Book Reviews

Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater
by Jeffrey Magee

Book Review by Alan Gomberg

Irving Berlin's American Musical TheatreWhen people discuss the great innovators of the American musical, certain names—Hammerstein, Kern, Sondheim, Prince, Gershwin—are likely to be mentioned, but Irving Berlin is not one of them. Received wisdom views Berlin as a sentimental, flag-waving traditionalist, writing shows that lacked ambition in both form and content. That he was famously without any formal musical training and able to play the piano only by ear and in one key bolsters this impression.

Jeffrey Magee's new book, Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater, challenges that image of Berlin in scholarly detail. Magee convincingly portrays Berlin as a tremendously innovative figure. If he's not generally perceived as such nowadays, it's at least in part because much of his stage work is known only to scholars and specialists. Even if that work were better known, a full appreciation of what he did that was unusual requires an understanding of what was generally going on in musicals and revues at the time Berlin was doing his innovative work. Magee does an excellent job conveying what made Berlin's work so original. He brings together the facts of Berlin's career along with descriptions and analyses of the shows and songs. Many quotations from Berlin himself and the critics who saw his shows help to fill out the picture.

In general, the book is exhaustively and sometimes exhaustingly detailed. There are times when you may wish that Magee's writing possessed a bit more sparkle in covering it all. He rarely if ever cracks a smile in his writing. When reading his rather serious analysis of "Harlem on My Mind," which I've always thought of as a comic song, I found myself imagining Berlin saying, "Lighten up, Jeffrey!" Still, Magee writes well and there is a wealth of fascinating information here.

Magee's penchant for going into great detail pays off more often than not. In one of the best parts of the book, he devotes ten pages to the "Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" sequence in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919. Not surprisingly, it turns out that what Hollywood showed us in The Great Ziegfeld was not terribly accurate. As originally written and staged, it was an extended number that included five or six interludes with lyrics set to famous classical melodies.

Magee demonstrates how Berlin, despite his lack of formal musical education and his inability to read music, clearly used operatic techniques in his early work. He makes much of Berlin's versatility and the ambitious eclecticism of his scores, with ragtime songs side by side with extended, quasi-operatic musical sequences—whole scenes set to music—and songs in which "rag figures and classical allusions coexist." Berlin's belief that ragtime could be used to express a wide range of emotions probably made him a bit of a revolutionary, if an immensely popular one.

Berlin, in collaboration with Moss Hart and Hassard Short, consciously aimed to create a unified revue with As Thousands Cheer a decade before Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to create a unified book musical with Oklahoma!. The concept of unity was essential to Berlin from early in his career. In the 1910s, he worked on an outline for a book to be called The Secret of Song Writing. "Unity" was the title of the second chapter; Berlin said it was "the supreme test of song writing as an art or profession." A song was good only if the music and lyrics worked together to produce a unified effect and were both of high quality. If one of those elements was slightly more important than the other, it was the lyrics.

Magee effectively lays out the basic tools and stylistic choices that Berlin consciously employed to communicate what he wanted to say in his songs. The tremendous influence of minstrel shows on his writing comes up throughout, as that influence was present in just about all of Berlin's Broadway work. The operatic influences, on the other hand, disappeared in his later shows (except in his counterpoint songs).

Working with famed producer Charles Dillingham, he fused vaudeville with the "legitimate" theatre, bringing vaudeville stars into musicals with plots, creating what Magee calls "legitimate vaudeville." "[T]he Dillingham-Berlin approach," Magee tells us, "did not aspire to fulfill any one genre's conventions but rather strove to embrace them all." Genre distinctions in musical comedy of the period were porous, but Berlin and Dillingham took advantage of this freedom with more artistry and ingenuity than was usual. If this left critics uncertain how to categorize the two Berlin-Dillingham musicals (Watch Your Step and Stop! Look! Listen!), it didn't keep them from being greatly pleased—even ecstatic—about them.

With the Dillingham shows, Berlin insisted on a paradoxical and then-rare consistency (or perhaps we should say unity) within the heterogeneity of form: there would be no interpolations from other songwriters. With his groundbreaking Music Box Revue series starting seven years later, he became the first songwriter to write all the songs in a Broadway revue. He was the primary creative force behind the Music Box series. Yet his insistence on unity never resulted in musicals that were primarily serious in tone. The shows were often satirical, mocking both high culture and popular culture.

Berlin's satirical bent occasionally even turned a bit acidic. Who would think that the man who wrote "White Christmas" would write a rough draft of a revue to be titled Happy Holiday, which would be devoted to (in Berlin's words) "the debunking of the holiday spirit"? The more we read, the more we see that Berlin was not interested in writing shows that offered sentimental platitudes. Face the Music, which was billed as "a musical comedy revue," satirized police corruption, plainly alluding to the scandalous headlines of the day in a way that other musical comedies and revues of the time never did. Even Call Me Madam, which today seems to exemplify conventional musical comedy, was unusual in the way that it brought living political figures—even the president—into the action and by commenting, however lightly, on the next presidential contest and world politics. And in the middle of all the satire of As Thousands Cheer, there was "Supper Time," a heart-wrenching piece of social commentary that could not have been more unexpected in a revue of the period.

Berlin could perhaps get away with some irreverence about politics since his patriotism was never in doubt, as demonstrated in several shows, starting with Yip Yip Yaphank and its sequel, This Is the Army (not to mention "God Bless America"). Those two military revues were truly created by him and both featured him as a performer. (Until reading this book, I wasn't aware of how often he performed in his own shows and in vaudeville and just how beloved he was as a performer.) Yet Magee makes clear that both shows refrained from overt expressions of patriotism. Magee emphasizes that even though the film version of This Is Army preserves some of the stage show faithfully, it misrepresents much of its essence.

The chapter on This Is the Army might have profitably been shortened a bit, but it tells an extraordinary story. The show's "platoon of black talent made it the only racially integrated military unit before the army was officially desegregated in 1948." Yet despite Berlin's insistence that the company sleep in integrated quarters as the show toured, the black performers and white performers rarely shared the stage together and some observers felt that some of the numbers for the black performers presented offensive stereotypes.

Other shows that Magee covers include Mr. President and, of course, Annie Get Your Gun. It's odd that he barely mentions Miss Liberty, a surprising omission for which he offers no explanation.

There seem to be few factual errors, or at least few that I caught, though the statement that with Watch Your Step Berlin "became the first musical comedy composer to write a show featuring his own songs exclusively" seems inaccurate to me. (What about Cohan's shows and Kern's The Red Petticoat?) And it's a bit strange that he thinks Face the Music, As Thousands Cheer and Louisiana Purchase have had Broadway revivals in recent years. Perhaps he understands the specifics of old Broadway better than he does the specifics of contemporary Broadway.

But any reservations I have are minor. Altogether, Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater is a first-rate achievement. It provided this reader with a deep appreciation of the richness of Berlin's art and his importance to American theater, and I think it will do the same for others.

If we're lucky, perhaps it will encourage Encores! to present a reconstruction of Watch Your Step, one of the Music Box Revues, or As Thousands Cheer. A fella can hope.

Irving BerlinIrving Berlin's American Musical Theater (Broadway Legacies)
Jeffrey Magee
Hardcover. 408 pages
Oxford University Press
Publishing date: April 6, 2012
List Price: $35.00
ISBN: # 978-0195398267
Discounted at Amazon: Hardcover Book and Kindle Edition