Irving Berlin (Israel Beilin) 1888-1989, was unarguably one of our greatest songwriters. Immigrating from Russia as a child, he sold newspapers at eight, then dropped out of school at 13 going out on his own in order not to be a burden to his widowed mother. The composer/lyricist sold his first song “Marie from Sunny Italy” at the age of 19 receiving 33 cents for publishing rights. Four years later, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” put him firmly on the map.
Berlin wrote in American parlance, directly as we the people thought and spoke. He seemed always to have a finger on the pulse of the times. An estimated 1,500 songs, including the scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original Hollywood films were created by this enthusiastic, always grateful man who could neither read nor write music, instead singing to a “musical secretary.” Apparently, not believing in the vicissitudes of inspiration, he wrote every day.
Felder opens the show in a Norman Rockwell Christmas card setting (of his own design). One-hundred year-old Berlin ostensibly sits in a wheel chair. Carolers singing “White Christmas” (the most recorded song in history) outside his door are met with gruff response. “They have no idea why these songs were written,” he mutters. The icon’s younger self invites “us” in…to hear his story. Later, we’ll sing along to classics. Median audience age makes lyrics unnecessary, though a few are fed to us.
The author/performer is nothing if not thorough. His script is peppered with intriguing tidbits like the origin of the derogatory terms “Kike” and “Wop,” Berlin’s admiration of Stephen Foster, purchase of The Music Box Theater with Sam Harris, and the way he finagled getting a pass on reveille in order to write shows for the army – as was his habit, at night – then traveling for years performing all over the world.
“Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”: …Oh! how I hate to get up in the morning/Oh! how I’d love to remain in bed…Someday I’m going to murder the bugler/ Someday they’re going to find him dead;/ I’ll amputate his reveille, and step upon it heavily/And spend the rest of my life in bed. (from Yip Yip Yaphank) Berlin himself sings the song on YouTube. Patriotic fervor is eminently clear.
We learn the backstory of an almost lost “God Bless America” (royalties in perpetuity to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America), how the last minute creation of “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” became Florenz Ziegfeld’s theme, that Berlin’s “Blue Skies” (performed by Al Jolson) was the first musical number in a talking picture, about his civil rights activism, starting with a stand on hiring Ethel Waters as the first black woman to get top billing on Broadway (in a show that birthed “Suppertime”)…
The account of marrying second wife, socialite Ellin Mackay, in spite of vehement, bigoted objections by her father who powerfully headed the Postal Telegraph Cable Company, is the stuff of a mini series. Berlin wrote “I’ll Be Loving You Always” giving it to his young bride as a wedding gift.
Though incredibly successful, the celebrant’s life was not without tragedy. Married at 24, he found himself a widower five months later… I lost the angel who gave me/ Summer the whole winter through,/I lost the gladness that turned into sadness/ When I lost you…(“When I Lost You”). Up till then, numbers had been what he referred to as shtick. “Dorothy taught me how to write a song.” He was to lose a son to infant crib death – at Christmas – and second wife, Ellin Mackay, though 15 years younger, would die before him.
It’s a terrific tale and, as always, Felder has done copious research. Placing songs in context is deftly achieved. We get a sense of the honoree himself. Unfortunately, Felder’s Yiddish accent ebbs and flows. (I have no recollection of this attempt with others he’s portrayed). He pushes his singing voice too far, hams up stylized performance rather than presenting a flesh and blood man, and too often accompanies himself on piano with emphasis and ornamentation resembling Liberace. The show is also too long by 15-20 minutes. Felder has evoked other important artists much more successfully.
Direction by Trevor Hay, responsible for several other Felder productions, loses its compass here.
Collaboration of Richard Norwood (Lighting Design), Erik Carstensen (Sound Design) and especially Brian McMullen (pitch perfect Projections) adds immeasurably to evoking Irving Berlin and the eras in which he flourished.
Photos courtesy of Hershey Felder presents
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Book by Hershey Felder
Directed by Trevor Hay
Through October 28, 2018