When it comes to a full and secure knowledge of the Broadway musical, you can probably separate the amateurs from the professionals when you bring up 1946's Lute Song, starring Mary Martin. It was her first show after the hit Kurt Weill-Ogden Nash-S.J Perelman musical One Touch of Venus, in which she played her first leading role, successfully crowning her Broadway's newest musical star. Her return vehicle, nearly one year to the date of Venus's closing, was an odd one (to say the least). As described by biographer Ronald L. Davis in Mary Martin, Broadway legend, the part was that of "a young Chinese bride who begs to save her husband's parents from starvation and sells her hair to give them a proper burial. When asked years later what it was about Lute Song that appealed to her, Mary answered succinctly, 'Not much.'"
Mary Martin as Tchao-Ou-Niang in Lute Song (1946).
More a play with music than anything else (and more about its lustrous sets and costumes by Robert Edmond Jones than any great story it had to tell), Lute Song is a most peculiar entry in Mary Martin's Broadway career. By the time 1960 rolled around fourteen years later—after Nellie Forbush, Peter Pan and Maria Von Trapp—her status was all but cemented as a theatre legend. So how did the odd (and now obscure) Lute Song finds its way onto her resume? In Martin's own words: "That part scared me out of my wits. But it was a challenge, and Richard was all for my having these challenges. We thought about it for a long time, and finally, I got mad at myself. I thought, 'Well, I'm not that dumb.' I got by with Venus; I can do this.'"
The Richard to whom Martin was referring, was her husband and manager Richard Halliday, who guided her career with astringent attention. For her follow-up to Venus, it was Halliday who thought that this might put his wife within dramatic range of major actresses of the day such as Katharine Cornell and Helen Hayes. But Martin was sadly miscast, and in spite of working hard and trying anything for the betterment of the show, it all came to naught. It was her co-star, a total unknown discovered by the show's producer performing gypsy songs in a nightclub, that garnered interest among the critics. Thin and balding, with a vaguely Asian look, this was how audiences discovered Yul Brynner. Looking back on his twenty-six year-old self, Brynner admired everything his somewhat more mature co-star attempted to bring to the role, but shared in the belief it was not the most secure fit. "The show required a moody, sad creature, who is left behind and has to sell her hair. It was not the best vehicle for Mary at all."
Brynner was even more tough on himself. "I had no skills as an actor—none at all. I hid behind a very stylized performance that many people wrongly remember as quite remarkable, although it was not. Every performance of that show was painful for me and I hated my acting. I despised myself for playing such a weak character, and there I was stuck in a role I was ashamed of."
A striking photo of Yul Brynner as Tsai-Yong in Lute Song (1946).
Lute Song had a score composed by novices. Raymond Scott, who had never written (and would never write again) a Broadway musical, and was first and foremost an arranger. The lyricist, Bernard Hanighen, never returned to writing original work for the theatre, but did become a leading producer of jazz recordings, most prominently for Billie Holliday. The show’s book was co-credited to Sidney Howard, who had been dead for seven years, so we should assume his contributions were pretty minimal. Its story was based on a Chinese fable, written mostly by Will Irwin, a jack-of-all trades, whose usual job was as a Broadway musical director and conductor.
Lastly, Lute Song was directed by the venerable John Houseman, marking this distinguished gentleman of the theatre's first and last fling with the world of the Broadway musical (a world he didn't have much business entering in the first place). Lute Song wasn't a bomb, but it failed, closing in the summer of '46 after just 142 performances. "Good taste abounds. Pageantry, mood and atmosphere are there, too. But overall is the shroud of dullness," wrote Vernon Rice in the New York Post.
Yul Brynner and Mary Martin (who shaved off her eyebrows for the role).
Lute Song’s original cast album is a curiosity, limited as it is to just six songs (four of which feature Martin on the A side), and a B side consisting solely of orchestral music, forcing Yul Brynner off the disc entirely. Still, the score does have “Mountain High, Valley Low," a beautiful melody with a sweet lyric. You can listen to it here:
It would be nice to report that Martin had it easier with her next show following Lute Song. But instead, a hopeful guarantee from Noel Coward that his new musical Pacific 1860 would be the star vehicle she needed, proved otherwise. Both the critics and the city of London itself were rather inhospitable (the show was panned and it was a wickedly cold winter). Thereafter, Martin derisively referred to the ill-fated Pacific 1860 as "sounding like a telephone number." Upon her return home, Martin took on the title role in the first national tour of Irving Berlin's rousing hit musical Annie Get Your Gun, which she later got to revive in a live television version in 1957, and which was only recently put out on DVD for the first time this past year.
Co-starring John Raitt, and available at Amazon, for just $20 bucks.
But it wasn't until April of 1949, close to three years after Lute Song played its final performance, that she found herself washing that man right out of her hair eight times a week at the Majestic Theatre in South Pacific. It was good to be back home where she belonged (to coin the phrase of a role she would take on internationally many years later).
Oh, and one last factoid about Lute Song: As Si-Tchun, a Lady in Waiting, a young member of its cast made her one and only appearance on Broadway. She became a favorite of Martin's, who she even kept from being fired. The kindness was never forgotten, which is one reason why when Nancy Davis became Nancy Reagan, Mary Martin was always a welcome guest at the White House.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.