27 November 2006

On Weill and Nash's "That's Him"

Just fabulous. This image alone is all you need to know.
So, Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash, and S. J. Perelman wrote a Broadway musical for Marlene Dietrich about the goddess, Venus, doing her best with contemporary New York City way back during World War II. Dietrich toyed with them for months, batting them around like a semi-interested cat who knew the mouse's final outcome, until she finally rejected the project in the eleventh hour. This made Weill so angry that he cursed her out auf Deutsch, which is reportedly the only time he ever used his mother tongue after he moved to the States. Anyway, I told you that story to tell you this one.

"Say hello to Miss No-Talent."
It ended up that Miss Mary Martin, mother of Larry Hagman, got the role in One Touch of Venus, as the show came to be called. It's a light musical comedy with a wonderful score and a witty book that, as a reviewer in the current Kurt Weill Newsletter points out, contains the injunction from the goddess that the audience should "make love while they still can," at a time when the war's outcome was far from certain (the show opened in 1943). This is a context many of us, especially those in New York, can well understand; and we should also remember that to "make love" to someone can have many meanings, and especially in 1943 it could mean to woo, to flirt, to enjoy the presence of another, not just the crass suggestion of fucking. Wooing and the feminine side of it are neatly crystallized in a song that was (if memory serves, as it often doesn't) cut from the score [ed. note: it wasn't], the title song, "One Touch of Venus"--the final lyric goes: "With a little touch a damsel, a little touch of goddess, life can be a goddess-damsel cinch." If only we had lyrics of such adult lightness and witty blasphemy on Broadway now. But as usual I digress. I am here to discuss a different song, one of several show stoppers in this lovely score, and that's "That's Him."

Miss Mary Martin, being not arty, not actory. Sorry, I meant it the other way around.
There is a category of song written by men for women in love to sing and this is one of those numbers. Because of the nature of Broadway, American composers, and poets in general, the intersection of these categories often signals the presence of a homosexual in the mix. But not always. There are many showtunes sung by women disfigured by desire and not all of them are by Sondheim. His mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, wrote a bunch (we also have Cole Porter and Blitzstein and Menotti to name some less-than-strictly-hetero lyric writers), but in this case we have Ogden Nash, who was a terrific light poet, who was married and had kids, and, as far as my terrifically light research is concerned, seems to have not been gay. But who knows? No one knows. After all, he never sucked my cock (as the Bankhead is said to have proclaimed once, so gloriously). So, let us, just for fun, assume he was straight.

In this song, Nash presents a portrait of Venus describing her love for a man in the terms a bourgeois urban lady would use, and it is a tight, loving portrait, in the final analysis, despite the insipid notion of love being like having your hair done by a fegeleh named "Antoine." Even this image is one of feeling more beautiful, feeling refreshed, feeling more yourself, or a better version of yourself, than you did before you paid someone to improve your look--surely we all can identify with this moment, as feminized as it may be. This is the least of Nash's lyrics here, and, as with any good song, it pays to read the thing closely, like a poem, which is what a lyric is, of course: "You know the way you feel when you smell bread baking": a consummate moment of sensual pleasure; "The way you feel when the fireflies glimmer": a gorgeous visual, evoking the twilight melancholy of childhood summers; "the way you feel about the Rhapsody in Blue": a description of love as listening to an example of the musical sublime; "He's like a book directly from the printer, you look at him, he's so commenceable": a more intellectual notion of the lover as an object to begin, an object to read; "He's comforting as woolens in the winter: he's indispensable": the beloved is like simple comfort in a cold world, but more than that, he is that with which you cannot do without; "You know the way you feel that you know you should conceal, the way you feel that you know you shouldn't feel": the deliciousness of being in forbidden love (and all love feels forbidden, somehow--one is not supposed to feel this way; it's always a bit of a secret), the deliciousness of not showing it to "him" or anyone else. But you can't help it.

