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Babes in Neverland

Have you longed for a complete recording of Babes in Toyland? So has Filichia. logo
While looking through Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time for the umpteenth time, I again marveled at the photos of Babes in Toyland. What would we give to see a show that looks as lavish and as fun-filled as this? And wouldn't it be great to hear it complete? Sure, we have 11 selections on the disc that Decca Broadway released last year in a package with The Red Mill. But according to Ken Bloom's American Song, Victor Herbert wrote 45 (!) songs for this show. What are the others like? If they're as good as "I Can't Do the Sum," which is on the Decca album (and also on I Wants to Be an Actor Lady, a collection of erstwhile hits), I want to hear them all.

Wait a minute: Weren't we supposed to get a new recording of Babes In Toyland -- and in toto, too? I recall that some years ago, there was an announcement that John McGlinn was going to record every Victor Herbert score. Well, if so, last year would have been an ideal time to release Babes in Toyland, given that the smash hit (192 performances!) was celebrating its centennial.

I did a LexisNexis search and found an article that Warren Hoge wrote for The New York Times on August 15, 2001. Yes, indeed: Not only were all of Herbert scores reportedly going to be recorded, but every one of Kern's, too. Heaven! Hoge wrote that McGlinn, "an American conductor and music historian known for his painstaking restorations and performances of shows like Jerome Kern's Show Boat," had made a phone call to one David Packard, identified as "a classics scholar and chairman of Packard Humanities Institute -- a foundation in Los Altos, Calif., that sponsors research into subjects as varied as archaeology, Bach, Greek papyri and silent films." McGlinn had asked Packard for $100,000 to restore some Kern orchestrations, and he recalled that, when he asked if he could also record one or two, "David said: 'What's the point of that? Why not record them all?' " They were to be "financed by Mr. Packard's charity."

According to the Hoge article, "The project was begun this summer, and already the sprightly melodies, exuberant orchestrations, and snazzy lyrics of shows like Kern's Have a Heart from 1917 and Herbert's Babes of Toyland of 1903 are filling the high-curtained spaces of a former church on London's South Bank," played by the London Sinfonietta. Good! Have a Heart includes "It's a Sure, Sure Sign," which was on Early Kern, an album that Rialto made in 1991 -- but again, let's hear it as originally done, but in pristine sound.

"It was the popular music of the time," wrote Hoge, "and these composers knew they were writing for dance bands and radio broadcasts as well as for the stage. Their lyricists -- one of whom was the British humorist P.G. Wodehouse -- had a grand time with frivolous language, internal rhymes, and groaner puns." He's also responsible for some unintentional humor: One song in The Lady of the Slipper -- a Cinderella tale, natch -- starts, "Life was fair and fine in Baghdad." Yes, that one is dated, but I'll bet there are plenty of others that are still sparklingly fresh.

Lord knows that this series won't be of interest to the many musical theater fans for whom Company (1970) seems to be the dividing line. As Hoge wrote, "The shows of Kern and Herbert were hit parades of waltzes, polkas, fox trots, turkey trots, two steps, Gilbert and Sullivan-style patter songs, and ballads overripe with sentimentality." But let me tell you, when the cast album of the Very Good, Eddie revisal came out in 1976 and I discovered Kern's "The Left All Alone Again Blues" (originally from a 1920 show called The Night Boat), I picked up the needle and repositioned it at the beginning of the song countless times. It always ended before I wanted it to, and I've often suspected that there is more to the song than this less-than-two-minute recording offered. So a complete Kern recording of The Night Boat might float my boat.

Granted, the article stated that the scores "will require an estimated 15 years to assemble and preserve," but it also noted that "The first discs should be available next year." Well, that meant 2002 -- so where are they? I e-mailed Robert Kimball, since he was described in the article as "the New York musical-theater historian and author who is serving the project as artistic advisor." He didn't e-mail me back -- the first time he's ever failed to respond to me. So I started asking my favorite musical theater savants. "I think Rebecca Luker was involved in Oh, Lady! Lady!," said one, so I e-mailed her about this. She didn't answer back -- the first time she's ever failed to respond to me. "I'm sure Judy Kaye did a Leave It to Jane," asserted another. I called her and she didn't call back -- the first time she's ever failed to respond to me -- though, to be fair, she is rehearsing a new musical, Souvenir, that will soon play the York. "Wasn't Larry Moore one of the orchestrators?" asked another. I called Moore, who was home and who said, "I absolutely cannot comment on this situation." (As we all know, when someone can't comment, that in itself is a comment.)

Something seems to have gone wrong, but what? "Mr. Packard is known to guard his privacy," wrote Hoge. I managed to get an e-mail address for him from his company, and he also failed to answer. Then I started reading between the lines of Hoge's article; he noted that Packard "follows the project from home, listening to the results on tapes and occasionally muttering over the phone in disgruntled-producer mode about the costs of flying American singers back and forth across the Atlantic." Aha! Could profligate spending have sunk the project? Given that "Mr. Packard protectively calls this the 'trial year' of the undertaking," maybe his patience and pocketbook was tried to the extreme. On the other hand, Hoge wrote that Packard "has a habit of finishing what he starts. 'I find if you set yourself impossible goals, you end up achieving them,' he said. 'People like us really want to get it right.'" Okay, so where are the recordings? Let me know if you know anything that I can print.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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