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The Dress Circle: An All-Star Presentation of Rodgers and Hart's "Babes in Arms"

Although the shows have disappeared, the songs of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart are still extremely popular, and we’re going to reconstruct as much of one of their shows as we can on this week’s Dress Circle (6/28 7:00 p.m.) with 1937’s “Babes in Arms.”  We’ll be turning to several cast recordings including studio cast recordings from 1951 and 1989 as well as the City Center Encores cast recording from 1999 and solo recordings by Barbara Cook and Judy Garland.  Since we’ve got so much music (including two ballets), we won’t have time to offer a synopsis during the program, so we’re including it here.  

The perennially popular songs like “Where or When,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “All at Once,” and “Imagine” are peppered through a rather simplistic story about a group of teenagers trying to prove that they are able to take care of themselves while their parents, who are vaudeville performers, are off on a theatrical tour for the summer so that they aren’t placed on a Depression era work farm.   

Synopsis of “Babes in Arms”

I’ve got a barn; my sister can sing; my brother has a reversible jacket – let’s put on a show!

After its Broadway premier, much of the social and political satire and commentary was removed from the book for BABES IN ARMS.  There are so many versions of the book for this musical at this point that we decided to look at the original but to also combine essences of the following revisions.  This synopsis is not purporting to be the definitive version of the book; it’s just something to follow along and fill in the story-gaps that we don’t have time to relate during the program.

The show opens in the mythical town of Seaport, Long Island in 1937 which has become the home of many families with ties to vaudeville.  Everything is hectic as the adults are all quickly packing for a five-and-a-half-month tour of the vaudeville circuit has just materialized.   The mostly teen-aged children (The Babes) are left in charge.  A nomadic young lady, Billie Smith, arrives at the doorstep of one of them, Val LaMar, and he immediately falls in love with her but tries to impress her by discussing movie stars, self-defense tactics, and Nietzsche’s theory of individualism.  Even with this, Billy admits that she too feels an attraction to Val (“Where or When”).

Just then, the sheriff arrives to take Val to the local work-farm along with the other Babes since they are too young to be left without adult supervision.  Val, who seems to have found some new strength because of Billie’s presence, manages to talk the sheriff out of taking them for the time being, and he sounds a sort of war-cry assembling the Babes to figure out what can be done (“Babes in Arms”).

That evening, they have a meeting and debate what they might do.  At this meeting, several key characters are introduced:  Lee Calhoun (a Southern bigot who believes in superior races), Peter Jackson (who has communistic leanings), Gus Fielding (who’s ready to fight at any time), and Dolores Reynolds (the sheriff’s daughter).  Dolores and Gus have a lovers’ spat, and she sings “I Wish I Were in Love Again.”  After the song, the fight continues and turns into an all-out brawl.  Just then, the sheriff appears, and Val improvises frantically and tells the sheriff that they’re just rehearsing for a Follies that they’re producing to prove that they’re capable of taking care of themselves.  With this, Ivor and Irving De Quincy do a song and dance they’ve been working on that impresses the Babes (“Light on Their Feet”).

As the Babes try to figure out what to do, Fate helps them out with the appearance of a former child star named Baby Rose who says she became passe at age seven.  Now, a cynical sixteen-year-old, she’s bored with everything but misses the “civilized savagery” of New York City (“Way Out West”).  Baby Rose is happy to headline their show, and she agrees to stay in town long enough to open in it.

The next problem is trying to find the money for the production, but the only one in town who has enough, $47.76, is Lee Calhoun, but even though they offer to name the Follies after him, he won’t front the money if the two “black Babes,” Ivor and Irving, appear in it.  This causes Val and Billie to fight.  Billie thinks they should compromise in order to get the show done, but Val thinks Lee’s racism is wrong and refuses.  After a war of words, Val storms out leaving Billie alone to think about what has just happened (“My Funny Valentine”).

Two weeks pass:

The barn has been converted into a “drive-in” theatre, and the audience is happily watching the Follies from their cars.  Baby Rose wows them with a song about an opera singer who could only sing one note (“Johnny One-Note”), and that’s followed by a ballet that lampoons Verdi’s “Aida” with the cast dressed in costume pieces they’ve found including brushes, pans, lamp shades, coat hangers, mops, towels, and the like.  On stage, the show’s a success, but backstage, Lee is causing trouble.  Val tells Ivor and Irving to get ready for their entrance, but Lee’s racism rears its head and causes Val to punch him and knock him out.  Ivor and Irving are huge hits, and Val’s belief in them is vindicated.

Lee, being the jerk that he is, immediately closes the Follies, and the Babes are all shipped off to the work farm.  There, they all wonder what might have been and could be (“Imagine”).  Billie, ever the optimist, tries to tell Val that he shouldn’t be too upset because good luck could fall right out of the sky.  Even though Val thinks she’s being childish, they reconcile (“All at Once”).

The mood lightens, however, when Peter appears and tells everyone that he’s won the raffle at the local movie house, and he’s got quite a bit of money now.  The Babes assume that he’ll share it with them since he’s a devout communist, but it seems that all of those communist sentiments quickly disappeared as soon as he got the money, and Peter goes off on his own journey of discovery after singing a reprise of “Imagine.”  His journey is a twelve-minute-long ballet choreographed by George Balanchine that shows his idealized travels around the world (“Peter’s Journey Ballet”).  When Peter’s daydream comes to an end, he sings another reprise of “Imagine” and says goodbye to the Babes.

A few days later, it’s the Babes’ first night off from the work farm, so they gather in a field outside of Val’s house.  Billie has become restless again, and she starts to think about getting back to her wanderings (“The Lady is a Tramp”).   Soon after, Gus and Dolores are at it again, and they sing “You Are So Fair” which isn’t really what the title suggests and features some of Hart’s cleverest lyrics.  Suddenly, Peter appears.  His trip lasted just as far as Belmont Park where he lost all of his money betting on horses.  He’s broke; he’s back, and he’s a communist once more.

The Babes then hear about a great French aviator, Rene Flambeau, who is making a trans-Atlantic crossing.  As they watch for him, they see his plane is in trouble, and he crash-lands on Val’s property.  He is fine, but the Babes jump on the opportunity and tie-up Flambeau and hide him on Val’s property.  Val, impersonating Flambeau, talks to the arriving journalists and tells them that he is very happy he crashed in Seaport because it is so beautiful and is a wonderful place for an airport.   Shortly afterwards, offers to buy the LaMar property begin to pour in from some of the major airlines.

Lee Calhoun, who is still angry with Val, finds Flambeau and releases him, hoping to ruin Val’s chances, but Flambeau hears why the Babes hid him and is sympathetic to their plight, so he remains quite about it.  The show ends with a very happy, but short finale.  

Michael is program host and host of the WWFM Sunday Opera, Sundays at 3 pm, and co-host of The Dress Circle, Sundays at 7 pm.
Ted Otten is co-host of The Dress Circle