BABES IN TOYLAND: Musical extravaganza by Victor Herbert

Kurt Gänzl
The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre
1 May, 2017

Commissioned by producers Julian Mitchell and Fred Hamlin to follow up their 1902 success with the fairytale spectacular The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Toyland was purposefully constructed on similar lines to the earlier show. It premiered at the Grand Opera House, Chicago, on 17 June 1903. The Broadway premiere was at the Majestic Theater, on 13 October 1903.

Sheet music cover for "Babes in Toyland."

Sheet music cover for “Babes in Toyland.”

Glen MacDonough’s libretto followed little Jane (Mabel Barrison) and Alan (top-billed William Norris) through the colourful realms of Toyland as they struggled, with the help of the familiar characters of children’s storybooks, to outwit wicked, miserly Uncle Barnaby (George W Denham) and his allies, the Master Toymaker (Mark Smith) and Contrary Mary (Amy Ricard), and win their way to a happy ending. The production, like its predecessor, was staged with lavish scenic effects, from the prologue’s shipwreck (paralleling The Wizard of Oz’s tornado) through all kinds of picturesque fairytale venues including a country fête in Contrary Mary’s Garden, the Spider’s Forest, the Floral Palace of the Moth Queen, Toyland’s Christmas Tree Grove and the Master Toymaker’s workshop and castle, to the final Palace of Toyland and its Court of Justice.

Alongside its spectacle, the other principal attraction of Babes in Toyland was its music. Victor Herbert provided a score which was very much in advance of the one which the producers had cobbled together for The Wizard of Oz. It had plenty of very fine large-scale and orchestral numbers – notably the enduring ‘March of the Toys’ and its succeeding ‘The Military Ball’ – but also some charming and delicate musical moments ranging from the lovely trio ‘Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep’ (Alan, Jane, and a soprano fairy w chorus) and the sweet ‘Never Mind, Bo Peep (we will find your sheep)’ sung by Tom Tom (Bessie Wynn) and the widow Piper’s other children to the culpable little shepherdess (Nella Webb), to the chirpily childish ‘I Can’t Do That Sum’, added to the score after opening for Miss Barrison, and Tom Tom’s dreamy hymn to ‘Toyland’. There were occasional more obvious spots – if nothing quite as tacked-in as Lotta Faust singing ‘Sammy’ in The Wizard of Oz – notably when Contrary Mary sang fairly irrelevantly about ‘Barney O’Flynn’, but on the whole Herbert’s score hit the medium line between cultured fairy play and pantomime jollity to perfection.

Babes in Toyland had a highly successful Chicago season of 117 performances (13 weeks) and played through 192 performances at New York’s Majestic Theater before going on the road, establishing itself as an enduring favourite of its kind throughout America – sufficient of a favourite, indeed, that it became the subject of a Broadway lawsuit. This one, however, was settled with full logic. In the face of defence testimony from Mitchell, the Hamlin brothers, Ben Teal, MacDonough and others, one loopy Mrs Riley who had claimed that she was the show’s real author got short legal shrift.

Babes in Toyland returned briefly to the Majestic in 1905 (2 January, 25 performances) and in 1929 (Jolson Theater 23 December) the Shubert brothers brought the show back to Broadway for a Christmas season, and although it has not had a career outside America, versions of Babes in Toyland (sometimes textually quite remote from the original, but always staged with ‘grand spectacle’) have been played regularly throughout the country since the first production.

It has also been filmed twice, once with a cast including Laurel and Hardy (1934) and once by Walt Disney (1961) in widely variant versions, and was also televised in variously unfaithful forms 1950, 1954, 1960, 1968 and in a 1986 NBC version in which only ‘Toyland’ and ‘The March of the Toys’ of Herbert’s score survived.

Films: MGM 1934, Buena Vista 1961
UK: Victoria Hall (copyright performance) 15 June 1903
Recordings: selections (Decca, Reader’s Digest, AEI) 1961 film soundtrack (Buena Vista)