lyrics, and dialogue that spoke to the “white man’s burden” and British sentiment surrounding the Boer War, always punctuated with reminders of American friendship.

For example, Hopper inserted a song written by the opera’s British conductor, John Hiller, “The Good Old Guards’ Brigade,” which specifically extolled the British army. According to The Daily Telegraph, this was “clearly a concession to the English feeling of the moment — [it] was encored again and again.” However, the best example is the addition of Sousa’s new song “Hands across the Sea,” which had been premiered in the U.S. in April of 1899. The St. James reviewer wrote:

“…it is pleasant to find that if France, or a portion of France, be against us, America is in perfect sympathy with our efforts and eager to give expression to her feelings from the stage […In Sousa’s new march,]  “Hands Across the Sea” […] now may be heard these words at that close of the second act of the “The Mystical Miss”:

Lingers for ever

In fair Columbia’s land

The mem’ry of the pressure

Of Britannia’s friendly hand;

Her best endeavour

Is the sacred debt to pay,

And as you felt to her in need

She feels to you to-day,

CHORUS:

Our hands across the sea

Joined in friendship now shall be

And let posterity

The bond revere.”

The song replaced the Russian national anthem at the end of Act II, and, according to The Clipper, included the waving of “the Stars and Stripes with the Union Jack, [which] is, of course, greeted with hearty applause.” The lyrics to this Sousa march are un-attributed, and seem to have been written specifically for use in the London production, as the song was dropped from the production when it returned state-side. As referenced previously, the changes made to The Mystical Miss show a striking similarity to Ambassador Choate’s speeches and U.S. “unofficial” foreign policy rhetoric. John Hay, the Secretary of State in McKinley’s administration, was pushing Choate for a “friendly understanding with England” (knowing that the doctrine of Manifest Destiny could be in jeopardy if British imperialism faltered). In response, Choate began to campaign at both political and cultural events for a mutual understanding between the two countries, calling for “Hands Across the Sea” (sound familiar?). Around this same time, Choate welcomed his friend Hopper to England, speaking at several events to honor his theatrical work — using language which eventually found its way into The Mystical Miss. Whether Hopper was simply responding to British anxiety over foreign hostility, whether he was responding to his friend Choate’s speeches, or whether he had been "encouraged" by Choate to propagate U.S. foreign policy, The Mystical Miss was essentially used as a cultural vehicle to disseminate Choate’s message. Judging by audience and critic response, the show succeeded in reminding London audiences that there was, indeed, a friendly "hand across the sea."

Note from Doug: As I mentioned in the previous blog post, I will occassionally invite guest bloggers with expertise in a particular title to edit the occassional entry. This September, University of Maryland Ph.D. Candidate Tracey Chessum has provided a script and blog entries on Sousa's The Charlatan. To supplement these entries, I include low-resolution, phone camera pictures of three programs from NYPL's collections below. The first two are more or less the same, but the third appears to be a kind of deluxe program with photographs. I've also included links to two copies of the score — one at the Internet Archive and one at Google Books.

Program 1 Read Online PDF
Program 2 Read Online PDF
Program 3 Read Online PDF
Score Harvard University via Google Books University of Illinois via The Internet Archive

 

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