ON THE RECORD: Melissa Errico–Finally–In One Touch of Venus

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01 Jun 2014

Melissa Errico

Kurt Weill came to the United States in 1935 and died in 1950, at the age of fifty. During his American years, he wrote eight complete musicals. All have much to recommend them, although only two were financially and artistically successful. Lady in the Dark, in 1941, was a star vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence spearheaded by Moss Hart, with lyrics (and delectable ones) from Ira Gershwin. This was followed by Venus, initially devised as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich. With Gershwin back in California, the lyric-writing chore went to light versifier Ogden Nash. Cheryl Crawford, who was involved with half of Weill's American shows, produced; Elia Kazan, another Crawford regular, directed. Most critical, perhaps, was the presence of choreographer Agnes de Mille (between Oklahoma! and Carousel). One Touch of Venus opened on Oct. 7, 1943 at the Imperial Theatre and ran for a financially successful 567 performances.

Following which, the musical, like Lady in the Dark, more or less disappeared from view. Both shows were adapted for Hollywood in the mid-1940s, with the Weill scores decimated in the process; both underwent television adaptations in the mid-1950s. Both turned up within the first three seasons of Encores!, although Lady in the Dark (starring Christine Ebersole) was lukewarm. One Touch of Venus with Errico, though, was full-blown musical comedy joy–although it was obscured five weeks later by the power of the next Encores! offering, Kander & Ebb's Chicago.

And now we have the Encores! cast recording, which is the first complete recording of the score. Decca–which pioneered the original cast recording field earlier in 1943 with Oklahoma!–issued a mini-album with ten tracks featuring Martin, a studio cast, and what seems to be the Broadway pit orchestra. This gives us Martin's five numbers, a reprise, three non-Martin numbers plus abbreviated recordings of the two big de Mille ballets. An invaluable recording, yes; but given the restriction to five two-sided platters–and the absence of any original cast members other than Martin and Kenny Baker (as the barber Rodney Hatch)–the 1943 recording omits six major songs, including two of the most delightful ones.

Jay's new studio recording not only fills out the score, it gives us the opportunity to hear Weill's distinctive orchestrations (which are only moderately audible on the primitive recording). The best of Venus is very good indeed, headed by one of Weill's not-very-many standards, one that ranks among the finest Broadway love songs ever: the haunting "Speak Low" ("When You Speak Love"). Martin–and Errico–also triumphed with "That's Him," a simple, "quiet" number which altogether stops the busy show in its tracks. ("You know the way you feel about the 'Rhapsody in Blue?' That's him" goes Nash's lyric.) The other big ballads are "Foolish Heart," a waltz for Venus, and "West Wind," which is sung by the third member of the romantic triangle at the story's heart.

The song which typifies the show for me–along with "Speak Low," that is–is the star's opening number, "I'm a Stranger Here Myself." I cannot listen to it without being drawn into the Weill-world of the show, and I can't listen to it without wanting to hear the rest of the score. My other favorite is the title song, which was not included on the 1943 cast album--presumably because it was not sung by Martin but by the featured comedienne, Paula Laurence. (Laurence remained a minor Broadway celebrity for 60 years, thanks almost solely to her performance in Venus.) The song is pert, saucy, and smart. Laurence also got a second droll number called "Very Very Very": "One way to be very wealthy," she deadpans, "is to be very very very rich." We don't have Laurence on the new CD, but Victoria Clark sings these two songs and is pure gold.


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