Singer/actress Mary Martin was, along with Ethel Merman, one of the two leading performers in stage musicals during the middle third of the 20th century. From the 1930s to the 1960s, Martin appeared on Broadway, in the West End, and on tour thousands of times in such massively successful shows as South Pacific and The Sound of Music. She also recorded cast albums for these shows that sold in the millions. Unlike Merman, who was known for her brassy, extroverted style, Martin was a warm, ingratiating performer. She was far more subtle than her friend and chief rival, and she was much more versatile. When Martin took over the starring role of Annie Oakley from Merman for the U.S. tour of Annie Get Your Gun, she took a distinctly different approach and enjoyed audience approval. It is hard to imagine Merman doing the same with such Martin roles as Peter Pan or the goddess Venus in One Touch of Venus. But then, Merman never showed much interest in stepping into a part previously created by another actress, while Martin never hesitated to do so. (A rare exception came late in the careers of both actresses, when they each appeared in Hello, Dolly!) Nor did Merman care to leave New York, for the most part, while Martin worked extensively in London and on the road. And Martin's greater flexibility was shown in her enthusiasm for taking on straight plays in which she was asked to sing little or not at all.
Although the stage was her home, Martin also worked in the other media available to her. She had a relatively brief film career that still added up to more than a dozen features; she was a regular on radio and television series; she appeared in nightclubs and concert halls; and she recorded extensively, not just on cast albums, but also as a solo artist, and even scored a couple of chart hits. Nevertheless, her chief career accomplishment was her lengthy succession of award-winning starring roles in Broadway musicals.
Mary Virginia Martin was born on December 1, 1913, in Weatherford, TX, the second daughter of Preston Martin, a lawyer, and Juanita (Presley) Martin, a former violin teacher; her older sister Geraldine was 11 years her senior. Her mother encouraged her interest in performing and began teaching her the violin at a young age. Those lessons did not take, but she showed more enthusiasm for singing and dancing. At the age of 12, she began taking voice lessons from Helen Fouts Cahoon, head of the voice department at Texas Christian University. (Amazingly, when she later moved to New York as an adult, she happened to move into an apartment building where Cahoon was living and resumed her lessons.)
In 1930, when Martin was 16, her parents sent her to the prestigious Ward Belmont finishing school in Nashville, TN. She ended up staying at the school only two and a half months before marrying her boyfriend, 21-year-old Benjamin Jackson Hagman, an accountant, and returning to Weatherford where they lived with her parents. (Hagman then studied to become a lawyer and later worked in his father-in-law's office.) On September 21, 1931, the 17-year-old Martin gave birth to Lawrence Martin Hagman, who, under the name Larry Hagman, would become a well-known television actor, starring as astronaut Tony Nelson in the situation comedy I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970) and as the ruthless J.R. Ewing on the primetime soap opera Dallas (1978-1991).
Martin largely left the raising of her son to her mother. At the age of 18, she opened a dancing school in Weatherford. It became such a success that, after a season, she went to Hollywood, CA, to enroll at the Fanchon and Marco School of Theatre in order to learn more herself. Over the next few years, she alternated sessions of teaching in Texas and learning in Hollywood, meanwhile opening branches of her school in Mineral Wells and Cisco. In Mineral Wells, she set up the school at the local hotel and paid for the space by singing with the hotel orchestra once a week, a performance also broadcast on the radio. During her second stint at Fanchon and Marco, she wandered into an audition and ended up getting offstage singing engagements at vaudeville theaters in San Francisco and Los Angeles. By 1936, she had decided to settle in Hollywood and try to make a living as a performer; she and her husband formally separated, and they divorced in 1937. (Although she was given custody of her son, she placed him in a series of private schools and military academies.)
From 1936 to 1938, Martin struggled to achieve recognition as an entertainer in Los Angeles. As early as July 19, 1936, the Los Angeles Times carried a notice about her singing on the radio, although this was a "sustaining" (i.e., unsponsored) show for which she was not paid. She gradually found nightclub work, first at the Cinegrille of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, then at the Casanova club, and at Gordon's bar, eventually earning as much as $400 a week. She taught dancing. She auditioned unsuccessfully at the movie studios, but she eventually began to get work in bit parts and dubbing the singing voices of others. For example, she sang "The Daughter of Mademoiselle" for Louise Havoc (aka Gypsy Rose Lee) in Battle of Broadway, which opened in April 1938, and she was the singing voice of Margaret Sullavan in The Shopworn Angel in July. The same month, she made her onscreen debut in the unbilled bit part of a dance teacher in The Rage of Paris. Meanwhile, she spent June 1938 as a regular on the network radio series Good News. But it was not until the late summer of 1938 that she got an important break, when she appeared at a talent show at the Trocadero nightclub and brought down the house singing a swing arrangement of Italian composer Luigi Arditi's waltz "Il Bacio" ("The Kiss"). In the audience was Broadway producer Laurence Schwab, who was casting an upcoming musical, Ring Out the News. Schwab signed Martin to a contract and brought her to New York. By the time she got there, the show had fallen through, but another musical about to go into production had just suffered a defection when a secondary actress dropped out to get married, and Martin successfully auditioned for what became Leave It to Me!, with songs by Cole Porter.
