From Venus to Nellie to Maria to Peter Pan
Her life was filled with adventure, heartbreak, hard work, professionalism, discipline, discovery, and an unbreakable bond with the best of show business!
Born to a prominent middle class family in Weatherford, Texas before the first world war, she became the apple of her parents' eyes. Her family supported her in her creative endeavors, her desire to dance and sing like an angel, comedic instincts and timing and her ability to take risks.
She said that her daddy could turn her into an angel with just one look. She began singing outside the courtroom where her father worked every Saturday night at a bandstand where the town band played. She and her sister and a friend would dress in bellhop uniforms. "Even in those days without microphones, my high piping voice carried all over the square." She had a photographic memory as a child making it easy to memorize songs and pass her school tests. She also had a talent for mimicking famous celebrities like Ruby Keeler and Bing Crosby. While she was at a finishing school in Nashville, she enjoyed impersonating Fanny Brice at singing jobs.
At 17 she was married to Ben Hagman and had a baby (Larry Hagman) But ultimately she didn't enjoy being a wife. Then her sister Geraldine suggested she should teach dance. She created her own moves imitating the famous dancers she watched in the movies. "I was doing something I wanted to do---creating."
Her father advised her that she was too young to be married. She left her baby with her family and went to Hollywood, subsequently divorcing Ben Hagman.
In Hollywood, she had so many auditions that she became known as "Audition Mary". At one particular audition she sang "Indian Love Call" after which a tall rather craggy looking man who towered over her said he thought she had something special. Her first real encouragement came from none other than Oscar Hammerstein 11, marking the start of her career.
ALONG CAME LAURENCE SCHWAB
In the late summer of her second year of getting the big Hollywood break, she was asked to sing on a Sunday night talent show at the famed Trocadero nightclub. She chose what she would wear and what she would sing. For openers she selected "The Weekend of a Private Secretary" (music,
Bernie Hanighen, lyrics, Johnny Mercer). Her second number was "Il Bacio" (The Kiss) in a jazzed-up, syncopated version. "You could have heard a pin drop,' she reports in her autobiography,"From there I began to swing the be-daylights out of it. When I finished--- it started: shouting, whistling, calls of bravo, people standing on chairs, on tables. I knew I had made it. In ten minutes my life had changed." Jack Benny was in the audience and invited her to a table where she met
Laurence Schwab, one of the most important producers on Broadway who was to become a friend for life. He called her, offered her a role in a new musical comedy he was planning to do and, as an afterthought, suggested she get her teeth capped.
"All through the years young people have asked me what makes the big break happen. I have always answered the same: work. Work and work and work. Be ready when the break comes. It could be one break, or forty, or a hundred and forty. I had hundreds of auditions, but I was not ready until that fateful Sunday night." (My Heart Belongs....)
LEAVE IT TO ME
She would audition for Cole Porter, Sam and Bella Spewack (composer and book writers of the hit Leave it to Me) in which she was cast as a strip teaser who sang only one number, which became her signature song and enjoyed around the world. My Heart Belongs To Daddy. The show's stars included William Gaxton, Victor Moore and Sophie Tucker. "Sophie Tucker used to watch me all the time in the wings. Once after I had sung "Daddy" in rehearsal she came over and said, 'Kid, do you know what you're singing? Do you know what the words mean?" I said of course but she persisted. "Do you know that Daddy is not your father?" "I know that he's a man who takes care of me." But Sophie shook her head: "But do you know what you're singing?" I wasn't all that sure. I didn't have any idea what finnan haddie was until somebody told me it was a fish. Finally Sophie explained, "It is a naughty song, a risque song. There's one thing I want you to do. Each time you sing a lyric you don't understand, don't know exactly what you're singing, tell it to your audience. I mean like, 'If I invite a boy some night to dine on my fine finnan haddie, I just adore his asking for more, 'but, on the last line, never look at the audience. Look straight up to heaven, fold your hands, and sing 'but my heart belongs to Daddy.'" The song became a show stopper. Fun fact: One of the eskimos who was back up in that number was Gene Kelly in his first Broadway job. She said that his drive and determination were boundless.
ONE TOUCH OF VENUS
In 1943 she starred in the new Kurt Weill musical One Touch of Venus. After a disappointing sojourn in Hollywood where she made a few films, she returned to Broadway where she met one of the most special women in her life--Cheryl Crawford. The show had been originally written for Marlene Dietrich, her theater debut in America. But she decided not to do it. She believed at first that she could not play Venus (if Ms. Dietrich was the original choice). But when she heard the score in Kurt Weill's apartment she was hooked especially with the the song "That's Him". The renowned couturier fashion designer Richard Mainbocher was approached to design her wardrobe. He had never designed clothing for Broadway but when she sang That's Him to him he promised to do her clothes and created the color 'Venus pink', pale and glowing"as the inside of a seashell."
When Oscar Hammerstein 11 saw One Touch of Venus, he said that the moment at the end of the musical when Venus reappears as a mortal from Ozone Heights, he wanted to write a part for the innocent, eager little girl in the white-pique blouse, pink polka-dot skirt, and matching rolled-brim hat. He wrote it too--Nellie Forbush in South Pacific was a descendant of Venus.
