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The Weill Project blog: One Touch of Venus

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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#kurtweill #ogdennash #s.j.perelman #eliakazan #agnesdemille #marymartin #onetouchofvenus #newyork #joemabel #weillproject #weillbio

(Prior biographical posts on Weill: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11], [12], [13], [14], [15], [16], [17], [18], [19], [20].

37 ¢ U.S. postage stamp with the face of Ogden Nash and tiny text of some of his poems
Ogden Nash, lyricist of One Touch of Venus, was honored by a U.S. postage stamp on the 100th anniversary of his birth, in 2002.
Copyrighted, presumably by the USPS; low-resolution version used here on a fair use basis.

While Weill was working on Lady in the Dark, the play that finally made him financially independent, the play's costume designer, Irene Sharaff 🔗, recommended that he read The Tinted Venus by F. Antsey (pseudonym of Thomas Anstey Guthrie 🔗). The 1885 novella was a self-described "farcical romance" about a statue of Venus come to life in Victorian London. Weill approached Ira Gershwin in November 1941 about working together on an operetta based on the book, but Gershwin wasn't interested in the project. Weill set about finding other collaborators.

Producer Cheryl Crawford 🔗 got involved. You may remember her from a few posts back joining Weill in a moderately financially successful, but artistically barren, trip to Hollywood. Weill began working on a script with Sam and Bella Spewack 🔗 and Ogden Nash 🔗, but it pretty quickly became clear it wasn't going anywhere. The Spewacks would eventually go on to do the book for Cole Porter's great Kiss Me, Kate 🔗, but it seems this particular story wasn't doing it for them. Crawford brought in S.J. Perelman 🔗, instead.

For anyone who might not be familiar with Odgen Nash: he was known mainly as a writer of light, humorous verse, probably the last American to really become a household word by writing in that vein. If a mid-twentieth-century didn't have any books by Odgen Nash, there's a fair chance it didn't have any books. His witty and playful verse—lines of extremely uneven length, blatantly forced rhymes—carried an occasional curmudgeonly or even misanthropic attitude, but always with enough humor to amount to a light touch. He was a staple of my childhood; several times I've mentioned him in conversation in connection with Weill, the response has been for someone to quote verses of Nash's from memory. Here's one from the late 1950s that doesn't have any of his trademark twists, but still catches his tone nicely:

City Greenery
If you should happen after dark
To find yourself in Central Park,
Ignore the paths that beckon you
And hurry, hurry to the zoo,
And creep into the tiger's lair.
Frankly, you'll be safer there.
From Everyone But Thee And Me, Little Brown, 1962, quoted on a fair use basis.
Caricature of S.J. Perelman
Prior to working on One Touch of Venus, the only scripts S.J. Perelman had written were for the Marx Brothers.
Caricature of S.J. Perelman by Joe Mabel. All right reserved

Perelman was a friend of Nash's and, like him, a regular contributor to the New Yorker magazine. Like Nash, he was known for light humor, but Perelman's was more madcap, tending toward the surreal. When Weill was co-writing Die Bürgschaft and Die Silbersee Perelman was co-writing the scripts for the Marx Brothers' Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932). If Nash had been a somewhat unlikely collaborator for Weill, Perelman was even more so, especially because those Marx Brothers movies were Perelman's only prior experience writing scripts. Still, unlike with the Spewacks, the three began to make progress on the script. The locale of the story was transferred to the here-and-now of wartime New York, and whereas Antsey's book had gone back and forth between Victorian London and Mount Olympus, the resulting play pretty much drops Mount Olympus except for one production number.

The sources I've been able to find about the process of One Touch of Venus coming together are a bit of a muddle, with a lot of mutual contradictions. A few things are clear. Weill originally had Marlene Dietrich in mind to play Venus, and wrote to her to that effect in July 1942. She seems to have attended at least some rehearsals or tryouts, but ultimately did not take the role. Her own version of events—that as the mother of a teenage daughter at the time she didn't want to play something so "sexy and profane"—seems pretty implausible, sort of like John Wayne not wanting a particular role because it was "too masculine." I'd put more faith in the reports that she bowed out because she didn't want to take on that sort of schedule of rehearsal and performance. At roughly that time, she was extremely active in supporting the Allied efforts in the war: entertaining the troops, selling more War Bonds than probably anyone else, and making major contributions of time and money to housing refugees from France and Germany. Like Weill (we'll get to that in a later blog post) she was involved in the process of creating propaganda songs both for the home front and for broadcast into Germany; unlike Weill, she entered Germany with General Patton, and was repeatedly perilously close to the front lines in the last weeks of the war.

