Hooray for Herbert
It's a wonderful feeling, finding an eye-opening, ear-opening dazzling treasure-chest of songs with melodies by a master, many of which have never (or rarely) been recorded. Four score and seven years ago, our forefather of musical theatre, Victor Herbert, was represented with his last new music on Broadway, as The Ziegfeld Follies of 1924 closed in 1925. This prolific early link between opera and musical theatre died in 1924, but his music did not die with him. The Great White Way saw productions of eleven shows with his music between then and 1947, mostly revivals of his popular operettas like Naughty Marietta and Babes in Toyland, and these two became film and TV productions, too. But, until fairly recently, much of his work had not been recorded, excepting several operettas like the last two mentioned, and The Red Mill, Sweethearts, Mlle. Modiste and a few others, plus scattered songs on collections. The mammoth Collected Songs gathers musical theatre performers like Rebecca Luker, Ron Raines and Aaron Lazar, and opera singers presenting a whopping 101 vocals tracks (there's also one instrumental) on a four-disc boxed set with pages of historical notes.
(The box set has been in our pile for some months, a commitment of a listening experience of almost five hours of playing time, and one that required a few hearings to fully appreciate and absorb, what with so much unfamiliar material that one might assume would feel quite dated. What seemed an intriguing but very daunting task turned out to be an embarrassment of riches and more accessible than imagined. What with so many new single-disc cast albums and contemporary material taking priority, I reluctantly had put this aside. Later, I felt that this might be a good time to tell you about it, as a recommendation for the ideal box set holiday gift for the musical theatre fan especially interested in gaining more historical perspective on the roots of the genreand a welcome relief from the typical "greatest hits" /famous show tune collections present.)
Accompaniment is the versatile, song-serving pianist William Hicks who lets the song be front and center, never distracting, but forceful and energizing when need be, and gentle and understated when embellishment would be overkill. The singers embrace the styles comfortably, seeming to be neither aloof nor cautiously intimidated by the floweriness, stiffer stances or lushness. No sense of condescension to the idealistic images or attitudes is apparent. Respect and integrity are the keywords here, with the approach and style, with some surviving arrangements used. Affection is evident, too.
The great breadth and variety of styles in Herbert's work stands out on this fascinating historical survey. There are brisk and stirring marches, sweeping waltzes, the heavy-duty and the light, sprightly tunes, quirky character set-pieces and jaunty vaudeville turns, serious-toned compositions that resemble art songs, many lilting nods to Ireland (saluting his homeland and its typical musical forms, some simply his arrangements of beloved pre-existing Irish melodies, like the traditional Wexford theme). The industrious preparers of this Herculean effort have uncovered a lot that was below the tip of the visible iceberg, mostly staying away from the best-known pieces. For example, while there are two selections from Babes in Toyland, one is a cut song and the other was added to a touring production. Both are strong pieces, not also-rans. Often shown on TV around this time of year, Babes ... is likely the first exposure many had to Herbert, though perhaps in heavily adapted or abridged versions. For me, it was that and, oddly, tiny snippets of songs in a skit from a TV special, preserved on a record album: Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations in an operetta parody. (Some reference point, huh?)
Nothing says grandly proclaimed romantic operetta like Herbert. If you saw the Broadway version of Thoroughly Modern Millie, you heard two of his iconic songs interpolated: "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" and "I'm Falling in Love with Someone." No, you won't find them here, as the mission is to make room for the more obscure. But a few well-known pieces show up, like "Kiss Me Again" and the achingly beautiful bittersweet melody number taken up by many jazz artists, "Indian Summer" (Al Dubin wrote a lyric in 1939 to a 20-year-old piano piece and we get the French lyric, by Emilia Renaud, too). Both of these classics are treated with loving care by Rebecca Luker, her soprano shimmering and soaring. She's playful and sprightly when a number is lighter, such as the unpublished "The Kid Is Clever" about someone determined to be a star. Other sterling work is done by George Dvorsky and Aaron Lazar with sincerity and beauty in their voices, singing the praises of, respectively and respectfully, "The Princess of My Dreams" and "Lady of the Lantern." The reliable Jeanne Lehman shines on everything from "Remembrance" to "Mary's Lamb" (referencing the nursery rhyme in a nod to the theatrical fraternity of the Lambs Club) and the high tenor of Dillon McCartney is lovely and graceful. Daniel Marcus brings notable zest and a touch of mischief to some fun numbers, like one about "Humpty Dumpty," revealing that he was probably pushed and telling us there's a lesson there for us all.
