ON January 21, 1903, there was produced on Broadway The Wizard of Oz, a musical fantasy for children. In Babes in Toyland, Victor Herbert and his librettist made a studied attempt to write another Wizard of Oz and capitalize on its giant success. Thus they hit on the idea of using Toyland as a setting. Though imitations are usually faded carbon copies of the original, soon forgotten, Babes in Toyland turned out to be a triumph in its own right, and a childhood classic in the company of Peter Pan.
Since it was planned as a huge spectacle with a formidable cast and lavish sets and scenes, the authors of Babes in Toyland were not overly concerned with their story. Loosely constructed and, indeed, often confusing--with numerous scenes that often have no relevance within the story--the plot serves primarily as an excuse to present characters from fairy tales, children's story books and nursery rhymes in spectacular style; also to piece together a rich and varied succession of musical episodes and interludes.
The play opens with a prologue outside Uncle Barnaby's house. He is a miserly old man who has seized Mother Hubbard's cottage because she has failed to pay her mortgage. He is also cruel to his nephew, Alan, and niece, Jane, who live with him. Within the house, the children are lulled to sleep to the strains of a poignant lullaby ("Go to Sleep"). Later on, Jane and the children are heard singing "I Can't Do the Sum", as they tap their pieces of chalk on their slates to accentuate the rhythm. The story line is advanced when Alan and Jane, threatened by Uncle Barnaby with murder, escape from his house. They survive a storm at sea and a shipwreck, and finally come to the garden of Contrary Mary. There they witness a Butterfly Ballet and come into contact with characters from Mother Goose. After they visit Toyland, a country dominated by the despot Toymaker, where before the bewildered eyes of Alan and Jane an elaborate Christmas presentation unfolds ("Christmas Tree Grove") and after that a spectacular pageant ("The Legend of the Castle"). With a strange incantation, Toymaker brings his toys to life ("March of the Toys"). They sing a hymn to Toyland ("Toyland"), then band together to kill Toymaker.
The scene shifts to the Palace of Justice in Toyland. Alan is falsely accused of having murdered the Toymaker and, being found guilty, must die by hanging. But at zero hour his innocence is proved. With Jane he now returns home. Uncle Barnaby plots to poison them, but comes to his own doom instead by drinking the poison accidentally. The children are now free to live in peace and enjoy their life for ever more.
The impact Babes in Toyland had upon the mature as well as the very young in 1903 is perhaps best revealed by the reaction of one of America's most trenchant music and drama critics, James Gibbons Huneker. He wrote in the Sun: "The songs, the dances, the processions, the fairies, the toys, the spiders, and the bears! Think of them all, set in the midst of really amazing scenery, ingenious and brilliant, surrounded with light effects with counterfeit all sorts of things from simple lightning to the spinning of a great spider's web, with costumes rich and dazzling as well as tasteful, and all accompanied with music a hundred times better than is customary in shows of this sort. What more could the spirit of mortal desire?"
The 1934 screen version (entitled March of the Wooden Soldiers) featured Laurel and Hardy. Ray Bolger and Ed Wynn appeared in the 1961 version.
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