So many of the great musicals of the 1940s, 50s and 60s have remained in the standard repertoire, being revived again and again and recorded over and over that you could be forgiven for thinking they constitute the greats of that great age.
However, there were others, that for one reason or another, have not been revived nor recorded. When one of those surfaces, it is cause for rejoicing. So? Rejoice! One Touch of Venus is back!
This 1943 hit show featured a sublime score by Kurt Weill who won the first ever Tony Award for Best Score with Street Scene and whose other musicals include Threepenny Opera, Lady in the Dark and Knickerbocker Holiday. It had lyrics by that master of humorous light verse, Ogden Nash, and a well constructed book by Nash and S. J. Perelman.
It was a major hit, running through the second half of our involvement in the Second World War – October 1943 to February 1945. None other than Mary Martin starred as a statute of the goddess of love brought to life by the engagement ring of a New York barber who wanted to prove that his fiancée had more delicate and shapely fingers than even the famous beauty of ancient Anatolia.
Although Oklahoma! had opened six months earlier and generated a true “Original Broadway Cast Album” of historic importance, One Touch of Venus got only a “Selections From” album that had just eight tracks with lead vocals by Martin and one of her co-cast members, Kenny Baker, along with two abbreviated versions of ballets played by the pit orchestra.
That brief album (it ran all of 32 minutes) has tantalized musical theater fans for the past 70 years. It got under our skin even more when it was released on CD packaged with an even shorter set of selections from Martin’s next vehicle, Lute Song. (Unfortunately, that CD is now out of print.)
Hollywood made a movie version of the show, but cut most of the music from the musical, leaving essentially a romantic comedy staring Ava Gardner. It looked as if those who hadn’t attended one of the 567 performances on Broadway in war time might never know the glories of the score. But you can’t keep an intoxicating score like this one down forever.
In 1955 NBC television offered a live 90-minute version with a delightful Janet Blair as Venus. In 1987 the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut mounted a version with Lynnette Perry in Mary Martin’s role. In 1996, Encores series of musicals in concert at New York’s City Center put Melissa Errico on Venus’ pedestal. Still, those of us at home were out of luck it seemed.
Now, all of a sudden, we can have both the full score in glorious digital sound and the television version rescued from a well-recorded and well-transferred black-and-white kinescope. While Nash and Perelman’s book was pared down for the television format, the majority of the score was retained, and surprisingly enough, given the reputation of television network “standards departments” insisting on de-sexing risqué material, some of the sophisticated sexiness of Nash’s lyrics came across the airways.
TV did sacrifice the part of the title song that was the sexiest, however. Gone were the lines “Venus found she was a goddess in a world controlled by gods / so she opened up her bodice and equalized the odds” and my favorite line: “Venus taught them that the pantie is mightier than the pants.” It also took a few liberties in the product placements. Apparently Coca-Cola didn’t pay to retain a lyrical reference, so the line became simply “sipping on a cola” while it is no surprise that in the line “when I drove my glamorous Chevy” the car at issue became a “glamorous Rocket” – the show was sponsored by Oldsmobile. The commercials which are included in the DVD from Video Artists International are for “Rocket Engine Oldsmobiles.”
Still, this was one of the finer television adaptations of Broadway musicals to be aired during the period of the mid 1950s to early 1960s when such television “spectaculars” were often offered. Janet Blair makes a delectable three-thousand-year-old beauty and Music Director Gino Smart’s orchestra delivers the score in fine fashion with abbreviated versions of two ballets as well as lush support for the melodies of “Speak Low (When You Speak Love),” “That’s Him” and “I’m A Stranger Here Myself.”
To fully appreciate the double entendres, illicit allusions and pure fun of Nash’s light verse lyrics, however, you need the new, complete recording on two disc’s from JAY Records. It makes clear, as neither the short “selections from” album nor even the abbreviated television version do that this is, after all, an old but good score. It is as out of date as a 1943 Oldsmobile would have been had they made civilian cars at the height of the war. It is a work to be treasured as an example of the heights the arts could hit at the time, but it is totally of its time.
The full score recording is the work of John Yap, one of the most successful producers of complete recordings of important musical scores using original orchestrations. He has given us indispensable, often multi-disc recordings, of Weill’s Lady in the Dark and Street Scene as well as Cabaret, 110 In The Shade, Guys and Dolls, On The Town and The Most Happy Fella.
This project has taken a long time to reach our disc players. Some tracks were laid down as early as 2000 while the last ones were recorded this year. But Yap has managed to control the mixing and mastering process so well that the final result, when listened to straight through, sounds as if it was all captured at one recording session.
In the role of Venus, he has the former Encores enchantress Melissa Errico, whose voice is capable of etherial beauty and whose acting ability brings the character to life just as surely as the barber’s ring animated the statue. Here that barber is the silver throated Brent Barrett, and the art collector whose infatuation with Venus sets the events in motion is the rich baritone, Ron Raines.
Not only do we now have the entire score, it is recorded using the original orchestrations, an important distinction in this case. Unlike most other major composers of Broadway musicals, Weill orchestrated his own scores. For One Touch of Venus he used strings, timpani and percussion, piano and guitar and four reed players doubling and tripling on clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, trumpets, trombone, flute and piccolo.
The new recording also includes three “bonus tracks,” songs that were written for the show but not included when it reached Broadway. The one that impresses the most is “Love in a Mist” which is sung here by Errico, accompanied not by the full orchestra but by a solo piano. It is a haunting finish to a rewarding two-disc experience.
One Touch of Venus
Studio Recording of the Full Score
JAY Records Catalog CDJAY2 1362
Running time 1:44 over 38 tracks on two discs
One Touch of Venus
1955 NBC Telecast on Black and White Kinescope
Video Artists International Catalog DVD 4568
Running time 90 minutes including original commercials
One Touch of Venus
CD and DVD
June 25, 2014