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Mary Martin Sings, Richard Rodgers Plays

Mary Martin Sings, Richard Rodgers Plays

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Synopsis

It is only fitting that this album begins with “Getting To Know You.” According to Mary Martin’s recollections in her autobiography, My Heart Belongs, it was Martin who came to the rescue when her friends Rodgers and Hammerstein were stumped for an Act I showstopper for Gertrude Lawrence to sing in The King and I. They knew where the number belonged in the show; all they didn’t have were the words or the music. But Mary Martin knew the music: she remembered a sprightly little number, “Suddenly Lucky,” which had bounced around the score of South Pacific until it was ultimately given the heave-ho. It was a perfect fit for the scene, in which Anna Leonowens finally wins over the children of the King of Siam.

“You’re Nearer” was written for the movie version of Rodgers and Hart’s 1939 Broadway hit Too Many Girls. Desi Arnaz, Eddie Bracken, and Van Johnson all starred in the stage version and repeated their roles in the movie, where they were joined by Lucille Ball as Desi’s love interest. RKO Studios loved Lucy – but not her voice. Her performance of “You’re Nearer” was actually dubbed by Trudy Erwin. Rodgers and Hart were so fond of this number that it replaced “My Prince” in the musical’s post-Broadway national tour.

“I Could Write a Book” is sweet, warm, and lovable; the show it comes from, Pal Joey, is sharp, cool, and tough. It was Broadway’s first truly adult musical comedy, and Joey the first musical-comedy anti-hero. The premiere for this caustic, cynical piece was held on Christmas night. The Moral: Don’t judge this “Book” by its cover.

“Sleepy Head” is a sleeper. Written for Rodgers and Hart’s 1926 musical comedy The Girl Friend, it went into the show in Atlantic City – and came out of the show in Atlantic City. Less than four months later it reappeared in The Garrick Gaieties of 1926. Sterling Holloway, one of the stars of the original Garrick Gaieties, sang “Sleepy Head” to a cocker spaniel sitting in his lap. On opening night the dog yawned halfway through the number, and the canine commentary was not lost on the critics. They loved the dog but panned the number. A month later the song was out of the show – though the dog stayed on.

When the story of State Fair begins, Margy, the heroine, is moody and restless, feeling as if she is in love but not knowing why. Obviously she is suffering from spring fever. There is one thing wrong with this scenario, however: spring fever happens only in the spring, and state fairs – pretty crucial to the plot in this case – only happen in August. Oscar Hammerstein II was stumped. Reporting his dilemma to his partner, he added ruefully that for Margy, despite the calendar, “it might as well be spring.” “That’s it!” Rodgers shouted. Thus was born the Academy Award®-winning Best Song of 1945.

“My Funny Valentine” (from Babes in Arms) is a wise song; it doesn’t just settle for imperfection, it celebrates it. Like “Bill” – a song that, although from Show Boat, had lyrics by one of Lorenz Hart’s idols, P.G. Wodehouse – “My Funny Valentine” expresses unconditional love in the face of a litany of faults. The tone is fond and caressing, the mood protective. This is a love song for people who aren’t perfect. No wonder it has become the unofficial anthem of Valentine’s Day.

A Connecticut Yankee was originally presented in 1927, but the 1943 production was more a revision than a revival, since it featured an updated book and a revamped score. “To Keep My Love Alive” was one of the new numbers, written especially for Vivienne Segal as the sorceress Morgan Le Fay. Hart’s last song – he died less than a week after the show opened – is also one of his wittiest, and to hear Mary Martin sing it is to rediscover the sly coquette who stole Leave It To Me and reigned over One Touch of Venus.

Starring Jack Haley and a seal, Higher and Higher ran on Broadway for 108 performances. The plot had something to do with a housemaid from Iceland and suspected spooks in a mansion. And it introduced a haunting love song called “It Never Entered My Mind.” It’s a torch song, about living with regret, except that the emotion is controlled and the pain is gently hidden. Its placement on this album is special, too – its glowing honesty set between wickedness and innocence.

As silly and sweet as a nursery rhyme, “Moon of My Delight” is a wonderful number. So why have there been no sightings of this “Moon” since 1928? As with “Sleepy Head,” sometimes the play’s the thing. Chee-Chee was Broadway’s first, and presumably last, castration musical (and had the shortest run of any Rodgers show). Based on a novel by Charles Petit called The Son of the Grand Eunuch, it tells the story of poor Li-Pi Tchou, on the run to avoid inheriting the dubious title of Grand Eunuch, and of his wife Chee-Chee, who does what she can to see that he isn’t matched to the job description.

Much has been written contrasting the two lyricists who worked with Richard Rodgers for much of his career. Both Hart and Hammerstein attended Columbia University (as did Rodgers, for that matter). Both were born in 1895, both were of German stock. Their views on life, however, were fundamentally different, as is vividly illustrated on this album. “You Are Never Away,” from Allegro, is essentially Hammerstein’s variation on the same theme as Hart’s “You’re Nearer,” which we heard near the beginning of the set. Both songs are about holding on to a faraway lover with a dream. With Hammerstein, the dream comes true; with Hart, the dream is all there is.

“There’s a Small Hotel” was written for the circus musical Jumbo, but found its niche in On Your Toes. This last word from Lorenz Hart, after an album of lyrics about poignant love, bittersweet love, even lethal love, is not really about love at all, but about romance, pure and simple.

The main love story of South Pacific was written with its original stars, Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin, already in mind. The show’s creators made a deliberate decision not to pit these two talents – each a giant in their own arena – against each other in duet, or even side by side in case they should unintentionally compete with each other. Instead the score was carefully crafted so that their songs would parallel each other – occasionally dovetailing, but never colliding. Her numbers are sassy, youthful, and very American. His are brooding, soulful, introspective, and heartfelt. In short, he got “Some Enchanted Evening.”

Even though it was not a song she would sing in the musical, it was one of the numbers Rodgers and Hammerstein played for Mary Martin when she was considering whether to do the show, and one of the deciding factors that moved her to accept. Less than ten years after the opening of South Pacific, Mary Martin, with the composer at her side, sang “Some Enchanted Evening” at last. It was worth the wait.
– Bert Fink, Director of Special Projects for Rodgers & Hammerstein