in: Reviews

March 13, 2011

One Touch of Venus, a Satisfactory Bonbon

by

The art of Kurt Weill is astonishing in its variety. Few are familiar with the early atonal works that put the twenty-something composer firmly in the avant-garde of the ’Twenties, including operas with librettos by the Expressionist playwright Georg Kaiser. Many people know the works he wrote with Bertolt Brecht, especially The Threepenny Opera, either in its original German or in the popular, if somewhat bowdlerized, English of Marc Blitzstein, or the opera The Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny.  Weill’s Jewish ancestry and his prominent position in music during the years of the Weimar Republic made him persona non grata in German theaters after the rise of Hitler in 1933 (he was reputed to be No. 2 on Hitler’s list of undesirable composers, after Schoenberg).

In 1934 and 1935 he attempted to find success in the popular theater in France and England. Music he composed for Marie Galante in France is filled with the color and spirit of the Paris boulevards, while Der Kuhhandel (literally, “The Cow Business”) was produced at the Savoy Theatre in London as A Kingdom for a Cow in 1935, where it failed utterly. But when the BBC broadcast the full score as Arms and the Cow for the composer’s centenary in 2000, it proved to be a very engaging cross between Weill’s German scores and English musical theater.

In the United States, where he lived from the late 1930s until his tragically early death at fifty (and where he changed the pronunciation of his name from the German “vile” to the American “wile”), Kurt Weill continued to produce works for the stage, each of which was entirely individual in conception.  Of these, One Touch of Venus (1943) was the most traditional in terms of Broadway convention, but it had been preceded by an anti-war play with music (Johnny Johnson, 1936), whose diverse score ranged from patriotic choruses to a cowboy ditty and a Parisian popular chanson. In Knickerbocker Holiday (1938) only a handful of numbers — including the biggest hit, “September Song” — was in the traditional AABA shape. Lady in the Dark (1941) was a largely spoken play in which each of the three acts suddenly turned into an entirely musical dream sequence in the form of an operatic finale.

Following One Touch of Venus, Weill continued with The Firebrand of Florence (1945), a lavish waltz-filled “Viennese” operetta; a through-composed operatic setting of Elmer Rice’s play Street Scene (1946), with lyrics by Langston Hughes; a folk opera, Down in the Valley (1948), aimed primarily at school productions; eight songs for a vaudeville, Love Life (1948); a musical tragedy, Lost in the Stars (1949), based on Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country; and, left incomplete at his death, a musical version of Huckleberry Finn.

In this wide-ranging context, One Touch of Venus was much closer to the kind of show that ticket buyers expected in a Broadway house. Moreover, it starred one of Broadway’s newest sweethearts, Mary Martin. Both reasons explain why it ran for 567 performance, longer than any other American score by Kurt Weill in its original run. That alone is reason enough to offer a new production, since (so far as I know) the show has never had a major Broadway revival — or at least not in decades.  Nor has there ever been a complete recording of the score (original cast albums had not yet become a standard practice).

So it was with eager anticipation that I went on March 6 to see the production by the Boston Conservatory Theater Ensemble, a lively, beautifully mounted rendering of Weill-Nash-Perelman’s work. On entering the theater, the audience was greeted by Janie Howland’s impressively stylized New York skyline. Pieces moved on from left and right quickly established the settings of individual scenes, beginning with the gallery of modern art assembled by the self-centered millionaire Whitelaw Savory. A wonderfully diverse — not to say outrageously mismatched — collection of familiar contemporary paintings flew in from above for the opening scene to create a gallery of modern art.

On this flexible set, the assembled cast offered a crisp, lively performance, as directed by Stacey Stephens, musical director Steven Ladd Jones, and conductor Peter Mansfield, whose orchestra gave a fine account of Weill’s orchestrations. (He was the only Broadway composer of the period who fully scored his own music.)

The original show featured two prominent ballet numbers created by Agnes DeMille, fresh from her triumph with Oklahoma! These two numbers (Act I’s Forty Minutes for Lunch and Act II’s Venus in Ozone Heights) were a special delight here. I don’t know whether choreographer Michelle Chassé attempted to recreate DeMille’s original in any way, but choreography was lively and witty, with a period touch to it that seemed exactly right.

Any show that appeared on Broadway in the wake of Oklahoma! was evaluated at least partly by the coherence of its book. Audiences had supposedly outgrown the loose-limbed librettos characteristic of many older shows, in which unrelated songs might be inserted simply to allow the star to sing a number closely associated with him or her. I was surprised, therefore, to find in S.J. Perelman’s book for One Touch of Venus a number of occasions in which the action comes to a dead stop for a song — admittedly, often a quite funny song — that neither forwards the plot nor develops character. A case in point is “Way Out West in Jersey,” which is motivated solely by Mrs. Kramer, the character who sings it, dragging in this introductory line: “I always say that the minute you cross the Hudson River, you’re in the Wild West!”

