Composer Kurt Weill enjoyed his biggest and most lucrative successes — artistically and commercially — during the early years of World War II, when he wrote two consecutive Broadway hits. Lady in the Dark, a 1941 vehicle built around Gertrude Lawrence, mixed psychoanalysis with spectacle and ran for over a year (which was as long as Lawrence wished to play it). The 1943 One Touch of Venus did even better. A fast and raucous musical comedy, it ran 16 months and made a star out of Mary Martin.
Venus enjoyed a dazzling revival as part of the third season of the City Center Encores! series back in 1996, but hasn't been heard from locally since. That production resulted in a recording from Jay Records, which for various reasons went unreleased and unfinished until yesterday — the 70th anniversary of the original Broadway opening night. To mark the anniversary and the CD release, the Kurt Weill Foundation produced Kurt Weill on Broadway, a one-performance concert at Symphony Space.
Venus was the featured score, with the first act presenting eleven songs from that show. Melissa Errico, whose highly publicized vocal problems in March caused her to withdraw midway through the run of the CSC production of Stephen Sondheim's Passion, returned to the role that catapulted her to leading lady status. Errico's voice seems to have recovered, although her Venus was not quite so sprightly as it was 17 years ago. She made a point of telling the audience, though, that she was wearing the same dress (after having "three kids").
Errico was joined by Brent Barrett (singing the songs of romantic lead Rodney Hatch) and Ron Raines (as the older man, Whitelaw Savory), both of whom are also featured on the Jay recording. The comedy lead was undertaken by the always-expert Judy Blazer. The four Broadway pros were accompanied by eight winners of the Lotte Lenya Competition for singer/actors. The latter served as backup for the Venus songs while having solos of their own in Act Two. The 29-piece orchestra for the evening was a group called Le Train Bleu orchestra (Ransom Wilson, musical director). Most of the evening was conducted by Weill-specialist James Holmes. Richard Jay Alexander ably directed.
The Venus section offered a chance to hear a large portion of the score, which includes one standard, "Speak Low"; two songs that were fairly popular in their day, "Foolish Heart" and "That's Him"; and assorted delights, headed by the lively title song. Light versifier Ogden Nash wrote the word-happy lyrics, many of which provoked laughter. As a surprise, Ted Chapin, the genial host and narrator of the evening, spotlighted the show's featured dancer, Sono Osato, sitting in the first row. Now 94 years old, Osato left the show after a year to create the role of Ivy Smith (Miss Turnstiles) in the Bernstein-Comden-Green-Robbins musical On the Town. A fascinating film clip shown during the Venus Overture — actually the Entr'acte — includes backstage footage, offering glimpses of Osato with Mary Martin in one of the show's Agnes de Mille ballets. Things were somewhat slower but musically richer in the second half, when they turned their attention to other Weill musicals. All told, six of Weill's eight American musicals were represented; there were also selections from two of his earlier German scores. Among the vocal highlights were "This Is New" from Lady in the Dark, sung by Douglas Carpenter; "What Good Would the Moon Be?" and "Lonely House" from Street Scene, sung (respectively) by Analisa Leaming and Jacob Watson; "September Song" from Knickerbocker Holiday, sung by Raines; and the "Army Song" from The Threepenny Opera, sung by Cooper Grodin and Zachary James. Not the least of the evening's attractions was the opportunity to hear the original orchestrations, almost exclusively by Weill.
The long-awaited two-disc One Touch of Venus studio cast recording is now available for download, with the actual CD scheduled for later this fall.