The Craptacular: Remedial Queens: One Touch of Venus

Originally published on The Craptacular.

A couple of weeks ago, you may have felt a disturbance in The (Broadway) Force — the sound of a thousand queens suddenly squealing with a mixture of delight and disbelief. The momentous occasion? The long-delayed complete recording of One Touch of Venus was finally released on iTunes, a mere fourteen years after it was first announced.

Did you feel that? This time I’m pretty sure the disturbance is the sound of several thousand Craptacular readers asking “What the fuck is One Touch of Venus?

One Touch of Venus is a musical comedy from 1943 by composer Kurt “Threepenny Opera” Weill, lyricist Ogden “Candy Is Dandy” Nash, and playwright S. J. Perelman, who was best known for his work in The New Yorker and co-writing the scripts of several Marx Brothers films. Sorry that I couldn’t figure out how to condense that into a middle name. You’ll live.

The original production starred Mary Martin, who was Peter Pan before Cathy Rigby and Maria Von Trapp before Julie Andrews and… well, we’ll talk more about Mary in another column. Broadway lore has it that Martin’s role — a statue of the goddess Venus come to life — originally belonged to Marlene Dietrich, but she found the show too obscene and backed out, enabling Martin to become a star.

Now, Mary Martin had already broken through in Cole Porter’s Leave it to Me, singing another famously dirty song called “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” (The “daddy” in question is not her father, and she performed it wearing a fur coat and… not much else.) But Venus was her first starring role, sort of like how Kristin Chenoweth won raves for her small part in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, but Wicked cemented her spot as one of Broadway’s top leading ladies. (Or, for older/gayer readers: substitute Barbra Streisand/I Can Get It For You Wholesale/Funny Girl, but if you can do that, you probably already knew everything I’ve written in this paragraph so get off my back, okay?! This column isn’t for you!)

Anyway, the show was a hit, running 567 performances (which was a lot back then) and spawning a few standards, most notably “Speak Low” (which you may know from La Streisand’s rendition on her Back to Broadway album) and “I’m A Stranger Here Myself” (which Cheno recorded on her first solo album). Full circle, y’all!

But here’s the thing: in the early days of Broadway, before Oklahoma! demonstrated the money to be made from an original cast album, shows weren’t really recorded in anything even resembling their entirety. A number of Venus songs were recorded by Martin and her costar Kenny Baker, but they were just highlights, in arrangements tailored for radio broadcast. So if you didn’t see the show on Broadway, you had no way of hearing the majority of the music. To add insult to injury, the 1948 film version with Ava Gardner cut most of the songs, and not like the way Hair cut songs you never missed. The score was eviscerated, and the few songs that remained got new lyrics, and, really, I’d rather just pretend it didn’t happen.

And then? Well, the show sort of disappeared. I mean, it gets done every once in a while, but it’s never been revived on Broadway. It was one of the early Encores! shows, hitting the City Center stage in 1996 with Melissa Errico as Venus. (That production also featured pre-30 Rock Jane Krakowski in a small comic role.) Errico’s performance in that concert made her a star (according to the New York Times) and inspired British music producer John Yap to record the complete score — dances, selected cut songs and all. Back in the 1990s, these “studio cast recordings” of complete scores were all the rage. There was an excellent series of Gershwin scores from producer Tommy Krasker. Conductor John McGlinn made a splash with an elaborate three-disc Show Boat, followed by several other scores. And John Yap created an entire “Complete Broadway Masterworks” line of dozens of such recordings for his label, known as TER in the UK and JAY in the US.

The thing about elaborate, complete recordings of Broadway scores? They’re expensive to produce. And, as you might imagine, they don’t sell particularly well. Sure, every once in a while something like Show Boat breaks through as a cross-over hit. Or philanthropists and/or songwriters’ estates might sponsor a recordings. But the ambitious schedule Yap had set up got the better of him, and by the mid-2000s, the number of announced, unfinished recordings with his name attached became something of a running joke among the kind of people who have running jokes about obscure cast recordings. (Some others we’ve only heard snippets from, including a complete Anyone Can Whistle starring John Barrowman, Maria Friedman, and Julia McKenzie. Yap tells me this one’s next in line. Maybe next year?)

As you might imagine, after the ten-year mark came and went, all six of us who even remembered that this recording had been started despaired of it ever being completed. And then, suddenly, John Yap started talking about it again, a few roles were recast, and a preview was released on the web. And now, here we are.

Friends, I am here to tell you this recording was worth the wait.

If you aren’t already in love with Melissa Errico from her performances in shows like Amour or the recent Passion revival (if you were lucky enough to catch it before illness forced her out of the show), you know that she’s a soprano whose voice is like pornography for your ears. (And if you follow her on Twitter, you might know that she’s just crazy enough to be believable as a goddess trying to figure out 1940s America.) The rest of the cast is right up there with her: dreamy Brent Barrett as her love interest, Ron Raines at his Ron Rainesiest as the wealthy art collector who sets the story in motion, Victoria Clark as zingy secretary, Judy Kaye as a patrician mother-in-law to be… These may not be the Broadway types you tape to the inside of your locker (but seriously, Brent Barrett? if he’s not in your proverbial locker, he should be!), but they are the best at what they do, and what they do here is deliver some of the finest showtunes you probably haven’t heard before.

Now, you may have noticed that I’ve written over a thousand words without really telling you much about the plot of the show. Let’s just say it’s not going to play any feminist conventions any time soon. Ron Raines is an art collector who purchases a statue of Venus. Brent Barrett is his barber, Rodney Hatch, who’s engaged to marry a horrendous woman from New Jersey. Rodney slips the engagement ring he’s holding for the proposal onto the finger of the statue, and Venus comes to life and wants to bone him. He wants to bone her too, but he’s a faithful little nerd. Ron Raines gives Venus some bad advice about making the competition disappear, so she zaps Rodney’s fiancee into oblivion. This leads to a murder investigation, and… honestly, who cares? At the end of the story, somehow Rodney realizes that the shrew from Jersey isn’t right for him, but Venus also realizes that she doesn’t want to end up a suburban housewife, so she disappears and Rodney miraculously meets someone who looks JUST LIKE HER only this new lady wants nothing more than to be a suburban housewife so hooray for them.

Like I said, Wicked it ain’t. (Did I just use Wicked as an example of feminism? Kill me.)

But the songs! I defy you to get “I’m A Stranger Here Myself” out of your head, particularly if you’re in love with someone who doesn’t love you back. (Seriously. But let’s not talk about that sad stretch of 2010 in my life.) And the ballads! “Speak Low,” “That’s Him,” and “West Wind” could each be the soundtrack to a different montage of dating pictures in your wedding video. If the comedy numbers aren’t quite as funny today as you might hope, well, rest assured that in seventy years, Book of Mormon won’t be either. And that hardly matters, anyway.

The album is currently available on iTunes. A physical CD is due before the end of the year with a giant, deluxe booklet that is apparently holding up its release (but what’s another few weeks when it’s already been over a decade?). Besides, who buys their music on plastic platters any more anyway?

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