These images accrue. And Nash builds them very carefully, even within his chosen conceit--note his cunning reversals seen, for example, in the first two stanzas where he takes us from the sweet sense, the taste and smell, of autumn to having one's hair done; then he shifts us from the comforting enveloping warmth of baking bread to the surprising cognitive dissonance of a toothache subsiding--the idea of bread and therefore eating and the pain of a toothache jars. He builds and surprises, he speaks to you directly: "You know the way you feel" he says to us over and over, like an intimate whisper in the ear. The song develops to these amazing moments where love transforms everything: "Wonderful world, wonderful you"--being in love makes everything better, makes the world wonderful. It's like love is similar to all these experiences until the pressure of the description explodes into the ineffability of wonderfulness. Love is and isn't all these things. In the final analysis, the description of love fails even as one struggles to make the experience concrete. This is how you have to approach the lyric because as you go deeper into the poet's logic, despite its irony, humor, and double entendre ("he's like a plumber when you need a plumber"?), the more beautiful and moving it becomes. The beloved is simple, satisfactory, commenceable, comforting, indispensable, but most importantly he is the way he makes you feel.

The simplicity of the comparisons, despite their middle-class origins, is a double window into the wartime, bourgeois, heterosexual, female mind and the hetero, intellectual, male mind that channeled it here. In the end, though appealing and evocative, even beguiling, the portrait of the beloved as a series of objects, feelings, goods, services, and moods, is still always Nash's fantasy of the mind that sees love this way, and with this frame the gentle mocking of the song becomes foregrounded. But we mustn't ever forget that this song also describes a third mind which is of the goddess, herself; and in this sense the song is a trap because while it offers a Venus domesticated by modern ideas and cultural conceits, at the end of the show she rejects the drudgery of the modern American housewife and returns to Olympus--or wherever she has gone to; she is just gone. But honestly, it could never be any other way, could it? And Venus comes to this realization in an Agnes DeMille ballet called "Venus in Ozone Heights"--a hilarious juxtaposition, or impossible environment for a goddess, to be sure. It is both, of course, which is the point and the joke of the show. Venus fell in love with mortals on a regular basis back in the day, with a certain amount of hijinks ensuing, as they tend to when gods dilly the dally with those who have no choice but to die (and who also don't, by the way, embody some overarching metaphysical concept, such as love). These stories often end with some sort of metamorphosis into a flower, or whatever. But what's funny about Venus in 1943 New York City is that 1) the guy she falls in love prefers his fiancée to Venus (at least, initially), and 2) the world has become a place that's kind of not so much fun for a goddess. 1943 is a bit too early for Betty Friedan (though it is the source of her critique of the feminine mystique) or Gloria Steinem, but no matter how powerful Betty Crocker was, in a grudge match with a pagan goddess, Betty will lose every time. So, in a frothy, fun musical hit, for the female audience member there is a disruptive double-aftertaste: you should enjoy life and love while you can (a pleasure denied anyone truly trying to be a good girl, but let's face it, Johnny's "over there"), and the knowledge that the bliss and joys of suburban domesticity are not just overrated but a boring, repetitive dead-end. In this way, an urbane musical diversion manages to look forward and backward at the same time, and so One Touch of Venus stands astride the faultline of American mid-century femininity. And with that, we return to Feminism, yet again. Somehow this musical is ignorant of Feminism, yet succinctly describes the conflict between the expectations and freedoms that mobilizes the critique itself and is thus outside and inside Feminism at the same time--it articulates the cause of second-wave Feminism (with nods here to Friedan). Of course, the show reserves the freedom of autonomy for a goddess, but since gods don't exist, we'll have to bite the bullet and imagine that those freedoms--that the freedom to choose between domestic servitude and, well, something, anything, else--might actually be imagined by real, mortal, American ladies. Huh. Imagine that....

Wait. Scratch that.

Quickly, there is another striking proto-Feminist moment in the show (at least one more, in my poor memory) that I feel the need to mention, and it occurs in a rather saucy song called "The Trouble with Women," a number sung by men about their frustrations with the fairer sex, as we are called on to call women. That moment is the final line of the song which states remarkably: "The trouble with women... is men." Boy, is it ever.

