STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: A Babes Is Reborn

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: A Babes Is Reborn If you've ever seen Babes in Arms, you probably haven't seen Babes in Arms.

If you've ever seen Babes in Arms, you probably haven't seen Babes in Arms.

For the last 39 years, the script that's been available for production is not the one that Rodgers and Hart wrote in 1937. Back in 1959, George Oppenheimer was commissioned by Richard Rodgers to write a new book. Oppenheimer -- best known as the editor of the marvelous anthology "The Passionate Playgoer" -- kept a few character names from the '37 script, but not much else.

The '59 book takes place in a Massachusetts summer stock theater. Val is a composer who'll do a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g to get on a revue of his songs, but producer Seymour Fielding is much more interested in doing Lee Calhoun's searing Southern drama, The Deep North. Starring in the play is Jennifer Owen, a former child star whose mother Phyllis is determined that The Deep North will restart a career that's gone south.

But Jennifer hates both the play and Lee, though she quickly comes to like Val. He, in turn, is pursued by Susie, in whom he has no interest. If it isn't Jennifer who occupies his thoughts, it's New York producer Steve Edwards, who'll come see The Deep North. Val would like to find a way for him to see his revue instead.

Actually, he'd have an easier time of it if he'd just show some interest in Susie. For she's really Steve Edwards' sister. She's keeping that quiet because she wants to get ahead (and Val) on her own. Dr. Aubrey Berg, the musical theater department chair of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, liked the Babes in Arms recording that New World Records released in 1990 (with Jason Graae and Kim Criswell, who'd graduated from his school). But he sure didn't like the Oppenheimer book.

He started chatting with Roger Grodsky, his musical director, and found that some years earlier, Grodsky had asked Mary Rodgers -- Richard's daughter -- about doing an original book. He decided to try again.

Theodore S. Chapin, who helms Rodgers & Hammerstein, put Grodsky in touch with Bruce Pomahac, the company's director of music. But he fully admits that he wasn't optimistic. "Nobody who had read the original book," he says, "had up until this time been willing to go with it."

The reason: By today's standards, Babes in Arms seemed blatantly racist. Heck, by 1959 standards, it had, too. That's why Rodgers wanted a new book to salvage his hit-filled score. Why let "My Funny Valentine," "Johnny One-Note," "The Lady Is a Tramp" or "Where or When?" go to waste?

So the new book didn't include Ivor and Irving De Quincey, two young black men who were written terribly stereotypically. Nor did Oppenheimer use their song -- originally performed by the Nicholas Brothers -- "All Dark People Is Light on Their Feet."

Still, Berg felt that with enough editing, the original book of Babes in Arms would serve the score much better. Would R&H allow him to direct CCM's students in it as their spring mainstage show?

Chapin had his doubts, but said yes. And two weeks ago, he, Pomohac, and R&H library director Tom Briggs flew out to Cincinnati to see the results.

Here's what they witnessed: Teenagers Valentine and Marshall are left without adult supervision when their respective parents set out on a vaudeville tour. That rankles Sheriff Reynolds, who's intent on putting them and all the other of the town's teens -- Dolores, Gus, and Peter among them -- on a work farm where they won't get into mischief.

The kids claim they'll be all right, but not long after he leaves, they get into a big fight. When the sheriff enters with an I-told-you-so look on his face, the kids have to come up with an alibi. Val and Marshall suddenly do. "We're rehearsing for the show we're going to put on." The convince the sheriff to give them two weeks to prove they can do it, and he begrudgingly agrees.

Val wants to stay free for another reason. He's become smitten with Billie, a girl passing through town on her way back from an unsuccessful stint in Hollywood. She'll be in the new show, too -- if only they can raise the money.

They can, thanks to Lee Calhoun, whose father is a rich Wall Street tycoon. He'll put up the money, but he's no angel. Lee, who's very proud of his Southern heritage, demands that the De Quinceys not be allowed in the show.

The kids can't bring themselves to tell the Irving or Emmaline (Berg gave Ivor a sex-change operation), so on opening night, they think they're going on. "You can't," Billie tells them, "because you're, uh, too young."

Calhoun won't let it go at that. "It's not because you're too young," he snidely tells them. "It's because you're too black." That so infuriates Val that he punches Lee in the jaw. The bigot pulls out his money, and, as the first act curtain falls, we know that everyone's bound for the work farm.

The R&H threesome found themselves delighted with what they saw -- though Chapin admits that when the music had started for "All Dark People" that "I got the willies. But Aubrey (who'd changed the title to "When We're Dancin', We're Light on Our Feet") had added some perfectly adequate lyrics. All during intermission, though, each of us was asking the other, 'Did you give permission to change the lyrics?'"

Grodsky reminded Chapin that he'd said, "This is a song that we can't do anything with, so if you want to try something, go ahead." Chapin hadn't meant it as license to change the lyric, but at this point he was so happy with what he saw that he wouldn't take issue with it.

The trio had a good time during the second act, too. Val and Company try to get off the work farm, and think they're saved when Peter announces he won "Bank Night" at the local movie palace, and now has $500. Given that Peter has been a self-proclaimed Communist, the kids assume he'll share the money with them.

"I'm not a Communist anymore," Peter states, before embarking on a ballet in which imagines the high life that will soon be available to him.

But it's a dream ballet. In reality, Peter loses the money gambling, and becomes a (penniless) Communist again.

There is to be a happy ending, though. Daredevil flyer Rene Flambeau must make a crash landing, and once he does, Val pretends to be the ace pilot. He says the place he landed would make a wonderful airport, and that that should happen immediately. Because of Flambeau's celebrity, we're led to believe that that's what'll happen.

Okay, not a masterpiece. But, as Pomahac says, "The irony is that the 'new' book now seems dated, while the original, with its talk about prejudice, doesn't. How many know that Rodgers had dealt with that subject before he worked with Hammerstein? This was an eye-opener."

Adds Briggs, "We saw the show for what it was, where the songs worked as dynamic entertainment, not trying to pretend they're integrated. Everybody used to ask, 'How can we rewrite it so it'll hang together?' Well, the fact that the songs don't hang together may be part of the charm."

Chapin admits that "The songs are strangely motivated. Or unmotivated. What the production proves is that you have to look them square in the eye and go for it."

By the way, the CCM production was -- as is its standard -- exceptional. It's a rare Broadway musical that doesn't have at least one of the school's graduates in its cast, and I confidently predict that New York will someday see Seth Bolling (Val), Soshana Bean (Billie), Justin Patterson (Gus), Chris Nichols (Lee), Leslie Kritzer (former child star Baby Rose), Melvin Tunstall III and Leslie Roberts (The De Quinceys), and Sara Gettelfinger (Dolores), who received an award as Best Junior after the closing performance. Bravo, too, to Justin Bohon as Peter, who danced so well in Diane Lala's stunning ballet. And if you don't believe everyone was that good, you'll soon be able to see for yourself, for Babes was taped for inclusion in the Lincoln Center library.

And will you theaters now be able to do Berg's adaptation? "Absolutely," states Chapin. "I had no intention of that at the beginning, but now I want to make available this bona fide 1937 show. Let's give it to the theater-producing world and see what they make of it -- which should be much, considering how produceable it is, and how many parts it has for everyone. The Cincinnati Conservatory showed that if you have the right attitude, you can make it a delightful evening."

Sure -- but would it spoil some vast eternal plan if R&H allowed Berg to do some additions, too? The show would be stronger if Lee could come to realize that his prejudice caused everyone much misery, and atone for his sins. But even if we don't get that, we're lucky to have a "new" version of Babes in Arms that's head and shoulders about the old one.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com