In Leave It to Me!, Martin sang a typically risqué Porter number, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," and did a partial striptease to boot. When the show opened on November 9, 1938, for the first of 307 Broadway performances, that number was a sensation, and it made Martin a star. On November 30, backed by Eddy Duchin & His Orchestra, she recorded the song for Brunswick Records, and although record charts did not exist at the time, chart researcher Joel Whitburn (in the book Pop Memories, 1986) estimates it was a Top Ten hit. On December 19, Martin appeared on the cover of Life magazine. On December 22, she was back in the recording studio, this time for Decca Records, with which she would remain associated for the next decade, cutting songs for a series of single releases, backed by Woody Herman & His Orchestra. On January 11, 1939, she opened an eight-week nightclub engagement at the Rainbow Room at the top of Rockefeller Center, appearing each night after finishing her work in Leave It to Me!
All this exposure succeeded where Martin's two years of knocking on movie studio doors had failed; she was signed to a contract by Paramount Pictures and returned to Hollywood to make her first featured appearance in the movie The Great Victor Herbert, which opened in December 1939. But she did not close other doors. In September 1939, she joined the cast of the radio series The Tuesday Night Party, and she returned to the East Coast to star in a new musical, Nice Goin', produced by Laurence Schwab, who also wrote the libretto. It opened out-of-town tryouts in New Haven, CT, on October 21, 1939, but closed in Boston on November 4, never reaching Broadway. Still, Martin remained in New York for the winter. On January 25 and February 5, 1940, she recorded the eight tracks for her first Decca album, Mary Martin in an Album of Cole Porter Songs, including another rendition of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." In March, she returned to Good News, appearing on the show regularly through the end of the year. But she was back in Los Angeles by April 16, when she recorded "You're Lonely and I'm Lonely" for Decca backed by an orchestra conducted by Ray Sinatra.
On May 5, 1940, Martin married Richard Halliday, a story editor at Paramount. The same month, she began filming her second Paramount feature, co-starring with the studio's biggest star, Bing Crosby, in Rhythm on the River. The picture was finished by July and in release by the end of August. Martin immediately went into Love Thy Neighbor, which put her between radio stars Jack Benny and Fred Allen; it opened in December. Her film career picking up steam, she quickly went on to Kiss the Boys Goodbye with Don Ameche and Oscar Levant, which appeared in August 1941, and New York Town with Fred MacMurray and Robert Preston, which opened in November. Between April and June, she worked on another Crosby vehicle, Birth of the Blues, a December release. The speedy completion of this series of projects was necessitated by her delicate condition; on November 4, 1941, she gave birth to her second child, Mary Heller Halliday.
Joel Whitburn registered a number 23 showing that same week for the Decca recording of Johnny Mercer's "The Waiter and the Porter and the Upstairs Maid," sung by Crosby, Martin, and Jack Teagarden, and featured in Birth of the Blues. In January 1942, Martin took over as the regular female vocalist on Crosby's radio series, the Kraft Music Hall, continuing throughout the year. She also recorded again with Crosby, and on April 8 served as the featured vocalist on Horace Heidt & His Musical Knights' recording of "Pound Your Table Polka" on Columbia Records, a disc that hit number 22. Meanwhile, however, her movie career languished. Her only screen appearance in 1942 came at the end of the year, when she was one of many performers making small appearances in Star Spangled Rhythm. At the same time, the recording ban that began August 1, 1942, and ran into the next year temporarily derailed her recording career. She did make one more film, Happy Go Lucky, with Dick Powell, but by the time it appeared in March 1943, she had decided to try her own luck once again on-stage. Two different shows were in preparation in the winter of 1943, and she had her pick of them. One was the work of the newly formed team of veteran composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, an adaptation of the play Green Grow the Lilacs. The other was Dancing in the Streets, with songs by Vernon Duke and Howard Dietz. Unable to choose between them, Martin flipped a coin and went into Dancing in the Streets, which opened in Boston on March 19, 1943, and closed there forever on April 10. The Rodgers and Hammerstein show continued to gestate before emerging on March 31, 1943, as Oklahoma!, a landmark hit.
