Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Panned in Boston - John Philip Sousa's "Desiree"

These were hard times in the theatre in December 1884, at least in Boston’s Bijou Theater for one particular production called “Desiree”. Featured actor De Wolf Hopper got off lightly by the critic, “in spite of his exaggerations, he is a true comic artist and made all the success.”

This unnamed critic reporting in Byrne’s Dramatic Times called the play “a wearisome affair, well calculated to please Philadelphia and Washington, but devoid of any merit so far as the libretto is concerned. Some extremely pretty and fascinating music is saddled to the worst rot imaginable.”

One may ponder if the audiences of Philadelphia and Washington are less apt to spot “rot” than a New England audience, but one has to admire the old world flourish of condemnations like “rot”.

“It is a little bit the worst stuff presented in the name of comic opera for some time.”

He saves his best stuff for the heroine: “Miss Rose Leighton was, on the other hand, the worst. What possible excuse she had for appearing is beyond me.”

He liked the costumes.

“Desiree” was a comic operetta whose score was composed by the famous “March King” John Philip Sousa, with libretto by Edward M. Taber. Perhaps the above critic’s opinions were not unfounded, as the libretto was later revised by Jerrold Fisher and William Martin. It had premiered several months earlier at the National Theater in Washington.

De Wolf Hopper, a 6-foot, 5-inch mountain of a man, which in theatre terms made him more appropriate for comic roles than heroes, later went on to fame delivering recitations of the poem “Casey at the Bat”, which he also occasionally did for curtain calls. Perhaps that might have saved the play here.

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