With Dietrich out of the picture, they needed to cast a new Venus. They ended up going a very different direction, casting the young Mary Martin 🔗 in her first leading role. I don't know about you, but my first thought on hearing the name "Mary Martin" is not exactly "sexy and profane." To me, she'll always be Peter Pan. Stephen Hinton describes her as "upbeat and wholesome." Still, she had first come to major public attention as Dolly Winslow in the 1938 Cole Porter musical Leave It to Me!. In that show, her big number was My Heart Belongs to Daddy 🔗 which is, well, sexy and profane. Here's a YouTube clip 🔗 of her recreating the role in the Cole Porter biopic Night and Day (1946) and you can see how she brought just enough of what what Brooks Atkinson called "mock innocence" to get away with it. The censors must have been mesmerized by her just-concealed-enough body to completely miss that line about "to dine on my fine Finnan haddie."

Mary Martin on a high stool chatting on a phone. Behind her, a man looks rather unhappy.
Mary Martin earlier in 1943, chatting on the phone during a break on the set of the film True to Life.
Public domain.

Elia Kazan 🔗 directed One Touch of Venus and Weill's frequent conductor Maurice Abravanel 🔗 conducted. Kazan wasn't very happy with the experience. To reduce the play's running time dialogue was cut to, in his words, "little more than bridges." Furthermore, Weill was very hands-on, and repeatedly insisted on specific decisions about staging, especially blocking (location of the actors). This didn't end with opening night. Weill came by every two weeks as a sort of orchestral quality assurance. Kazan later wrote that he "felt like an overpaid stage manager." And while One Touch of Venus wasn't exactly epic theater it was still a far cry from the method acting Kazan favored. Still, he and Weill were both effusive in their praise of choreographer Agnes de Mille 🔗, and Kazan was equally effusive in praising principal dancer Sono Osato 🔗. Weill considered the dance sequence in which Venus returns to the gods—essentially, a short ballet he wrote in collaboration with de Mille—his best work since leaving Germany.

The play mostly came together from June to September of 1943 and opened on 7 October of that year at the Imperial Theatre. Weill and Nash wrote some great songs for Venus (three of which, "My Foolish Heart", "I'm a Stranger Here Myself", and "Speak Low", Juliana and I will be performing). The first two of these I really cannot imagine Dietrich singing. As far as I can tell, they became possible only when Mary Martin's versatile voice came into play, but maybe Weill would have worked it out. Weill was almost unique among Broadway composers of the era in doing his own orchestrations. It was in discussing precisely this play that he remarked, "You can't really start doing the orchestration until the rehearsals begin, bcause until you know who the singers will be, you don't know which key to choose for each number. The American musical is a custom-made job."

"Speak Low" and another song from the play, "West Wind", show a side of Nash's writing that I haven't seen anywhere else, and I can only presume that it was Weill who for once got him for once in his life to adopt this serious and sentimental, but not over-sentimental, tone. It certainly can't have been Perelman! Conversely, Weill for the most part adopted a very new (to him) and very American idiom for much of his music, to the point where many critics have complained that his work for the play is "un-Weillian" and shows no continuity at all with his earlier writing. He did, nonetheless, again recycle a tune from one of his lesser-known works: the barbershop quartet song "The Trouble With Women" is a rework of "In der Jugend goldnem Schimmer", one of the "Salvation Army songs" from Happy End (see prior blog post). Also, speaking from my own experience arranging it for guitar, there are some very Weillian semi-tonal shifts in "I'm a Stranger Here Myself".

The plot is really rather lightweight; oddly, this project that Weill so much initiated turned out to be the most conventional Broadway musical he ever worked on. The sophisticated, wealthy, but terribly self-important Whitelaw Savory has just bought a rare statue of Venus for his private museum. His barber, Rodney Hatch, a shlub from Ozone Park, New Jersey comes by to give Savory his daily shave. Rodney says the Venus isn't as pretty as his own fiancée, Gloria. With Savory out of the room, Rodney absentmindedly takes Venus's had and slips onto her finger the wedding ring he has bought for Gloria. (In the original novel, Rodney's equivalent slips the ring onto the statue's finger to get it out of the way while he goes dancing with another woman.) Venus comes to life and is entirely and exclusively enamored with her liberator Rodney who, for the moment, resists her charms.

A young Sono Osato in whirl of Oriental costume.
Sono Osato dancing with the Ballet Russe in 1939.
Born in 1919 in Omaha, Nebraska to a Japanese father and an Irish-French Canadian mother, raised mainly in Chicago, at 16 Osato became the youngest member of the Ballet Russe, touring the world with that famous company. She came back to America and to the American Ballet Theatre in 1941, just in time to have her ability to tour limited by the Japanese internment 🔗. She was consequently left out of company tours to the Western U.S. and to Mexico.
Her performance in One Touch of Venus won her a Donaldson Award 🔗, comparable at that time to a Tony now. She lived to the age of 99, dying in 2018.
Public domain. In the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, Australia.

