“One Touch of Venus”: Excerpts from Kurt Weill’s Musical Comedy

On this date 77 years ago (October 7, 1943), the original production of Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus opened at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre.

The musical comedy is a farcical spoof of the Pygmalion myth. The story is set in motion when a New York City barber, Rodney Hatch, places the engagement ring he intends to give to his fiancé on the finger of a statue of the goddess Venus at an art museum. When the statue comes alive and falls in love with the hapless Hatch, hilarity ensues. Marlene Dietrich backed out of the title role when the show was in rehearsals, complaining that it was “too sexy and profane.”

The original production starred Mary Martin, Kenny Baker and Paula Laurence, with choreography by Agnes de Mille and lyrics by Ogden Nash. The book was by S. J. Perelman and Nash.

In August of 1943, two months before the opening of One Touch of VenusKurt Weill became an American citizen. Weill, who came to prominence in Germany in the 1920s with socially infused works such as The Threepenny Opera (in which he collaborated with Bertolt Brecht), fled the Nazis in 1933. His music, written for the concert hall as well as the theater, is a fascinating blend of prewar Europe and jazz-infused America.

“Speak Low”

Perhaps the most famous song to emerge from the score of One Touch of Venus is the dreamy and seductive Speak Low. A lingering melancholy pervades the song’s sultry atmosphere. Nash’s lyrics speak of the intangibility of the moment (“The curtain descends, everything ends too soon, too soon”). The song contains a few poignant harmonic surprises. In these magical moments, it’s amazing that a single chord can contain a universe of expression.

Here is a performance featuring Anne Sofie von Otter, accompanied by John Eliot Gardiner and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra:

“Westwind”

Weill’s soaring, romantic ballad reaches ever higher amid swirling, windy lines in the orchestra and a restless bass line. Here is Thomas Hampson’s 1996 recording with the London Sinfonietta:

“Foolish Heart”

In Foolish Heart, Venus fears that she has lost her divine, irresistible appeal as the goddess of love. The melody is a glittering waltz from prewar Vienna. Here is Mary Martin’s performance from the original 1943 Broadway cast recording:

“Love in a Mist”

This tentative, haunting waltz was cut from the show. It’s a melody which unfolds with a hypnotic sense of circular motion. Here, it is performed by soprano Carole Farley, accompanied by John Constable:

“I’m A Stranger Here Myself”

Mary Martin’s opening song in the show was the jazzy, swinging I’m A Stranger Here Myself. The goddess Venus attempts to understand why Rodney resists her advances. She wonders if, after 3,000 years, love is now “outmoded.” Has “passion become passé?”

Recordings

  • Weill: Speak Low, Anne Sofie von Otter, John Eliot Gardiner, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra Amazon
  • Weill: Westwind, Thomas Hampson, John McGlinn, London Sinfonietta Amazon
  • Weill: Love in a Mist, Carole Farley, John Constable chandos.net
  • Weill: One Touch of Venus (Original 1943 Broadway Cast Album) Amazon

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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