SHAW FESTIVAL, Niagara-on-the-Lake, 2010
Kurt Weill has always been an enigma for classical music lovers – his career started so propitiously: he studied composition first with Humperdinck, and later with Busoni; he turned out dozens of remarkably mature early works; his Symphony No. 2 was given its premiere by Bruno Walter; he made his mark in the German musical theatre too, first with The Threepenny Opera, and later with Mahagonny.
Then came Hitler and the Nazis, and in 1933 Weill was forced to flee Germany. He sent his parents to Palestine and he and his wife Lotte Lenya ended up in New York. For many of his admirers, this move to the United States marked the end of Weill’s career. He sold out to Broadway and never fulfilled his promise. He died of a heart attack at 50 (1950).
This characterization of a gifted and decent man’s career has always seemed to me grossly unfair and insensitive. When he came to America, Weill could have re-established himself as a “serious” composer, as Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and many others had done, but already in Germany he was headed in a different direction. He was a theatre man through and through. He collaborated with Brecht, but never shared Brecht’s communist ideology. What he did share was a fascination with words and music and with the wondrous resources of musical theatre.
We forget that Broadway in the 1930s and 1940s was a pretty wondrous place too, with some of the best minds in literature, art and music working together to create a unique genre – American musical comedy. Weill leapt at the chance to contribute to this uniquely American musical theatre. As a man escaping government oppression, Weill had no difficulty understanding and appreciating the commercialism of Broadway. In no time at all, he established himself as one of Broadway’s leading composers, a standing he held for the rest of his life.
In many respects, the current production of Weill’s One Touch of Venus at the Shaw Festival, is a typical Broadway show of the period (1943) with a simple and amusing story line; bright, hummable songs; a few big dance numbers; and sparkling dialogue.
As did many Broadway musicals, One Touch of Venus went through a convoluted gestation. Weill had been in New York eight years when he wrote this show, but he still had strong European connections; so it was that he wanted Marlene Dietrich for the leading role, composed some of the music specifically for her, and pursued her personally to accept the role. He had probably seen her in the 1932 German film Die Blonde Venus and believed that image to be ideal for his “Broadway” Venus.
In the end, Dietrich declined and the ultimate Venus of the show’s Broadway opening was Mary Martin. One could hardly imagine two more different choices for the same role – the one legendary for her sensuality – bedroom eyes, voice and body – and the other a tomboyish American “girl next door!” Consider also that the director of the first production was Elia Kazan, not renowned for productions that had people falling out of their seats. The choice of Kazan suggests Weill’s musical had a certain seriousness of purpose.
With this background in mind it became a little difficult to accept the ‘slapstick’ approach adopted by director Eda Holmes for the Shaw Festival production. It’s true that the show abounds in one-liners – what would we expect from Ogden Nash – known for his poetic wit – and S.J. Perelman, a man who had written several of the Marx Brothers films. But I think Mark N. Grant comes closer to Weill’s vision when he writes in the Shaw Festival programme: “Venus is golden age Broadway’s reply to the sex comedy of filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch” – the point being that Lubitsch’s characters more often raise eyebrows than slip on banana peels.
Even more importantly, Weill’s music is shapely and interesting and requires the best voices that can be found. It didn’t get them in this production.
Robin Evan Willis was attractive, but failed to project the required fascination of the character – after all she is the Venus of the famed statue come to life and on the prowl – and the quality of her singing was inconsistent. She did pretty well with the low-key “That’s Him,” but far less well with “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” and “Speak Low.”
As Rodney Hatch, Kyle Blair showed some comic flair but little sophistication, and his singing voice was barely adequate. In fact, the more I think about the beauty of songs like “Speak Low,” the more inadequate it becomes. It didn’t help that Ryan Desouza’s 10-piece orchestra was consistently too loud, even when playing soft accompaniments. How do they do that? Is it insensitivity, or the fault of the sound system?
The Shaw Festival and its artistic director Jackie Maxwell are to be applauded for extending their mandate to include plays and musicals contemporaneous with Shaw. Happily, one detects also a desire to do such works in more or less, period style – that is to say, as they were done in the first instance.
Naturally, directors and performers are allowed and even encouraged to “refresh” these period pieces, but what the Shaw Festival has earned over the years is a respect for its understanding of this period and style and one expects to see it on display in most productions at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Shaw, Wilde, Coward, etc. are performed on stages around the world, but at the Shaw Festival they are produced and performed by ‘experts’ and we love them for that.
The current season’s production of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband is a case in point. For the most part, the cast – most notably Stephen Sutcliffe as Viscount Goring – and the production, were superb. To my mind, however, some of the costumes seemed unnecessarily “refreshed,” and the original, pseudo-tango score by John Gzowski, while cleverly evoking one of the plot elements (Argentina), erred on the side of being pervasively dark and menacing, whereas the play itself remains a near-perfect combination of wit and menace. Had Gzowski studied Argentinian tangos more closely, he might have discovered that the best of these also miraculously combine these two ingredients.
All in all, I was delighted to have had the rare opportunity to see a live production of One Touch of Venus. Eda Holmes and her colleagues certainly gave us an entertaining evening in the theatre. While I left the Royal George Theatre amused, however, I also left convinced that that the production could have been different and it could have been better.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of “Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar,” and “Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music,” both available at Amazon.com. NEW For friends: “CLASSICAL AIRS,” The Art of the Conductor podcast!
Photo (shawfest.com): Robin Evan Willis as Venus and Kyle Blair as Rodney Hatch