Martin returned to Hollywood and shot her ninth film, True to Life, with Franchot Tone and Dick Powell, which opened in October. But she had actually decided to give up on a film career after four years of trying to achieve stardom. She sought a leave of absence from Paramount and went back east to look for another musical. She found it in One Touch of Venus, the story of a Greek statue that comes to life in current-day Manhattan, which had a book by S.J. Perelman and Ogden Nash, lyrics by Nash, and music by Kurt Weill. It opened at the 46th Street Theatre on October 7, 1943, for a run of 567 performances, through February 10, 1945. For her performance, Martin won a Donaldson Award, the precursor to the Tony Award. Among the innovations of Oklahoma! had been Decca's decision to record a cast album, and the label followed up on November 7, 1943, by putting stars Martin and John Boles in a recording studio for an "original Broadway cast" recording of the songs from One Touch of Venus, released February 10, 1944. Martin did other recording sessions for Decca during this period, resulting in a Top Ten rendition of the wartime standard "I'll Walk Alone." Toward the end of the New York run of One Touch of Venus, she also joined members of the original cast of On the Town for a belated recording of that show's score, even though she had not appeared in it on-stage.
The day after the Broadway closing of One Touch of Venus, Martin and her husband embarked on a national tour of the musical. While on the road, they decided that Halliday would give up his work as a story editor to devote himself to being her manager. He fulfilled this function for the rest of his life. After completing the tour, Martin immediately turned to a new musical, Lute Song, a love story based on a 14th century Chinese play, with songs by Raymond Scott and Bernard Hanighen including "Mountain High, Valley Low." Critically acclaimed, but only a modest financial success, Lute Song ran 142 performances, until June 8, 1946. Only Martin appeared on the cast album recorded March 4, 1946, and released May 6 by Decca. In July, Martin made a rare film appearance, reprising her performance of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" in Night and Day, a movie biography of Cole Porter. During the summer, she sailed to England, where Noël Coward had asked her to star in his next musical in London. The show, Pacific 1860, did not open until December 19, 1946, because the theater in which it was housed, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, had to be repaired after having been bombed in World War II. It was not well received and ran only 129 performances, closing on April 12, 1947, but a cast album was recorded by the U.K. branch of Decca.
Martin returned to the U.S., where Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, acting as producers of the hit Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun, were planning a national tour of the show. Its star, Ethel Merman, was not interested in going on the road, and Martin, who, as a Texas native, felt an affinity with its Western sharpshooting heroine, was happy to step in. She opened the tour of Annie Get Your Gun in Dallas, TX, on October 3, 1947, and traveled around the U.S. with it for the next 11 months. This earned her a special Tony Award, her first, in the second year that the awards were given out, 1948.
Martin's 1947 recording of "Almost Like Being in Love" from the musical Brigadoon, accompanied by Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians, brought her another singles chart entry on Decca. But by the start of 1949, she had switched allegiance after a decade, signing to Columbia Records. In early February, she recorded a selection of show tunes for her debut Columbia album, Mary Martin Sings for You. Columbia also contracted for her next cast album, for the musical South Pacific. This adaptation of World War II stories by James Michener with songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein opened on Broadway on April 7, 1949, and became Martin's biggest career triumph. She starred in it for more than two years in New York, receiving her second Tony Award and singing such songs as "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" and "(I'm in Love With) A Wonderful Guy," and the Columbia album, the first cast recording issued in the new LP format, topped the charts for a record 69 weeks, eventually selling several million copies. During this lengthy stay in New York, Martin found plenty of time to make other recordings for Columbia. Her duet with Arthur Godfrey on the novelty tune "Go to Sleep, Go to Sleep, Go to Sleep" peaked in the Top Ten in April 1950, and she recorded a duet single with her son Larry Hagman of "You're Just in Love" from Ethel Merman's current show, Call Me Madam. Most ambitious, she was engaged by Columbia president Goddard Lieberson to record a series of studio-cast versions of music from musicals that had run prior to the era of the original Broadway cast album. These included Cole Porter's Anything Goes, Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz's The Band Wagon, Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms, and George and Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy, all recorded in 1950 and 1951. Also, she made her debut television appearance as a guest on the NBC special Richard Rodgers' Jubilee Show on March 4, 1951.
