The Cockeyed Optimist: The Broadway Musicals of Mary Martin
One the most beloved performers of the Broadway musical is the late, great Mary Martin. Mary Martin possessed a lovely, distinctive voice, a coquettish smile, and a persona that evoked optimism and warmth. The actress enjoyed a long career on the Broadway stage that spanned three decades, winning four Tony Awards throughout that time, including one for spreading Annie Get Your Gun to the country while the original production performed in New York. Rivaled only by Ethel Merman as one of Broadway’s most iconic talents, Mary Martin’s legacy lives on in our memories of great musical theatre experiences. Today, we take a look at the Broadway musicals that were brightened by her presence.
Leave it to Me! (1938)
Mary Martin made her Broadway debut in the Cole Porter musical Leave it to Me!, in a supporting role that stole the show. Though William Gaxton, Victor Moore, and Sophie Tucker were the show’s headliners, Martin had the musical’s most memorable moment, a mock striptease singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”. Critics lavished her coy and clever performance with rave reviews, and Martin was officially on the map, establishing herself as a major up-and-coming player in the Broadway musical scene.
One Touch of Venus (1943)
One Touch of Venus marked Mary Martin’s first leading role on Broadway, playing a statue of the titular goddess brought to life by the infatuation of a New York City barber who places a ring on her finger. The role was initially intended for Marlene Dietrich, who backed out when she found it profane, the character both brazen and sexual. The musical boasts a lovely score with music my Kurt Weill and lyrics by poet Ogden Nash. Of course, the most well-known song to come from the score is the romantic “Speak Low.” One Touch of Venus was a solid hit, running 567 performances.
Lute Song (1946)
The 1946 musical Lute Song had a book by Sidney Howard and Will Irwin, music by Raymond Scott, and lyrics by Bernard Hanighen, and was based on the 14th-Century Chinese play Tale of the Pipa. In it, Martin portrayed Tchao-Ou-Niang, the wife of a Chinese student who leaves home to go into the world in search of a life for himself. Lute Song is seldom heard of today, and it wasn’t exactly a runway hit in its day. The show ran 142 performances.
South Pacific (1949)
1949 brought Mary Martin’s most challenging role, one that would lead to her first Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Martin starred as Nellie Forbush in the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. Playing a nurse stationed at a military base on an island in the South Pacific during World War II, Martin embodied the naïve Arkansas woman who is conflicted about marrying a French planter with Polynesian children from a former marriage. Martin introduced such songs as “A Cockeyed Optimist”, “A Wonderful Guy,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” and “Honey Bun”. South Pacific was an enormous success, running 1,925 performances, with Martin departing after two years to take the musical to London.
Peter Pan (1954)
If South Pacific posed Mary Martin’s most challenging role, Peter Pan easily was her most iconic, largely due to her reprising the role in the musical on a nationwide telecast (twice, in fact). Playing the boy who never grows up, opposite the dandy Captain Hook of Cyril Ritchard, Martin flew into America’s hearts singing such musical numbers as “I’m Flying”, “Never Never Land”, “I’ve Gotta Grow”, “Wendy” and “Distant Melody”. Martin won her second Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Peter Pan, which featured songs by Jule Styne, Mark Charlap, and lyrics by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Carolyn Leigh, represented Mary Martin at her most playful and winning.
The Sound of Music (1959)
Everyone knows the film version of The Sound of Music starring Julie Andrews so well that it is easy to forget that there was a stage version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic that preceded it. In 1959, The Sound of Musicopened on Broadway with Mary Martin in the lead playing Maria Rainer Von Trapp, the aspiring nun-turned-governess who brings music and motherly love to the family of a widowed navy captain and his seven musically-inclined children. Though Martin was well-into her forties when she played the role of the young Maria, the age discrepancy didn’t seem to matter to audiences. Mary Martin took home her third Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Her whimsy and her lovely voice lent themselves perfectly to such songs as “Do Re Mi”, “My Favorite Things”, “The Lonely Goatherd”, and of course the enchanting title song.
It seems that every Broadway performer must be subjected to at least one flop. For Mary Martin, that came in the form of the 1963 musical Jennie. With a score by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, Jennie was set in the early 1900s and followed the story of two touring actors, Jennie Malone and James O'Connor, performing in melodramas and spoofs of well-known tales . The musical is loosely based on the life of actress Laurette Taylor, but many liberties were taken with the story as the show evolved. Critics generally praised Martin’s performance in Jennie, but unfortunately they were not fond of the show in general. Jennie closed on Broadway after 82 performances.
I Do! I Do! (1966)
Martin’s final outing in an original musical for Broadway was in the two-person tour-de-force I Do! I Do!. Based on the popular play The Fourposter, which follows a husband and wife couple throughout the entirety of their marriage, Martin played the wife “Agnes” opposite the husband “Michael” of Robert Preston. The intimate musical featured a score by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (The Fantasticks, 110 in the Shade). Martin received a Tony Award nomination for her performance, but lost to Barbara Harris who took home the prize for The Apple Tree.
Mary Martin did return to Broadway one more time in the play Do You Turn Somersaults?That ran for just a few short weeks in January of 1978. That stunted tenure does not, however, tarnish her shining career on Broadway, touring the country, and even bringing the musical Hello, Dolly! to our soldiers serving overseas during the Vietnam War. Mary Martin remains the darling of the American musical, decades after her passing at the age of 76 in 1990.