I couldn’t really tell you when I developed an obsession with Victor Herbert‘s Babes in Toyland but obsessed I did become. Obsessed to the point that I sat through the Walt Disney movie version with Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands on my first trip to New York back in 1962 (more about that later). I recall seeing a very bad print of the classic Laurel and Hardy adaptation March of the Wooden Soldiers – I bought a beautiful restored copy many years later. But I knew that both films, and the TV versions from 1960 and 1986 were only a part of the extravaganza Fred Hamlin and Julian Mitchell produced back in 1903. I could understand someone tampering with Glen MacDonough’s book as it seemed to have an excess of villains and and perhaps more romantic couples than were needed in a fantasy operetta. However to exclude so much of Victor Herbert’s score seemed a crime.
And Herbert wrote a great deal of music for the show. It was an extravaganza in the real sense of the word: elaborate sets, special effects, a large ensemble, ballet sequences, precision dancing, marching, and specialty numbers tailored to the talents of individual cast members. Twenty-three numbers were more or less constants by the time the show hit New York on October 1903 , five were cut during the initial Chicago run in June of that year, and a further four composed to accommodate cast changes, and the two companies that toured in 1904-05. And of those 32 pieces (though one reference works suggests there may have been 43 in total) only five or six were ever used in the filmed productions.
There had long been a rumour that musical archivist and conductor John McGlinn had made a recording of the entire score in 2001 with many of the people that had participated in his previous recordings. It was part of a larger project to record all of Herbert’s works which seemed to have hit a roadblock – financial? and artistically? Whatever the reason it was never released; however, last year it became available through various channels. There is some real luxury casting in both the singing and speaking roles – Ian Richardson and Ian McKellen are the villians, and Hugh Panaro, Elizabeth Futral, and Rebecca Caine are the principles.
All the better known numbers are there: Don’t Cry Bo-Peep, March of the Toy Soldiers, Toyland, and this one sung by Korliss Uecker as the heroine Jane with the ladies of the London Voices (as both male and female nursery rhyme characters):
Given the nature of the piece it is no surprise that Herbert wrote Spanish character songs, Irish ballads, and satirical numbers on lonely hearts columns, the health food craze, and marriage, and what amount to operatic arias. Or that he composed in pretty much every song metre and popular dance rhythm of the day including this lovely waltz celebrating – what else – Christmas:
Looking at the variety of material, and the requirements of the original book I can see why it hasn’t been revived except in a pared down version since that original grand extravaganza. But fortunately the McGlinn recording allows us to imagine for a while that we’re watching ship wrecks, marching soldiers, giant spiders, magical transformations, and fairy tale characters as they saw them in at the Majestic Theatre back in 1903.
On this day in 1703: Portugal and England sign the Methuen Treaty which gives preference to Portuguese imported wines into England.