Martin left South Pacific on Broadway in June 1951, only to travel back to London and open the West End production on November 1, 1951, and devote another year to the show. (She also made a second cast recording of it for the English Columbia label.) After returning to the U.S., she did not immediately go into a new show. On June 15, 1953, she appeared on a television special marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Ford Motor Company, singing an extended duet with Ethel Merman. Decca Records pressed up a 10" disc of the duet for commercial release. Martin made her final appearance in a feature film by turning up as herself in Main Street to Broadway, a movie made primarily to promote Broadway. Instead of going into a new musical, she next toured the country in a straight play, co-starring with Charles Boyer in Kind Sir, which finally reached Broadway on November 4, 1953, where it played 166 performances before closing on March 27, 1954. The property later enjoyed greater success as the 1958 film Indiscreet, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.
By now, Martin and her husband were interested in assembling their own projects. With Halliday serving as producer, the couple turned to a new musical adaptation of J.M. Barrie's children's play Peter Pan, hiring the songwriting team of Mark (Moose) Charlap and Carolyn Leigh for a production that began with the Los Angeles and San Francisco Light Opera Association. Songs by composer Jule Styne and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green were added before the show opened on Broadway on October 20, 1954. RCA Victor recorded a cast album, including such songs as "I've Got to Crow," "I Won't Grow Up," and "Neverland," and it became a Top Five hit in the Billboard chart, while hitting number one in Cash Box. The show, which found Martin, in her early forties, flying around the stage suspended by piano wire, ran 152 performances in New York and would have gone much longer if it had not been so physically taxing for the star and if the production had not been contracted to close so as not to compete with a live television broadcast. She won her third Tony Award for it. After a final stage performance on February 26, 1955, she flew before a reported television audience of 65 million on the evening of March 7, winning an Emmy Award in the process.
Martin and Halliday vacationed in South America after Peter Pan, and they decided to buy a farm in Anápolis, Brazil, where they lived over the next two decades when Martin was not working. She next returned to non-musical stage work, opening in a revival of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth in Paris in June 1955. The show then moved to Washington, D.C., and Chicago before a New York run of 22 performances that began on August 17 and was followed by a live television broadcast on September 11. Only six weeks later, on October 22, Martin was back on network TV, appearing in the 90-minute special Together with Music alongside Noël Coward. A recording of the show was issued privately at the time, and later DRG Records released a commercial version. Martin, meanwhile, signed a three-year contract with NBC for $100,000 to appear in further TV specials, the first of which was another live broadcast of Peter Pan on January 9, 1956. On October 28, 1956, she was in a television version of the play Born Yesterday.
Martin's association with Peter Pan made her an attractive performer for the child-oriented Walt Disney Company, which signed her for a series of children's recordings beginning in 1956 with The Little Lame Lamb, followed in 1958 by the albums Hi Ho! Mary Martin Sings and Swings Walt Disney Favorites, Mary Martin Sings a Musical Love Story, and The Story of Sleeping Beauty, and in 1959 by Snow White. Martin also recorded Adventures for Readers for book publisher Harcourt, released in 1958. In April 1957, she recorded the LP Mary Martin Sings, Richard Rodgers Plays for RCA Victor, performing Rodgers songs to piano accompaniment by the composer and an orchestra; the album was released in 1958. She returned to the stage in June 1957, spending the summer performing South Pacific and Annie Get Your Gun in repertory for the Los Angeles and San Francisco Light Opera Association, and on November 27, 1957, she and co-star John Raitt did Annie Get Your Gun on television, with an accompanying album released by Capitol Records that reached number 12.
Martin and Halliday had settled on their next Broadway project, a musical adaptation of Maria von Trapp's memoirs, The Trapp Family Singers, eventually called The Sound of Music, but while they obtained rights and assembled the creative team, Martin embarked on her first national concert tour in September 1958. On this ambitious trek through 87 cities, lasting into March 1959, she performed two shows at each stop, a matinee, dubbed Magic with Mary Martin and intended for children, featuring the mini-musical Three to Make Music and songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein's recent TV musical Cinderella, and an evening show called Music with Mary Martin for adults. She repeated both performances for television on Easter Sunday, March 29, 1959, and released an album, Three to Make Music/Cinderella, on RCA Victor, that earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Recording for Children.
The Sound of Music, with songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, finally opened on Broadway on November 16, 1959, and was second only to South Pacific as the high point of Martin's career. She won her fourth Tony Award, introducing such songs as "My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi," and the title song, and she appeared in the show for two years of its three-and-a-half-year run. She also recorded the cast album, which topped the charts and sold in the millions, winning a Grammy Award. In the middle of her run in the show, she gave her third television performance in Peter Pan on December 8, 1960, the first to be taped for future viewing.