But the oddest case of such a song comes in the first act finale, where — one might think — the author would like to keep his focus quite firmly on the plot line. At this point, a classical Greek statue has come to life as the goddess Venus, who has fallen in love with a simple barber, Rodney Hatch; he is genial, unassuming young man engaged to a termagant, Gloria Kramer. When Venus disappears in pursuit of Rodney, Whitelaw Savory, who had purchased the statue, urgently tries to track her down with the help of the police and private investigators.  Meanwhile Venus has made her rival, Gloria, disappear. Whitelaw Savory invites Rodney to a party at his gallery, where, as an item of entertainment, he offers a song about the wife-poisoner Dr. Crippen, a notorious crime that occurred three decades before the date of the show. The very tenuous link to the plot is that Savory wants to accuse Rodney of murdering his fiancée. The  song “Dr. Crippen,” an elaborate production number recreating the story of the murder, becomes a bizarre first-act finale.

But these weaknesses in the libretto are limited to the work of S.J. Perelman. The lyrics of Ogden Nash — who had not been previously known as a writer of lyrics intended for song — are clever and witty. Occasionally the lines are very Ogden Nashish, as in:

Was Gauguin really in love with a rhinoceros?

That’s prepocerous!

But for the most part they are more in the Broadway style of a Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter. The inverse love song of a kind that Hart mastered brilliantly can be found in “How Much I Love You” by comparing his love to a list of things that others hate:

More than a waiter hates to wait,

Or a lioness hates the zoo,

Or a batter dislikes those called third strikes,

That’s how much I love you.

And the kind of mild raciness that was the special province of Porter might have inspired the title song in which “one touch of Venus” can help a woman get ahead:

Look what Beatrice did to Dante,

What du Barry did to France,

Venus showed them that the pantie

Is mightier than the pants.

And Nash can be more droll than any lyricist I can think of:

One way to be very wealthy

Is to be very, very, very rich.

This was Kurt Weill’s first show in which virtually all of the songs are built on the standard American song format consisting of a verse to set up the situation followed by one or more choruses in the standard AABA shape. Within this set pattern, he writes (among others) a mock cowboy song, a rollicking waltz song for male quartet (“The Trouble With Women”), Savory’s “West Wind,” and the love songs involving Venus and Rodney that became the best known numbers in the show:   “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,”  “It’s Him,” and “Speak Low When You Speak Love,” a gently surging beguine, the single biggest hit in the long term.

The ensemble’s singing and dancing was first rate, tight, energetic, and full of life. I worried briefly at the very opening number in the Saturday matinee, because the busy orchestra seemed to be drowning out the lyrics, but from that point on a better acoustic balance (with the miked voices) worked well.

The soloists all showed impressive dance ability and strong voices. Shayne Kennon superbly captured the supercilious arrogance of Whitelaw Savory, and Margaret Lamb played his efficient, intelligent and overlooked gal Friday, Molly Grant, with great verve. Meryn Beckett and Hayley Lovgren played the mother-and-daughter horrors, Rodney’s long-term fiancée Gloria (a kind of loudmouth  Bette Midler role) and her snobby, puritanical  mother Mrs. Kramer, with suitable grating speaking voices, but fine singing of “Way Out West in Jersey.”

The sweethearts of the play, Rodney and Venus, inevitably have to face roles that are the least dramatically characterized, being essentially the “juvenile” and the “ingénue” from the romantic comedies of time immemorial. But Edward Tolve’s Rodney seemed suitably flummoxed by the unexpected change in his life, sang smoothly and sweetly, and did a spectacular tap dance. Carolyn Miller (Venus) had a lovely voice and was a fine dancer, but her playing of the role of Venus didn’t convince me that she was really in love with Rodney; perhaps this was a directorial choice to remind the audience that she was also a “thawed” statue, after all — at least until the very end, when Venus turns back into the statue, but the actress reappears as a simple American girl from Ozone Heights who connects with Rodney in the finale.

One Touch of Venus may not be the most important work in Kurt Weill’s output, but it is a delicious bonbon from the musical theater of the early ’40s, one that certainly deserves occasional revivals, especially when it is as satisfactory, overall, as this production from the Boston Conservatory’s musical theater program.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

3 Comments

  1. There was a semi-staged professional production in the City Center Encores! series exactly 15 years ago that drew well-deserved kudos in the Times, but, alas, there was no cast album:
    http://theater.nytimes.com/mem/theater/treview.html?_r=1&html_title&tols_title=ONE+TOUCH+OF+VENUS+%28PLAY%29&byline=By+BEN+BRANTLEY&pdate=19960330&id=1077011431036&oref=slogin

    Comment by Stephen C. Fisher — March 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm

  2. Aha..thanks for letting me know about that, Stephen. I’m sorry they didn’t record it. There are many delicious things in that score.

    Comment by Steven Ledbetter — March 14, 2011 at 11:52 pm

  3. You didn’t think the Saturday performance was badly overamplified? I thought the sound system fidelity was poor, making the voices sound harsh and screechy, and was also simply turned up way too loud.

    Comment by David Bean — March 15, 2011 at 11:29 am

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