Notes 60.1 (2003) 144-146
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David Braham: The American Offenbach. By John Franceschina. (Forgotten Stars of the Musical Theatre.) New York: Routledge, 2003. [xiv, 266 p. ISBN 0-415-93769-8. $49.95.] Illustrations, index.
Academic interest in popular culture has opened a vast treasure of material that helps identify and explain—as the study of aesthetics alone may not—true national character. John Franceschina's slim volume is an attempt to satisfy this desire. The essay is fortified by his expertise as a composer, for he has written many works, including a Mass for accordion and orchestra composed for the Vatican. More important to this project, however, is his knowledge of the history of American theater, for this book offers a discussion of a hitherto obscure theatrical personality, one aptly described by the Routledge series title Forgotten Stars of the Musical Theatre.
David Braham: The American Offenbach, however, has all the allure of home movies, perhaps the unintended result of the folksy precepts of the series editor, Kurt Gänzl. As presented in the introduction facetiously (perhaps) titled "Sic transit Gloria spectaculi," Gänzl's philosophy abjures books with "a dozen footnotes per page, and hung with vast appendices of sources." He shudders at the word "significance (oh! that word)." And as a relative might do, he apologetically justifies the series of books: "Because these people had fascinating lives—well, they fascinate me, and I hope they will fascinate you too" (p. xii).
Unfortunately such directives are taken too literally by Franceschina, already handicapped by an uncorroborated prose style made leaden by repetitive locutions and formulaic organization. What might have been a valuable consideration of a significant personality in the story of American musical theater is instead a mere chronology. Over and over, the book presents its undocumented facts in a format that deals with family details, production histories, and brief characterizations of the composer's music.
Luckily for the reader, the author disobeys at least one policy of his series editor by providing no fewer than four appendices: (1) songs written by Braham, with names and dates of productions; (2) songs written by same last-name relatives; (3) the repertory of the Grand Opera House; and (4) the repertory of Wallack's Theatre, during Braham's tenure in New York as music director from 1895 to 1905. Given the lack of any but in-text journalistic sources—doubtless coming from scrapbooks made available by Braham's great granddaughter —these appendices provide the only other references in the book. [End Page 144]
The bulk of the biography covers Braham's career from his collaboration with the English comic singer William Horace Lingard in the burlesque extravaganza Pluto (New York, 1868) to his long association (from ca. 1872 to 1897) with the acting team of Harrigan (Edward Harrigan, 1844-1911) and Hart (Tony Hart, 1855-1891), and finally as an independent music director (1895-1905). In this regard, without any musical examples or facsimiles, the reader must rely on Franceschina's words alone for any idea of the music discussed.
Here the book suffers from vague, limited, repetitive, and often confusing vocabulary. Melodies are described with such terms as "catchy," "soaring," "predictable," "infectious," "evocative," "overblown," "folklike," or even "hummable." For the sake of variety, such adjectives are modified by tautological adverbs: addictively hummable, pleasantly hummable, fetchingly simple, playfully rhythmic, or plaintively modal. On the one hand, ethnic flavor for a stereotypical Jew is said to be concocted "by the alternation between major and minor modes" (p. 178). A few pages later, the explanation is given that "an imaginative juxtaposition of major and minor modes is employed in Braham's 'pseudo-spiritual' ... 'When de Trumpet in de Cornfield Blows'" (p. 185) to characterize the African American experience musically!
An historical stylistic consciousness touts the humdrum song "'Dolly My Crumpled-horn Cow', [as] an old-style folk ballad of Mozartian simplicity and grace about a farmer's devotion to his cow" (p. 155). By contrast Braham's "runaway hit ... played and sung around the world," "Maggie Murphy's Home" (1890) is dismissed as just a...