by Mark N. Grant
It ran longer than any other Weill musical, made Mary Martin a star, and yielded one of his great standards, “Speak Low.” Yet for theatre connoisseurs, One Touch of Venus is the problem piece among Weill’s American works, because it is his one generic musical comedy apparently devoid of significant innovations. A fresh look discloses that One Touch of Venus was more than just another George S. Kaufman-style show. Venus is golden age Broadway’s reply to the racy sex comedy of filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch; nearly all its best numbers are love songs, and in quantity and quality of risqué humor One Touch of Venus arguably outstrips every other show of its era. (Cleverness, too–some of Ogden Nash’s acerbic lyrics are perhaps too sophisticated to understand even on second hearing.) For all its wisecracking the script has an almost Goethean subtext based on the eternal Madonna/whore theme. Weill’s score outdoes even Lady in the Dark in displaying his symphonic mastery of American pop/vernacular idioms. And Venus is perhaps the first show where the composer became the “muscle”–a case study in backstage Realpolitik, with Weill outflanking the director and guiding not only the creative team but ultimately the show itself.
The germ of the project came from an obscure British novel that costume designer Irene Sharaff (Lady in the Dark) suggested to Weill. The Tinted Venus (1885) by F. Anstey tells the whimsical tale of a statue of Venus in England who, Galatea-like, briefly comes to life, and expresses her disgust at love’s debasement to the furtive, repressed sexuality of Victorianism. “F. Anstey” was the pen name of Thomas Anstey Guthrie (1856-1934), a lawyer turned journalist, novelist, and humorist for Punch. The fantasy-like story spoke to Weill, who envisioned it as a neo-Offenbachian operetta, and in 1942 he interested Cheryl Crawford in producing it. (Crawford had produced Johnny Johnson and the successful 1942 “revisal” of Porgy and Bess, on which Weill had been an uncredited score doctor.) Crawford tried to woo Ira Gershwin, then Arthur Kober, to adapt The Tinted Venus, but both passed. Then she secured Bella Spewack, who with her husband Sam had written Cole Porter’s 1938 Leave It to Me (and would later write the book for Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate), along with Ogden Nash, versifier extraordinaire but a Broadway novice (except for a few songs in a forgotten 1932 revue), to do the lyrics.
Weill at once initiated what became a cat-and-mouse game to persuade Marlene Dietrich, whom he had known in Germany, to make her Broadway debut in the title role (“Speak Low” was clearly written with Dietrich’s voice in mind). At their first meeting in Hollywood Dietrich was interested; eventually she went so far as to try on various Venus costumes in New York, sign a contract, and even do an audition from the stage of the 46th Street Theatre. Crawford later recalled that, even with her lover Jean Gabin in the audience for moral support, Dietrich was frightened during the audition. Sitting in the third row, Crawford and Weill couldn’t hear her over a mere piano and realized they’d need to find a way to amplify her voice.
When Bella Spewack presented her final script, Crawford, Weill, and Nash all agreed that it was hopeless (upon being fired, Spewack fainted twice). Crawford replaced Spewack with Nash’s friend and fellow New Yorker contributor (and former Marx Brothers scriptwriter) S.J. Perelman. Perelman’s new book jettisoned the Victorian setting and set the story in modern-day New York, adding highly sophisticated, not to say leeringly suggestive, dialogue. That was too much for Dietrich; she read the Perelman script and rejected it out of hand as “too sexy and profane,” saying she couldn’t play such a part onstage. Weill was so furious he resorted to German to bawl her out. To be fair, she was right about the script: it boasts even more sexual innuendo than Pal Joey, which had scandalized critics and theatergoers only three years earlier. Perelman’s Venus says, “Love is the triumphant twang of a bedspring.” Another character mocks the timorous male lead with a plumbing double entendre: “Your trouble’s in the cellar! Your Bemis valve is clogged, brother.”
