Remembering One Touch of Venus
A musical that we don’t hear much about these days, but one that features a glorious score, is the 1943 classic One Touch of Venus. Based on a story by Thomas Anstey Guthrie, One Touch of Venus loosely draws from the Pygmalion myth with a book by poet Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman, lyrics by Nash, and music by Kurt Weill (debatably his most accessible and traditional in terms of musical comedy, save perhaps Lady in the Dark). Of the musicals Kurt Weill wrote for Broadway, it would be his longest-running, though arguably his least innovative.
The idea for turning Guthrie’s 1885 novel The Tinted Venus into a musical started with costume designer Irene Sharaff, who had worked with Kurt Weill on Lady in the Dark (1941). Initially, Bella Spewack (who would co-author the book for Kiss Me, Kate years later) was tasked with writing the musical’s book. When Weill and Nash were unhappy with the results, she was dismissed. Producer Cheryl Crawford the turned to Perelman, who had been a scriptwriter for The Marx Brothers, to assist Nash in writing the book (Nash and Perelman were friends). The musical’s storyline was radically changed, abandoning the period setting of Guthrie’s novel. The author’s chose to keep the general plot, but moved it into a contemporary setting that allowed it to feel fresh and relatable.
The story concerns Rodney Hatch, a New York City barber, who visits a museum and becomes enamored with a priceless statue of the goddess Venus. Unable to predict what’s to come, he slips a ring on her finger, and similar to “Frosty the Snowman,” she magically comes to life. Venus becomes infatuated with Rodney and pursues him all over Manhattan. This doesn’t bode well for the barber, who is already engaged to a shrewish nag who doesn’t take to her fiancé being stalked by another woman. Meanwhile, the art collector who owns the now-missing statue is angry that his prized collectible has disappeared. He remains in hot pursuit of Rodney, stopping at nothing to get his Venus back. Rodney, of course, wants get his life back, but a comedy of errors must play-out before everything is resolved.
One Touch of Venus opened at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre on October 7, 1943, where it ran for 567 performances. Elia Kazan directed the piece and Agnes de Mille, who had scored a triumph with her game-changing dances for Oklahoma! earlier that year, provided the choreography. Kenny Baker played the role of Rodney, but it was Mary Martin who stole the show as the sly and sensual Venus. The musical is particularly remembered for the song standard, “Speak Low,” that came out of the Weill/Nash score and received multiple recordings over the years.
Marlene Dietrich was originally intended to play the role of Venus, Weill insisting that she was perfect for the part. It is rumored that she was uncomfortable with the sexual nature of the character and backed out of the project. In reality, however, when Dietrich sang for her audition, she could barely be heard above a simple piano accompaniment. She didn’t have the vocal confidence for the role. Were her reasons for exiting One Touch of Venus truly based on her apprehensions about the show’s sexual profanity, or was that just the more-dignified justification for her departure? In all fairness to Dietrich, the musical was extremely ribald for the 1940s, steeped in innuendo and demanding the leading lady to be comfortable with playing to her sensual side.
Obviously, the authors needed to find a new Venus, but several actresses turned it down including Gertrude Lawrence and Vera Zorina. Then they had the inspired idea of turning to Mary Martin, who had charmed and seduced audiences singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in the 1938 Cole Porter musical Leave it to Me! Martin, in a supporting role and making her Broadway debut, had stolen the show from its stars William Gaxton, Victor Moore, and Sophie Tucker. She did this by performing a mock-striptease, singing the ditty as she dropped ermine wraps. Audiences went wild. The authors and producers remembered this and called upon Martin to be their new Venus. From there, Mary Martin went from a Broadway talent to a Broadway star in One Touch of Venus, the big step that would launch her into the firmament as the darling of musical theatre.
One Touch of Venus received a film adaptation in 1948 starring Ava Gardner, Robert Walker, Dick Haymes and Eve Arden. As was often the case in early film adaptations of Broadway musicals, most of the score was thrown out the window. Released by Universal-International, the film received negative reviews, and really played more as a comedy that a musical. NBC made a television version of One Touch of Venus that starred Janet Blair as the titular goddess.