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Musical of the Month

Musical of the Month: "The Wizard of Oz" and Victor Herbert

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A Guest Post By Professor William Everett

Billboard advertising "The Wizard of Oz" at the Majestic TheaterBillboard advertising "The Wizard of Oz" at the Majestic TheaterThe Wizard of Oz, this month’s Musical of the Month, has ties to one of the most important musical theater composers of its day, Victor Herbert (1859-1924). The Irish-born and German-trained cellist, conductor, and composer had written several significant works for the musical theater in the years leading up to the appearance of The Wizard of Oz, most notably The Fortune Teller (1898).

After producer Fred R. Hamlin and director Julian Mitchell scored a hit with The Wizard of Oz, they of course wanted to create another triumph. They certainly achieved their goal with the first Victor Herbert show to be discussed here, Babes in Toyland (1903). As David Maxine noted in his Wizard of Oz blog entry, Wizard’s producer and director brought in Glen MacDonough to prepare a new third act and make other adjustments to The Wizard of Oz. They must have been pleased with the result, for Hamlin and Mitchell selected MacDonough to create the book for Babes in Toyland. Though the original story was not as rich as Baum’s Oz tale, the score by Victor Herbert (music) and MacDonough (lyrics) certainly outshone that of The Wizard of Oz, for it included such legendary numbers as “Toyland,” “Go to Sleep,” and “March of the Toys.” Like Wizard, Babes opened in Chicago before moving to New York’s Majestic Theatre. Babes in Toyland began its triumphant run at that house on October 13, 1903, just 10 days after The Wizard of Oz closed at the same venue.

Babes in Toyland capitalized on the popularity of The Wizard of Oz by creating another visual feast set in a fantasy realm. In MacDonough’s story, wickedThe tornado scene from "The Wizard of Oz."The tornado scene from "The Wizard of Oz." Silas Barnaby (played by George W. Denham) sends his niece Jane (Mabel Barrison) and nephew Alan (William Norris) away in order to steal their inheritance. Shipwrecked in Toyland, the children discover a wonderful village filled with Mother Goose characters. The evil Master Toymaker (Dore Davidson) and Barnaby, however, try to capture Jane and Alan, but the benevolent Mother Goose characters help the youngsters escape and bring Barnaby to justice. Hamlin and Mitchell, hoping to surpass the special effects of The Wizard of Oz, included a shipwreck early in the show (placed similarly to the unforgettable tornado sequence in The Wizard of Oz) as well as a monster spider played by contortionist, acrobat, and eccentric dancer Robert Burns, who among other feats, spun a web and swung across the stage on a single line.

Herbert’s Babes in Toyland was filmed twice for the big screen, both times with revised plots. The first version, an MGM production from 1934, starred Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as toymaker assistants Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee and featured Charlotte Henry and Felix Knight (who sang at the Metropolitan Opera from 1946 to 1950) as the romantic leads. The 1961 Disney version was the studio’s first live-action feature-length film and includes early versions of special effects that would become legendary in Mary Poppins (1964). It starred Annette Funicello, Tommy Sands, Ray Bolger, and Ed Wynn. Neither film achieved the same critical or popular success as the 1939 Wizard of Oz.

Especially relevant here is the television version of Babes in Toyland that NBC first broadcast during the 1986 Christmas season. Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves played the youthful leads. Paul Zindel’s screenplay incorporated a Wizard of Oz-like framing device: during a heavy snowstorm in Cincinnati, Lisa Piper (Barrymore) dreams of going to Toyland. Only two Victor Herbert songs, “Toyland” and “March of the Toys,” were retained; most of the score consisted of new songs by Leslie Bricusse, co-creator of Stop the World — I Want to Get Off (1962) and The Smell of the Greasepaint  The Roar of the Crowd (1965).

A scene from Babes in ToylandA scene from Babes in ToylandThe second Victor Herbert musical with connections to The Wizard of Oz, The Red Mill (1906), featured as its stars the Wizard’s comic duo of Fred Stone and David Montgomery. In Henry Blossom’s book written expressly to feature the luminaries, Americans Con Kidder (Stone) and Kid Conner (Montgomery) find themselves penniless in Holland. They end up aiding the romance between Gretchen (Augusta Greenleaf) and sea captain Doris Van Damm (Joseph M. Ratliff). The problem is that Gretchen’s father, the town’s burgomaster, already has promised his daughter’s hand to the Governor of Zeeland (Neal McCay). When the burgomaster learns of Gretchen’s interest in Van Damm, he locks her up in the titular “red mill.” Con and Kid assist in her rescue, and after Gretchen and Van Damm are back together, the Americans return to New York. Victor Herbert’s score, with lyrics by Blossom, included the boisterous hits “In Old New York” and “Every Day is Ladies’ Day with Me.” Because the songs were written for Stone and Montgomery, they lie closer in style to Tietjen’s The Wizard of Oz than to Herbert’s own Babes in Toyland.

Like any musical, The Wizard of Oz did not live in isolation. It constituted one point in a theatrical web of interactions between producers, writers, and players. Victor Herbert’s direct connections to the show through Fred R. Hamlin, Julian Mitchell, Glen MacDonough, Fred Stone, and David Montgomery resulted in two of the composer’s most celebrated early works, Babes in Toyland and The Red Mill.

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