THE DVD SHELF: Vintage TV Musicals "Marco Polo" and "Babes in Toyland," Plus "The Quiet Man"

By Steven Suskin
10 Mar 2013

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Babes in Toyland is something else. This is the Victor Herbert operetta from 1903; note that I don't call it a classic, as it doesn't quite make the grade. It was, again, an attempt to latch onto an earlier hit. L. Frank Baum's astoundingly popular "Oz" novels had been turned into a musical Wizard of Oz, which was a big Broadway success earlier in 1903. In this case, though, the second kid-friendly operetta — Babes in Toyland, with libretto and lyrics by Oz author Glen MacDonough — outdid the first.

That said, I've never gotten much out of this musical. It tells of two orphans who try to escape their mean guardian by running to Toyland, that "little girl and boy land." (Thanks for that, Mr. MacDonough.) They've got a song in the first act called "Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep," and that expresses my sentiments. That said, "I Can't Do the Sum" is perky, "Toyland" makes an effective lullaby, and the rousing instrumental "March of the Toys" is one of my favorite pieces by Herbert.

Liebman set his staff on a TV adaptation for a holiday airing in 1954, with a script by William Friedberg and Neil Simon (who later paired for "Marco Polo") along with Will Glickman, Fred Saidy and Bill Jacobson. Both programs had Charles Sanford as conductor and Irv Kostal as orchestrator.

This "Toyland" is most imaginative in its work by Bil & Cora Baird and their Marionettes. Otherwise, it's mild. What makes the venture most interesting to current-day viewers is leading lady Jo Sullivan, who had created the role of Polly Peachum in Marc Blitzstein's adaptation of The Threepenny Opera. (Threepenny opened in March for a 12-week run, after which it lost its theatre. Sullivan then moved to City Center to do Julie in Carousel; her exceptionally good Carrie was Barbara Cook. Threepenny reopened in 1955 and went on for years, although Sullivan left after the reopening for Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella. "Toyland" was filmed between Carousel and the continuation of Threepenny.)

"Toyland" was apparently so popular that the network decided to produce an encore on Christmas eve, 1955; reruns at the time were technologically unfeasible. With Sullivan unavailable or unwilling, they switched heroines to Ms. Cook. She was just then nearing the end of her run in Plain and Fancy; Candide was about 10 months away. One wonders whether Sullivan was up for Cunegonde, the "glitter and be gay" girl in Candide; Blitzstein, who had already hired her on four occasions, would clearly have discussed her with Bernstein. Or whether Cook was up for The Most Happy Fella, although Loesser's description in his preliminary draft — that Rosabella should be "as pretty a girl as Equity has to offer" — better fits Sullivan. For that matter, was Sullivan (the soon-to-be Mrs. Loesser) considered for Marian, that librarian in The Music Man? Which Frank coproduced, and on which he most surely wielded casting approval. But what's — to borrow a song title — the use of wondrin'?

Jo Sullivan
Sony Music Archives

VAI has seen fit to present us with both telecasts on their "Babes in Toyland" CD release, giving us a chance to directly measure Sullivan against Cook and vice versa. My verdict is: Sullivan, definitely. Cook is fine and a joy to watch, but Sullivan seems more natural in this fairy tale, visually and vocally.

Most of the cast is the same on both telecasts. Dave Garroway — the initial host of NBC's "Today Show" — serves as the narrator (Santa Claus); comedian Jack E. Leonard plays the villainous Barnaby; Wally Cox is the apprentice toymaker Grumio; and Dennis Day is woefully wooden as tenor Tommy Tucker.

Speaking of Carousel, which is on our mind just now, "Toyland" gives us Bambi Linn as the featured dancer (along with her husband Rod Alexander, who also choreographed the program). Linn did not simply play the daughter Louise in Carousel, both originally and with Jo & Barbara at City Center; she seems to have played an integral part in the musical's creation. Hammerstein's early outline for the musical retains key elements of Liliom, the play on which it is based; the Budapest locale and character names remain, along with some questionable items like a comedy quartet for Julie and the characters who would become Carrie, Nettie and Mrs. Mullins (which Hammerstein describes as a Desert Song-like number). And then there's a duet called "Put Your Faith in Sardines and Me." But Linn — who was the youngest of the de Mille dancers in Oklahoma! — was clearly on Oscar's mind. When he comes to describe the climactic ballet in the outline, he exclaims that "the child is a young woman. Bambi!"

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