SOUTH PACIFIC HER FIRST TONY AWARD
On April 7, 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, produced by Leland Hayward, directed and choreographed by Josh Logan, opened on Broadway starring Miss Mary Martin and
Mr. Ezio Pinza, famed opera singer. She was terrified of appearing on the same stage with him. After seeing him perform in a concert in Brooklyn she phoned Rodgers imploring him not to have them sing together. And they never did except for "Wonder How it Feels' in counterpoint. The score still is one of the most beautiful for the way it sounded and moved the narrative. In particular she was proud of the way she approached "I'm Gonna Wash that Man." "Honey Bun", she recalls, was one of the most joyous moments for her. When the curtain came down, the "audience not only refused to leave the theatre, they all stood up and crowded toward the front, shouting and clapping and calling for more, more, more." Time magazine wrote: "Hammerstein and Logan have contrived a shrewd mixture of tear-jerking and rib-tickling, of sugar and spice, and everything twice". Richard Watts Jr., New York Post: "nothing I have ever seen her do prepared me for the loveliness, humor, gift for joyous characterization, and sheer lovableness of her portrayal of Nellie Forbush..Hers is a completely irresistible performance."
THEN CAME THE GLORIOUS PETER PAN, ANOTHER TONY
Peter Pan is perhaps the most important thing, to me, that I have ever done in the theater. I cannot even remember a day when I didn't want to be Peter. When I was a child I was sure I could fly. In my dreams I often did, and it was always the same: I ran, raised my arms like a great bird, soared into the sky, flew."
Her dear friend Jean Arthur was the first Peter on Broadway in 1950. Mary and her husband, manager, and best friend Richard Halliday were approached about a new musical version of the show. They could pick the composer, director and choreographer. They talked a young
Jerome Robbins into staging the entire production. Captain Hook would be played by the famed British character actor Cyril Ritchard; the flying instructor was a young Brit named Peter Foy, whose family had 'flown' all the stage Peters for fifty years. Foy planned the whole thing like a "military campaign' making charts of stage positions, calculating what can only be called trajectories of people in midair.'
"I have so many priceless memories of Peter Pan and his fans. There was the day Princess Grace of Monaco brought little Caroline back stage to meet me, and Caroline was so bashful she just stood, silent and big-eyed, looking up.
The day in San Francisco when a tiny little girl got away from her parents in a theater box, which was within crawling distance of the stage, and suddenly appeared onstage. Three feet tall, all in white with a straw hat, clutching a bouquet of flowers wrapped in lace. Everyone saw her. She looked terrified. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled across the stage to her. She backed away, so than I backed off and she came toward me. It became like a ballet, back and forth, back and forth. It was clear she longed to touch Peter, but didn't dare. Finally she came close enough to hold out the flowers, which were a little limp by then. Her tiny hand came out. I said, Thank you, little one. May I pick you up?" She shook her head but didn't say a word. I did pick her up and carried her back to her mother and father. They asked if they could come backstage after the show and I agreed. We started the show all over again. Backstage that afternoon the little girl walked in, put her arms around my neck, and kissed me. When I asked what her name was, she didn't reply. She was a deaf-mute, and when she climbed out of that box and walked onto the stage it was the first thing she had ever done all by herself, with no direction.
Such is the magic of Peter Pan. For her, for all the thousands of other children, I made a point of never getting out of costume until they had all left the theater. So many of them came back, and it would have been too awful for them to see plain old Mary Martin standing in the dressing room.
We used to give them all fairy dust; we must have dispensed tons of it.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC November 16, 1959 A THIRD TONY AWARD
In her biography My Heart Belongs..... she writes: "The Sound of Music was not a demanding show physically, except for the sheer distance I had to cover. The theater was built on two stories and had a two-story set. My main dressing room was on the second floor of the theater itself, but I also had a quick-change room on the second story of the set, and two other quick-change rooms on either side of the stage itself, in the wings. My darling Richard, who loved statistics, put a pedometer on me once and we found that I walked-ran-three miles at each performance, six miles on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
In my whole two year run in Sound of Music I missed only one performance. That is not counting the time I almost missed the whole theater. When my car broke down, I had to get out and get a taxi. Driver asked where I was going. I didn't know. I never knew addresses, never could remember the name of theaters. So I said, Well, uh, wherever Sound of Music is performing, do you know where that is? He didn't . I couldn't confess I'd been playing it for two years and didn't know where the theater was, so I just said,' Let me out please', jumped into another taxi whose driver knew where it was and he delivered me there on time."
|Mary as Maria|
"Everyone in every profession has little secrets. tricks of the trade. I began to learn mine in One Touch of Venus. The walk, the rehearsal in costume. I had fifteen costume changes and I always rehearsed in muslin copies of each costume. I also learned that one can change one's size. Sono Osato, a young ballerina in the cast, could see I was nervous about not looking like Venus. I am only 5'4 1/2 inches and I longed to be six feet tall. Sono came to me one day and said: "you can make yourself an inch taller by the way you stand, the way you think. Rehearse always in the highest heels you're going to wear in the show. Think tall. Keep your head up; think tall from your solar plexus up. Never relax. Stand straight, think tall. In the audience they'll think you're the tallest person they ever saw." The high heels which helped me look tall disturbed my precious motion. They clicked. I was sure goddesses didn't click. I had tiny rubber caps put on the heels, and from that day forward I have always had rubber-capped heels in the theater. I can move freely without a distracting noise.
I also had a gesture I did with a long scarf and while I sang I threw it around in grand, sweeping gestures. My husband Richard complimented me on the way I threw the scarf. I didn't know what moment he was talking about, what gesture. As a result the next time I couldn't make the scarf move. Richard was devastated and swore he would never again tell me when I did something specific that he liked.
My close dear friend actress Janet Gaynor gave me an inspirational book she read every day, Around the Year by Emmet Fox. There is a poem from it which I have never forgotten.
"Do not dissect things too much. By the time you have dissected a living thing, you have killed it. And you no longer have the thing you began with.." And she advised me when you start analyzing something, then you aren't you anymore."
Mary Martin washing that man out of her hair.
Still: South Pacific