ON THE RECORD: Lysistrata Jones and the Collected Songs of Victor Herbert

By Steven Suskin
27 May 2012

Cover art
Victor Herbert: Collected Songs [New World Records]

I pressed the play button on the first of four discs included in "Victor Herbert: Collected Songs" as I hit the Major Deegan Expressway. What I got was some German art song. Next up, a German art song and then another. Stuck on the highway without a traffic light, I kept pressing the skip button and kept getting more of the same, finally surmising that they must have sent me the wrong disc. But no; the first 19 of the 102 tracks in this set are German art songs. It turns out that Herbert — the Dublin-born composer frequently considered to be Broadway's first important composer — moved to Stuttgart at the age of seven and remained in Germany for 20 years before heading to Broadway.

These art songs illustrate the strength and weakness of this ambitious set, which comes under the umbrella of the "Foundations of the American Musical Theater" series from New World Records. Fans of Victor Herbert will no doubt be beside themselves with this carefully assembled and produced collection; this set not only rescues numerous songs from obscurity — including a good number which were thus far unrecorded — it puts them in the hands of singers who know how to sing them. (Broadwayites will be glad to find Rebecca Luker, George Dvorsky, Ron Raines and Aaron Lazar among the group. Piano accompaniment is provided by William Hicks.) Fans will further appreciate that these CDs are not crammed with Herbert's greatest hits; you can get them elsewhere, this set is reserved for songs you never hear.

Those who are unfamiliar with Herbert, though, might quickly think — well, these songs aren't very impressive. If you don't already know and appreciate Herbert's greatest hits, this collection won't take you very far. I personally would be thrilled to have an expertly made set of 102 obscure Gershwin or Rodgers or Arlen songs. But if I'd never heard the best of Gershwin, I don't imagine I'd come away a fan after hearing ten of those primitive songs from various editions of George White's Scandals.

And so it is with this Herbert set, which in addition to the German art songs includes a fair share of show tunes and a broad swath of Irish art songs. Also patriotic songs, songs written for newspaper concerts, a march for the Dodge Brothers of old Detroit, and more. Fans of Victor Herbert will be enthralled by it all, although I wonder just how many fans of Victor Herbert there are nowadays. And how do said fans — presumably all of whom were born long after his death in 1924 — become acquainted with his music?

So this is a job worth doing and well done. For those of us who don't include Herbert on our playlist, though, these "Collected Songs" are not likely to set us in search of Naughty Marietta.

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(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" (now available in paperback), "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)