In 1962, Martin made an inspirational recording, Guideposts for Living, with popular minister Norman Vincent Peale while planning her next musical, Jennie, based on the life of actress Laurette Taylor. Featuring songs by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, it opened on Broadway on October 17, 1963, but lasted only 82 performances, closing December 28. RCA Victor recorded a cast album that made the Top 100. Although Martin had eschewed film work, she was considered for the Disney feature Mary Poppins before the part went to Julie Andrews, who also went on to star in the movie version of The Sound of Music. But Martin did record an album of the music from Mary Poppins for Disney that was licensed to Kapp Records, and when Songs from Mary Poppins and Other Favorites, credited to the Do-Re-Mi Children's Chorus with Mary Martin appeared in 1964, a single of "A Spoonful of Sugar" drawn from the LP earned Martin another Grammy Award nomination for Best Recording for Children.
In the run-up to the production of Jennie, Martin had been forced to turn down another musical, Hello, Dolly!, which instead starred Carol Channing when it opened on January 16, 1964. She was, however, able to accept the national tour, which began in April 1965 in Minneapolis, MN, and crisscrossed the U.S. for the next five months. That turned out to be only the beginning. In the fall, the production moved to the Pacific, playing in Hawaii, then in Japan, before touring U.S. military installations in Okinawa and Japan, and then, starting on October 10, the war zone in South Vietnam for ten days. Martin then flew to London and opened the West End production of the show on December 2. She also recorded the original London cast album for RCA Victor. On February 7, 1966, her adventures were recounted in the TV special Mary Martin: Hello Dolly 'Round the World. Two months later, on April 3, she had another TV special, Mary Martin at Eastertime, broadcast from Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The same month, Disneyland Records released the LP Mary Martin Songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein's the Sound of Music, a re-recording of the music that was even more popular in the wake of the 1965 movie.
Martin made her final appearance in a Broadway musical in I Do! I Do!, a show depicting 50 years in the life of a married couple. The two-person cast also featured Robert Preston, and the show, with songs by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, among them the hit "My Cup Runneth Over," opened on Broadway on December 5, 1966, for a run of 561 performances through June 15, 1968. (The RCA Victor cast album reached the Top 100 in Billboard and the Top 40 in Cash Box.) It then embarked on a 30-city road tour that ran into 1969, at the end of which Martin returned to Brazil with no immediate plans to perform again. She remained active, however, opening her own boutique in Anápolis and publishing a book, Mary Martin's Needlepoint, later in the year. But she did not return to the stage until March 26, 1972, when she appeared at a benefit performance, A Celebration of Richard Rodgers, in New York. Nearly a year later, on March 3, 1973, her husband, Richard Halliday, died at the age of 67. Soon after, she sold the farm in Brazil and moved back to the U.S., living on Martha's Vineyard and in Rancho Mirage, CA. In 1976, she published her autobiography, My Heart Belongs. She went back to work in August 1977, when she toured in a play, Do You Turn Somersaults?, with Anthony Quayle. It opened on Broadway on January 9, 1978, but lasted only two weeks. On December 7, 1979, she appeared in a television movie, Valentine. In 1981, she began co-hosting a daily half-hour television series for seniors, Over Easy, on PBS. Her tenure on the show was interrupted in September 1982 when she was seriously injured in a car accident while riding in a taxi, but she recovered and continued to appear on the program into 1983. She also made guest appearances on the network TV series Love Boat and Hardcastle and McCormick. From January 1986 to January 1987, she and Carol Channing toured in the play Legends!, her last stage work. She continued to make occasional appearances in the late '80s. In December 1989, she was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. By then, she was suffering from cancer, and she died at age 76 on November 3, 1990, in Rancho Mirage, CA.
The year before her death, Martin saw her 1960 performance in Peter Pan sell four million videocassettes. This was, however, a rare instance in which a performer whose primary medium was the stage had one of her most memorable portrayals captured in permanent form for the appreciation of later generations. In addition to those 1940s films, there are grainy kinescopes of some of Martin's TV appearances, on The Ed Sullivan Show re-creating scenes from her shows, for example, and the Ford 50th Anniversary Show duet with Ethel Merman. Those who did not see Martin on-stage, however, may best appreciate her warmth and vivacity on the cast recordings of her shows and compilations of her solo recordings such as 16 Most Requested Songs (Columbia/Legacy, 1993) and The Decca Years: 1938-1946 (Koch/MCA, 1995). As the 50-year copyright limit on recordings continues in Europe, unlicensed albums of Martin recordings appear, notably the Flapper and Living Era collections both called My Heart Belongs to Daddy (1999 and 2004, respectively), and Jasmine's 2006 album Broadway to Hollywood — and Back, which also contains soundtrack and aircheck recordings. ~ William Ruhlmann