Before The Golden Age Was Consciously Golden (1943 Edition)

Welcome to the start of a new week on That’s Entertainment! Today’s Musical Theatre Monday post launches a new series on musicals that came after Oklahoma! (1943), which is often, in hindsight, credited with ushering in the “Golden Age” of the American Musical (which, depending on whom you believe, lasted at least two decades). But interestingly enough, many of the shows from the first few post-Oklahoma! years are largely forgotten. Indeed, the period from about 1943-1948 IS “Golden,” but the shows are not yet conscious of that fact, many of them still struggling to adapt to to innovations regarding book and score cohesion. Still, these shows feature excellent tunes introduced by excellent stars. For the next month or so (probably spilling into January), we’ll be discussing some of these titles. We’ll begin with a musical that opened in 1943 (after Oklahoma!, of course.)

 

1943. One Touch Of Venus (10/07/43 – 02/10/45)

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Today’s choice was a conscious pick. The star of One Touch Of Venus would have celebrated her 100th birthday yesterday. Yes, I’m speaking of the mother of J.R. Ewing, Peter Pan herself, Mary Martin. Interestingly, this property was actually initially intended for Dietrich, but the starlet found the book too profane. Enter Mary Martin — who found herself back on Broadway for the first time since her breakout smash in 1938’s Leave It To Me! (Not for lack of trying though — it just so happened that two of her shows in the ’39-’43 period closed out-of-town and never made it in to New York.) Based on a 19th century novella, One Touch Of Venus features a score by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash, with a book by Nash and S.J. Perlman (who replaced the Spewacks).

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The plot concerns art teacher and connoisseur, Whitelaw Savory (John Boles), who has acquired an ancient statue, the Venus of Anatolia, which reminds him of a lost love. When barber Rodney Hatch (Kenny Baker) arrives, he absentmindedly slips his fiancé’s new ring around the statue’s finger and she (Mary Martin) magically comes to life, proclaiming Rodney her new lover. Rodney panics and flees, and Venus follows suit. Savory, his secretary Molly (Paula Laurence), and Savory’s crew — Taxi Black (Teddy Hart) and Stanley (Harry Clark) — sound the burglar alarm. At Rodney’s place, he rebuffs Venus, making plans to meet his fiancé and her mother at the train station the next day.

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The following day, Venus wanders around the city, wondering why Rodney is resisting her. While she tries on dresses in a store window, Savory is shocked to meet the spitting image of his former flame, unaware that she’s his statue come to life. At the bus station, Venus watches as Rodney meets his future mother-in-law, Mrs. Kramer (Helen Raymond), and his obnoxious fiancé Gloria (Ruth Bond), who badgers Rodney for her new ring. When he fails to produce it, she demands that he do so within the next 24 hours. Meanwhile, Taxi has witnessed the whole thing and takes Gloria’s mother to Savory, and the latter is fully convinced that Rodney stole his statue. Venus appears and confides in Savory that she’s afraid she’s lost her sex appeal. He suggests that she eliminate her competition.

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At the barbershop, Stanley distracts Rodney while Taxi and Savory search for the statue. When Gloria enters, they tie her up and knock Rodney out. The doorbell rings and the men flee. Venus enters and unties Gloria, but when the ungrateful fiancé insults Venus, the latter sends her rival to the North Pole. Rodney comes to and he and Venus finally embrace. That night, the pair attends a party thrown by Savory’s foundation. It is announced that Gloria is missing and her mom has Rodney arrested for murder. But Venus confesses that she’s the one who “dissolved” Gloria, and she is arrested alongside her love.

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The second act opens as Savory and Molly, eager to spring Venus from jail, are threatened by Zuvetli (Harold J. Stone), an Anatolian, who demands that the statue be returned or else. In prison, Zuvetli confronts Venus, but she refuses to come with him. Instead, she uses her powers to free herself and Rodney. The two go to a hotel for a night of passion. But Rodney is tormented about the fate of Gloria, so Venus brings her back. Gloria and Rodney break their engagement. Rodney begins planning a future for he and Venus, but she wonders if that’s the right life for her. She disappears. When Rodney and Savory are kidnapped by Zuvetli, the statue reappears on its pedestal, and the Anatolians leave. As Rodney sadly watches the statue, a woman the spitting image of Venus walks by, and they exit together.

