Don’t let December 1 go by without celebrating the 100th birthday of one of Broadway’s favorite stars.
“Mary Martin” sounds as if it’s a stage name, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s the actual name (plus a Virginia in between) that Mr. and Mrs. Martin gave the future multi-Tony-winning star on Dec. 1, 1913 when she was born in their Weatherford, Texas home.
How famous did Martin become? In the early ‘60s, the TV quiz show known as The Match Game once asked its panelists to “Name the role for which Mary Martin is the most famous.”
Some voted for Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, others opted for Maria in The Sound of Music while most cited her title role in Peter Pan.
But here’s the thing: everyone had an opinion. The average person back then was not only assumed to know who Mary Martin was, but was also presumed to be aware of the characters she played.
Today, if John and Jane Q. Public were asked about film and television stars, they could easily recall vehicles and character names – but they probably couldn’t name three iconic roles for any Broadway star. And yet in the ‘60s they were easily able to identify Martin and her famous creations that made her The First Lady of the American Musical Theatre.
All right, others gave Ethel Merman that title. The debate came to a head during their famous showdown in the 1959-60 Tony race. Would the silver medallion go to Merman for playing Rose in Gypsy or Martin’s Maria in The Sound of Music?
And the winner was … Martin.
Actually, Martin was the more versatile of the two. You can picture Martin playing Merman’s roles; in fact, she assumed one of star’s most famous parts when she played Miss Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun. She took the show on a national tour and got a special Tony Award for her efforts.
Martin never played Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes on stage, and yet there’s a fine Masterworks Broadway album in which she sings selections from the Cole Porter hit. She demonstrates the brio of “You’re the Top,” the sensitivity of “All through the Night,” the jaundiced voice for the title tune, the flat-out willingness to proclaim love in “I Get a Kick out of You” and a full-throttled “Blow, Gabriel Blow.”
Similarly, Martin was featured on a 1952 studio cast album of Girl Crazy in which she sang “I Got Rhythm” the song that made Merman a star in 1930 and would always be her signature song. No, Martin didn’t try holding a note for an inordinately long time as Merman had done, but that was probably intentional in order to make the song her own.
Jerry Herman wrote Hello, Dolly! with Merman in mind, and the star did eventually play it. But so did Martin years before, both in London and Vietnam. Forgive me, Ms. Channing and Ms. Bailey, but Martin’s cast album is the one I enjoy the most. Her creamy voice can turn mischievous at the drop of a sixteenth-note, which is perfectly right for the both lovable and scheming Dolly Levi.
Granted, Martin never played Rose in Gypsy. And yet she often displayed plenty of backbone in her roles, which would suggest that she could have handled it. But now try picturing Merman in Martin’s roles. Nellie Forbush would be a stretch. But Maria von Trapp and Peter Pan? I’ll wait until you stop laughing.
All done? Anyway, this 100th birthday tribute to Martin needn’t be a contest between the two stars. Let’s appreciate how she was one reason why South Pacific opened with the greatest advance sale in Broadway history. Good thing for Rodgers and Hammerstein that they didn’t hold Martin’s turning down their Oklahoma! against her.
Although Martin didn’t ever play Anna in The King and I, she had a profound influence on the hit. She suggested to Rodgers and Hammerstein that Yul Brynner was the king they wanted. Then, when the musical needed a boost during its long first act, Martin suggested that R&H take the melody from “Suddenly Lucky,” which Lieutenant Cable had sung for a few South Pacific performances, and use the melody for a new song for Gertrude Lawrence. The result was no less than “Getting to Know You.”
She did at least get to record this song that she inspired on a late ‘50s album called Mary Martin Sings, Richard Rodgers Plays. Although she chose eight Lorenz Hart lyrics to four Hammersteins, she does include this charm song and performs it in a most charming manner.
Of course R&H’s South Pacific songs would have become standards without her, but many did buy the original cast album to hear Tony-winner Martin sing “A Wonderful Guy,” “Honey Bun” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” In fact, she came up with the eye-popping idea of washing that man right out of her hair, too.
Martin also cut those curls right outa her hair five years later when she played Peter Pan. If shampooing eight times a week was above and beyond the call of duty, what about flying all over the Winter Garden stage while singing “I’m Flying”? The song had a lyric by Carolyn Leigh, whom Martin wanted for the job after she’d heard Leigh’s lyric to the pop song “Young at Heart.”
Still, after the show opened its pre-Broadway tryout on July 19, 1954 in San Francisco, Martin and her producers felt there was a need for new songs. They employed Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green who came up with arguably their most beautiful song: “Never, Neverland.” The new writers also took advantage of Martin’s coloratura by writing “Mysterious Lady.” But during Martin’s Tony-winning performance, she gave equal star-power to the songs by Leigh and Moose Charlap (“I Gotta Crow”) and those by the triumvirate (“Wendy”).
South Pacific and The Sound of Music are far more famous musicals than Peter Pan, so why did the majority of contestants playing The Match Game that long-ago day know the musical that ran on Broadway about a tenth as long as the other two?
On March 7, 1955, sixty-five million viewers watched Peter Pan and allowed Martin to get the highest ratings ever for a live TV special. Such numbers prompted a live revival on January 9, 1956 that was broadcast in color – but so few homes had color TVs that a small percentage of the nation saw it. This gave everyone an excellent excuse to tape a new color version that premiered on December 8, 1960.
For that rendition, Martin had to juggle time with her stint as Maria in The Sound of Music, which she had opened thirteen months before. Here too she introduced songs that the entire world would come to know: the title song, “My Favorite Things,” “The Lonely Goatherd” and of course “Do-Re-Mi.”
There’s an irony involving that “Do-Re-Mi.” When Martin was in talks with Rodgers and Hammerstein about South Pacific, she was deathly afraid of holding stage with Ezio Pinza, and wondered why they might want “two basses.” They protected her from sounding too bass, but in “Do-Re-Mi,” her ability allowed for a nice moment at song’s end when she hit a quite low note. Both it and the giggle that follow are heavenly.
Maria made many people think of Martin as a goody two-shoes. They should visit Mary Martin Sings, Richard Rodgers Plays. Here she takes on “To Keep My Love Alive,” Hart’s devilish lyric for the 1943 revival of A Connecticut Yankee. Martin is a convincing merry murderess who matter-of-factly exterminates men who really don’t have it comin’. She makes killing seem to be the most natural way to proceed in life.
Martin’s next hit was I Do! I Do! — arguably her most arduous role. Given that she and Robert Preston were the only ones in the entire enterprise, she had four solos and twelve duets. The former category included the plaintive “What Is a Woman?” in which Martin aptly takes stock of a wife’s life, while the latter sported “Love Isn’t Everything,” in which a wife runs through the assets of liabilities of marriage in a most playful manner. Don’t miss the show’s hit song, “My Cup Runneth Over,” either.
We’ve saved the big flop for last. Into some life every rain must fall, and Martin got her monsoon in Jennie, a 1963 musical with an impossible book. The score, by longtime Broadway pros Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, offers some solid material, however. Most poignant is “Before I Kiss the World Goodbye,” the observations of an actress who knows she won’t live forever, and would like to make the most of the time she has left.
On the perkier end of the spectrum is “Born Again,” a joyous swirling waltz. “I feel as though I were born again,” she sings triumphantly. What a shame for all of us that Mary Martin can’t be born again.