There has been no shortage of dastardly villains onstage in New York, but a few “bad guys” will be seen for the first time in almost a century when Babes in Toyland is performed on April 27.
The 1903 operetta by Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough will be staged at Carnegie Hall, marking the first New York revival in 85 years. Performed with a cast that includes Kelli O’Hara, Bill Irwin, Christopher Fitzgerald, Lauren Worsham, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Jonathan Freeman, Chris Sullivan, Jeffrey Schecter, Michael Kostroff and Blair Brown, it will also feature MasterVoices and Orchestra of St. Lukes, conducted and directed by Ted Sperling.
The cast has starred in its collective share of both serious dramas and dark comedies. Worsham witnessed multiple murders a night on Broadway in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Fitzgerald is currently performing in the musical drama Waitress, and Schecter was most recently seen in Fiddler on the Roof. Sterling was the musical director for The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific, The King and I, and many other productions.
The trio of performers, plus Sperling, all are parents to young children, which provides plenty of entertainment offstage as well.
Babes in Toyland’s score features popular compositions that evoke memories of childhood, including the wistful song, “Toyland” along with “March of the Toys”, “Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep” and “I Can’t Do the Sum.” The show follows the young Alan and Jane, who are escaping their villainous Uncle Barnaby who is in pursuit of their inheritance, as they encounter several Mother Goose characters including Contrary Mary, Tom-Tom the Piper’s Son, Jack and Jill, Little Bo-Peep, and Mother Hubbard. The cast of characters help the duo defeat their uncle while surviving adventures that include shipwrecks, giant spider attacks and deadly potions.
While the 1903 production was quite lengthy, this staging, which debuts several musical numbers that were cut on the show’s road to Broadway, has tightened the book in order to shorten the overall running time. But the show is not skimping on the villains, which Sperling, Worsham, Fitzgerald and Jeffrey Schecter all agreed are the object of fascination of many children.
“One thing we’ve talked a lot about in this piece is how surprisingly dark [it is]. This was an era when melodrama and gothic writing was very much in vogue,” Sperling said. “This show manages have two dastardly villains. It has two of everything: two heroines, two heroes, two villains, two sidekick villains.”
Sperling is the father of two daughters who, he said, are fascinated by the “bad guys” in stories: Ursula in The Little Mermaid and the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz are two of their favorites.
While Sperling said he makes sure the stories aren’t too scary for his children, another area of concern for all the parents is the gender roles that are presented in fairy tales. Worsham, who has a 10-month-old daughter, admitted to being nervous about being mother to a girl in today’s society.
“The idea of raising a woman—it’s so stressful,” she said. “You don’t want to put limitations or force them into thinking what is gender. Everything in the world is handed to you like that—there are little dresses that say, ‘Daddy’s princess.’ It’s overwhelming to me sometimes to try to navigate that. But if she wants to be a princess I don’t want to limit her.”
Being a parent could make anyone a little crazy, despite the admittedly adorable stories the group shared: After seeing The King and I, Sterling’s daughters performing “Shall We Dance?” together. Schecter’s children enjoy the rap and hip hop melodies from The Electric Company and Fitzgerald’s children are already able to perform “Moses Supposes” and “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain. While Worsham’s infant daughter has not yet learned to appreciate opera, she does enjoy “You Can Call Me Al.”
The old-fashioned taste in movies at the Fitzgerald house has proved to be of assistance his performance: his children have offered feedback on his scenes in Babes in Toyland.
The immediate access to entertainment, with Netflix, Hulu and YouTube, already provides a remarkably different environment for children growing up in 2017 in contrast to their parents’ childhoods. While the adults may find commercials annoying, for children, they are a novelty. This instant gratification enhances the importance of live performance, Sterling said.
“There’s such value in bringing kids to anything where they see music being made,” Sperling said. “In real time, with real instruments, with real voices, without the manipulation of editing, and to hear it live in a hall built for music to people who have dedicated their lives to getting good at this.”
And, Schecter said, inspiring children to play and imagine is invaluable. “There’s a lot of imagination that goes into a piece like this. ‘Toyland’ was a song I used to hear all the time. My very first show was Sesame Street Live touring around, and they’d always play that song. Hearing it again, it truly is a timeless song. You hope that will just grab onto kids.”