Venus ventures out into the whirlwind of 1940s Manhattan; Gloria and her mother chew out Rodney for misplacing the wedding ring; Venus appears in Rodney's barbershop while he is bemoaning the situation ("The Trouble With Women"); and this time Rodney does not resist. Gloria appears; Venus transforms Gloria into a puff of air; Rodney is suspected of murder and is arrested. Venus effects Rodney's escape from prison and whisks him off to a hotel room. Romance ensues, but Rodney still insists that Venus must bring Gloria back to life or he'll be convicted of murder; Gloria emerges, furious, curses them both, and disappears again; it's the last we see of her. I forget exactly how Rodney ultimately escapes a murder charge; I think Savory somehow helps him out. It really doesn't matter. What does matter is that now that Venus has her man, she realizes that having him is not worth the concommitant life as a housewife in Ozone Park. She rejoins the gods.

Originally that was supposed to be the end of the play, but during tryouts a good deal of epilogue was added. The statue is back in Savory's private museum, Rodney has come again for Savory's daily shave, and in walks a young art student who is the spitting image of Venus… and is from Ozone Park. She and Rodney leave hand in hand.

Lightweight though this is, Stephen Hinton points out a few interesting aspects. Rodney's love for Gloria seems to be mostly surface conventionality, devoid of passion or even deep companionship; it's not surprising that Venus would eventually draw him in. In the song "How Much I Love You", which Rodney addresses to Gloria, he tries to explain how much he loves her by a series of comparisons but all the examples are very negative and, unmentioned by Hinton, Nash doubles down on this later, when the same tune is reprised by Rodney in a song about how much he is sick of love. Also: while a key plot point revolves around Venus's rejection of being a housewife in Ozone Park, Venus is equally alienated by the fast pace of wartime Manhattan, especially as instatiated in the "Forty Minutes for Lunch" dance sequence. Both Venus and Savory are nostalgic for an older world, expressed positively in her waltz "Foolish Heart" (the instrumental end of which is eventually drowned out by "What Do We Do With a Drunken Sailor"); longingly in his "West Wind", a memory of a past love whose music is built around a theme associated elsewhere in the play with Venus; and negatively in the frustration expressed in Venus's "I'm a Stranger Here Myself". Several of the dance scenes also express this alienation, by distorting themes found elsewhere in the play. As part of Weill's effort to represent Venus's alienation from modernity, while the score is a mix of musical styles, the love scenes tend toward older dance forms, about the most modern of which is the rhumba rhythm used in the song "Speak Low" that appears several times in the play. A rhumba was reasonably contemporary at the time, but certainly not the dance of the moment. "Speak Low", by the way, wasn't intended to be the hit—"West Wind" was— but "Speak Low" took off. This was probably in part because the rhumba rhythm had a lot more potential to be played by dance bands, but principally because its aching theme of the brevity of love in the face of onrushing time registered strongly in a world where so many young (and not-so-young) men were being shipped off to fight in World War II.

The play was a hit, and ran 567 performances. Still, One Touch of Venus came six months after Oklahoma! and the bar had been raised. Reviews were certainly positive, but not raves. No one covets the award for second-best musical of the year. No doubt this prodded Weill to experiment a bit more in his next outings.

1943 was, of course, long before my time, but I had the good fortune to catch a one-night 40th anniversary performance of One Touch of Venus in 1983. Paula Laurence from the original cast reprised her role as Molly Grant, so I can claim to have seen this with one original cast member! I would never have been able to tell you just who else was in it except that the Wikipedia article on Peggy Cass 🔗 mentions the performance and says Cass "appeared … as Mrs. Kramer, with [soap opera star] Susan Lucci as her daughter, as well as Lee Roy Reams, Ron Raines, and Paige O'Hara as the titular Venus." (A recent posting of the playbill on eBay also mentioned Jim Dale, David Garrison, and Jack Daboub.) So I guess I caught Paige O'Hara 🔗, one of the go-to voices for Disney films, right at the start of her career.

There was a 1948 film based on the play. It was, by all reports, an abomination.

[This essay draws on Jürgen Schebera's meticulously researched Kurt Weill: an illustrated life, (Yale, 1995, translated from the original German by Caroline Murphy) and Stephen Hinton's Weill's Musical Theater: Stages of Reform (University of California, 2012).]

Next blog post: Wartime

Next Weill biography blog post: Wartime

All materials copyright © 2021 Joseph L. Mabel unless otherwise noted.
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Original date: 13 December 2021
Last modified: 13 December 2021

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