The search for a Venus recommenced, but Ilona Massey, Vera Zorina, and Gertrude Lawrence all declined. Then casting against type proved inspired: Crawford contacted young Mary Martin, who after a splashy Broadway debut singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in Leave it to Me had not fared well as a siren in a few Hollywood B movies. Martin liked the songs but couldn’t imagine herself playing Venus, until her husband Richard Halliday took her to the Metropolitan Museum and showed her that the goddess appears in a great variety of shapes and sizes. The 5′ 4-1/2″ Martin wore stiletto heels, dyed her hair pink, and took advice from lead dancer Sono Osato on how to stand regally. Director Elia Kazan helped her to evolve a slow, legato gait that contrasted with everyone else onstage, especially in hectic dance numbers. Crawford’s masterstroke came in hiring the couturier Mainbocher to create Venus’s gowns (contrary to some sources, it was not Mainbocher’s first Broadway assignment). “Every time I walked on stage as Venus there was applause–for Main’s clothes,” Martin later recalled. Photo spreads of Martin’s gowns in Vogue, Life, and other top magazines catapulted her to fame.
Once Perelman finished revamping the plot, Weill, who had already composed several songs, now had to further Americanize the sound. For some time orchestra contractor Morris Stonzek had been taking Weill around town to meet musicians and sharpen his knowledge of swing styles of wind playing. He arranged Venus for a 28-piece orchestra with a sizable string section and resisted Crawford when she suggested cutting the number of musicians to save money. The production numbers in the score sound like a much larger Hollywood orchestra, as if Max Steiner and Glenn Miller had been cross-bred. Weill displays a mastery of American idioms: light swing (“One Touch of Venus”), Irving Berlin-style ragtime (“How Much I Love You”), barbershop (“The Trouble With Women”), “hot” blues (“I’m a Stranger Here Myself”). Even the waltz “Foolish Heart,” though it starts out Viennese, culminates in a dance number based on “What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?” There are also sly homages to both Broadway and operetta genre-pieces: “Way Out West in Jersey” recalls Lorenz Hart’s lyric for “Way Out West on West End Avenue” from Babes in Arms (1937). The Bowery waltz “The Trouble with Women” harks back to “Women Women Women” from Lehár’s Merry Widow even as it presages “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from Kiss Me, Kate (indeed, Harry Clark, one of the quartet, became one of the two thugs who sang the number in the later show). In “New Art,” a catalogue-of-painters song, Weill nods to “Tschaikowsky” (a catalogue of composers) from Lady in the Dark. The production numbers “Catch Hatch” and “Doctor Crippen” anticipate by a generation the Music Hall-Grand Guignol style of Sweeney Todd. The full score badly needs a complete modern recording.
No musical detail was too small for Weill. Choreographer Agnes de Mille recalled that he would go “to the back of the auditorium where he can hear a balanced sound from the orchestra and voices. This will not be exact because a full audience will change all the acoustics, but he knows how to correct for the difference. He will instruct the stage manager which of the singers to amplify on the over-all sound system. He will edit on the spot orchestration for audibility of speech and vocal balance.” Weill had his influence on the text, too; he suggested the key line from Much Ado About Nothing (“Speak low, if you speak love”) to Ogden Nash. By all accounts, Weill played a greater role than Elia Kazan, who later described himself as an overpaid stage manager. Kazan tried hard–he made copious notes on the script–but doesn’t really seem to have understood the show. He later credited its success to Weill, de Mille, Mary Martin, and dancer Sono Osato. De Mille’s judgment that he “lacked visual sense” seems fair, and it’s also clear that he did not have the right sense of humor to appreciate Perelman’s and Nash’s efforts.
Every Broadway show brought out the workhorse in Weill, and Venus was no exception. A month after the show opened Weill wrote to his parents, “During the seven weeks before the show’s opening I never slept more than two or three hours a night, because I had to be at rehearsals during the day and had to orchestrate at night.” Even then, Lenya was alarmed about Weill’s fearsome schedule and high blood pressure. He was by far the hardest-working composer on Broadway–Richard Rodgers’s labors were nothing compared to Weill’s–and he maintained a similarly punishing schedule through all his subsequent Broadway shows, which no doubt contributed to his early death.
Mark N. Grant in 2006 became the first composer to receive the Friedheim Award since the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award program ended in 1993. He has written music for both the concert hall and opera/music theater and is also the author of two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award-winning books, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical (2004) and Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America (1998).