Okay, enough of history and culture, now I have a small amount of dish to share. A few weeks ago I went to the Spiegeltent and saw some cool performance that I won't go into here, but I ran into a friend there who had for some bizarre reason brought Mary Martin's autobiography with him. I flipped through the index and found One Touch of Venus, about which Mary had quite little to say--there was no real discussion of craft or other personalities besides Larry Hagman's mom, just the usual actor's all-about-me crap. But she did mention that when she auditioned for the producer she had learned "That's Him" and just grabbed a chair and sang it right at the guy in someone's living room. Then Mary declared that the producer told her he'd hire her if she promised to deliver the number the same way at every performance, and from the lip of the stage. And so she did. Flash forward to this week's Kurt Weill Newsletter and a little anecdote from Hal Prince reporting that Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya (who was in the original Cabaret and the original Threepenny Opera), told Prince that Martin didn't get the song, so Lenya asked Weill if she should show her how to do it. Lenya accomplished this by sitting on a turned around chair and that, she says, is how the staging was set.

Now, Lotte Lenya is well known for being a sometimes unreliable source for historical facts--some of it's "true," some of it's not, and we'll mostly never know (who cares?!)--but she is also known for being a terrific performer, and one who had a genius for minimalism. Enter Mary Martin who was still in the early part of her career, and I am inclined to believe the more seasoned performer, in this case (being Lenya). When it comes to a Weill song, especially one as delicate, disarmingly, and deceptively simple as this one, underplaying is always the right choice.

One last bit of dish. Hal Prince also mentions an exchange he had with Lotte Lenya backstage of Cabaret when she learned he was headed out to see Dietrich perform. Prince says: "And she said, looking into the mirror without a pause, 'Say hello to Miss No-Talent.'" I'm sure they're friends, now, in Show Business Heaven. This brings us full circle, back to the very beginning. A very good place to start.

And now for the song.

Here is Kurt Weill singing this amazing, heartbreaking piece. Once you've heard it this way, you can never unhear it again, though it omits my favorite, the last verse, alas. You can hear Mary Martin as well, after the lyrics posted below. Listen. Listen....

You know the way you feel
When there is autumn in the air,

That's him, that's him.

The way you feel when Antoine
Has finished with your hair,

That's him, that's him.

You know the way you feel
When you smell bread baking,

The way you feel,
When suddenly a tooth stops aching;

Wonderful world, wonderful you,

That's him, that's him.
He is as simple as a swim in summer,
Not arty, not actory.

He's like a plumber when you need a plumber:
He's satisfactory.

You know the way you feel
When you want to knock on wood,

The way you feel 
When your heart is gone for good:
Wonderful world, wonderful you,
That's him.

You could shuffle him with millions,
Soldiers and civilians,
I'd pick him out.

In the darkest caves and hallways
I would know him always,
Beyond a doubt.


Comes easily to me
Because that's he.

You know the way you feel
About the Rhapsody in Blue:
That's him, that's him;

The way you feel about a hat

Created just for you:
That's him, that's him.

You know the way you feel
When the fireflies glimmer,
The way you feel when overnight
Your hips grow slimmer:

Wonderful world, wonderful you,
That's him, that's him.

He's like a book directly from the printer,
You look at him, he so commenceable.
He's comforting as woolens in the winter:
He's indispensable.

You know the way the way you feel
That you know you should conceal
The way you feel feel that you really shouldn't feel:
Wonderful world, wonderful you,

That's him.

"That's Him" from One Touch of Venus. Music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash, 1943.

* * *

And because Spotify allows me to provide one-stop research shopping, this track has Mary Martin singing "That's Him" with the gorgeous Weill full-orchestrations. Enjoy.


Ian said...

Sigh. That's him alright. I'm mostly an old soul - Erroll Garner is my Favorite, but your latest last songs have been very nice to me. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently in rehearsals to play Venus at 42nd Street Moon in San Francisco. Thanks for this terrific commentary, it's inspired some ideas of how I'll do the song.