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As you can see, the plot is an odd mixture of traditional musical comedy fare (think 1938’s I Married An Angel) and something of the more literate “higher-brow” sort (think Weill’s previous work, 1941’s Lady In The Dark, with which Venus was then compared.) There’s definitely cohesion in the plot, and common to Weill’s work, the songs are fitting for the characters and the situations. Truthfully, not all of the songs are quite as integrated as a show like Oklahoma! would dictate, and the show waffles around in establishing a tone. Still it isn’t fair to dissect the book as we would a later show, because we’re still only six months out of Oklahoma! As a 1943 show, the book is well-constructed, and upon its opening, One Touch Of Venus was lavished with praise.

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One of the more distinguishing elements of the production was its choreography by Agnes de Mille. This is the era of the dream ballet, and One Touch Of Venus capitalizes on that with a second act number entitled, “Venus Is Ozone Heights,” in which Venus imagines herself living an ill-fitting domesticated life in Ozone Heights, before finally being summoned back home by the mythical creatures of Ancient Greece. There’s also another ballet in the first act entitled, “Forty Minutes For Lunch,” in which Venus dances in the hustle and bustle of New York City, even matchmaking up a French girl with a sailor. These two moments were considered highlights of the show.

But everything that Mary got to do was pretty much considered a highlight. She undoubtedly got the best numbers, some of Kurt Weill’s most romantic (read: emotionally heightened), but surprisingly undervalued. Her opening was the sultry and jazzy “I’m A Stranger Here Myself,” which led into the first ballet. She also got a vulnerable tune in the wistful “Foolish Heart,” combining the fantasy of a classically inspired Disney score with the sophistication of both Weill and Nash.

Mary’s Act Two spot was the one initially singled out for the most praise, “That’s Him,” which Venus sang after a night of hotel lovemaking. What can I say? It’s an excellent song that should be better known. Mary is absolute magic.

The big love duet was “Speak Low,” which is probably the most remembered song from the show.

Another one of my favorite romantic songs from the score is Savory’s “West Wind,” a torchy number that occurs after Savory sees Venus trying on dresses in the window.

The other half of the score is much less romantic and more charactery. There were only two ensemble numbers — the opening of Act One, led by Savory, and a number led by Savory and Molly in Act Two. Comedienne Paula Laurence as Molly got two more songs — the title song and the comic open to Act Two, “Very, Very, Very.” But one of the most amusing, (but perhaps the least organically included song from the score) is Mother Kramer’s “Way Out West In Jersey.”

Aside from “Speak Low” with Venus, Kenny Baker’s Rodney got several other lesser, but no less enjoyable, numbers — “How Much I Love You,” and the number that sparks the second ballet, “Wooden Wedding.” But he and the three other leading males joined together for an excellent quartet, “The Trouble With Women,” one of the best songs from the score.

Another one of the most interesting numbers occurs at the end of Act One. Entitled “Dr. Crippen,” Savory relates the tale of a crime of passion, anticipating Rodney’s arrest for Gloria’s murder. Stylistically it reminds me of “The Sage Of Jenny,” but much more delightfully menacing.

A smash hit in 1943, you’ll be pleased to know that Venus has never disappeared completely from sight. The original production was followed by a 1948 film adaptation that, not surprisingly, cut most of the score. Then came a TV production in 1955 that starred Russell Nype and Janet Blair. The show has received many concert and local productions over the past 30 years, including a 1995 BBC production and a 1996 Encores! production. In addition to several recordings put out by the original cast, a studio recording of the full score has just been released by JAY. Though the BBC performers are uniformly stronger, for musical theatre lovers interested in hearing the work in full, the JAY recording is a must-buy. Several other cut numbers are included on that recording as well, including the haunting “Love In A Mist.”

So an interesting plot with a luminous star who sang achingly mesmerizing songs made for a smash hit in post-Oklahoma! 1943. It’s a period piece — complete with dream ballets and comic numbers that halt the action. But it’s indicative of the blossoming of this “Golden Age,” emphasis still on creators and stars, but also a commitment to cohesion and structure in the storytelling. One Touch Of Venus further reinforced the growing popularity of Kurt Weill (whom many argue did his best work in the ’40s) and is responsible for the sustainment of Mary Martin’s Broadway career — a fact for which many of us are still eternally grateful.

Happy 100th, Mary!  

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Come back next Monday for a musical from 1944! And tune in tomorrow as Sitcom Tuesdays begin an eight week series on the best from Bewitched!

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