There are the earliest works, starting in 1888: 19 items sung in German take up almost all of the first disc, as things are presented chronologically (except for those unpublished things clustered at the end which are of uncertain date). Newcomers to Herbert may be first seduced by his gift for grand, elegant and flowing melody lines, assuming a lack of listeners' fluency in German and thus the musical lines get undistracted attention. (But for attention to words, the booklet includes the German and rhymed English versions, side by side. The website of the record company has the lyrics of all the other songs, too, in PDF format). The more operatic/lieder pieces are handled with great skill, rich tone, and dramatic presence by such artists as soprano Marnie Breckenridge, mezzo Rosalie Sullivan, Margaret Jane Wray (known for Wagnerian roles) Jonathan Michie (a stalwart baritone), and the last three by Korliss Uecker. Encountering them on the later discs successfully loosening up with less formal, breezier fare further impresses.
After this somewhat heavy and earnest beginning leaning towards operatic/art-song traditions, some may be all the more surprised by Herbert's absorption of other styles and the "un-corseting" of structures and eclectic chameleon-like adventurousness. His lyricist partners represented here number in the dozens, including his operetta wordsmiths, the versatile Gene Buck for many Ziegfeld Follies numbers, a German poem's English adaptation by his own mother, something by his grandfather, and then there are numerous other poems set to music. One high-profile example of the latter is Robert Browning's "O, My Love's Like a Red, Red Rose," handsomely sung by Ron Raines, who shows judicious use of the varied colors in his voice: warmly crooning a phrase here, unleashing baritone power there, taking care to shade a key word with character.
Despite the numerous lyricists and poets, certain themes, styles, mindsets, and word choices keep coming up. Antiquated syntax is often seen, and there's some use of poetic language ("thou" and "thee"). There are many ardent declarations of worshipful or awestruck devotion to a loved one's looks and manner or the pain of separation. There are many references to roses, the silver of moons and stars, golden things (tree, days, skies), purple shadows, princesses and maidens fair, and love everlasting or dangerously fragile. As love of a pedestal-worthy person is unquestioned, so, too, is love of countryboth Ireland and America as patriotism in World War I, or longing for the hills of Ireland turned on full force, as are the tear ducts and stoicism, with the justification of bloodshed in war unapologetic. But not all is serious and sweetness and sentimentality. Other numbers celebrate drinking, friendship, Nature, and Irish traditions. Sara Jean Ford, with spunk, deliciously sings the praises of life in "Little Old New York," and there's a product-placement salute to a car company with "The Dodge Brothers March" sung cheerily by sturdy-voiced Zachary Stains and a male quartet as if honoring and being some heroic army battling battalion.
Just one part of the label's dedication to earlier musical theatre, the Herbert collection is a powerful and persuasive case for the composer's importance, influence, and versatility. A co-founder of ASCAP, a cellist, arranger, etc, he wore many musical hats. And in the new year, when the actors' union celebrates its 100th anniversary, let's also note that it was Victor Herbert who composed a rallying cry, to words by active union member Grant Stewart: "The Equity Star." It's as enthused as the call to arms for the USA and its flag elsewhere. And there are plenty of reasons102, to be preciseto be enthused about this collection. Visit the New World Records website for more information on the company's mission and the recordings they've brought forward so far.