Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater

By Jeffrey Magee | Go to book overview

PREFACE

Irving Berlin (1888–1989) is widely recognized as one of the greatest and most prolific of American songwriters, but he remains much less well known as a man of the theater, even as those who knew his work ranked him as a theatrical genius. If, as Alan Jay Lerner claimed, “what Berlin did for the modern musical theatre was to make it possible,” then we still have a lot to learn about what made the modern musical theater possible.1 And Joshua Logan’s claim that he “never knew anyone who more enjoyed writing for the theater or better understood how to write for it” than Irving Berlin, is a strong statement by a director who worked regularly with Rodgers and Hammerstein.2 Together, Lerner and Logan, two major figures of Broadway’s Golden Age, position Irving Berlin as a kind of founding father of American musical theater.

Indeed, in his seven-decade career, Berlin profoundly shaped the principal sites of American musical entertainment from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway and Hollywood. His enterprising musicianship, lyric craft, industrious work habits, stalwart patriotism, and irrepressible optimism (despite bouts of severe depression) manifested a Russian Jewish immigrant’s hunger to belong in the New World. For his songs and shows, his influential roles in the entertainment industry, and his ability to distill and define the musical, social, and political spirit of his times, Berlin stands as one of the most powerful forces in twentieth-century American music and theater.

Two decades after Berlin’s death, we are just beginning to come to grips with his vast legacy. Although since 1925 at least half a dozen biographies have charted the compelling arc of his immigrant success story, there remains ample room for a sustained interpretation of the songs and shows.3 There have been several insightful studies of his songs, yet they tend to emphasize either lyrics or music, thereby deemphasizing a key point: that Berlin was one of the rare figures between Stephen Foster and Stephen Sondheim to write both.4 Meanwhile, scholarly studies of Broadway composers have established critical and analytical approaches that have informed this book—emphasizing, for example, how archival research informs the subject, how musical dramaturgy works in a musical, and how musical theater amplifies aspects of individual and collective experience.5 Yet only one scholar, Charles Hamm, has investigated any aspect of Berlin’s career in considerable depth. Hamm’s research, focused entirely on Berlin’s early work to 1914, remains foundational.6 That Berlin continued to lead an active career well into the 1960s, however, calls for a scholarly account that addresses a broader swath of his work, one that explores a wide range of Berlin’s songs with an emphasis on the medium that compelled his attention for more than half a century: the Broadway stage.

This is now possible thanks to a treasure-trove of material available at two venues—the New York Public Library (NYPL) and the Library of Congress (LC)— that is just beginning to make a mark on studies of Berlin’s post-1914 musical theater work. The NYPL holds a wide range of material covering Berlin’s entire career, but stands particularly strong in his earliest shows. The LC collection,

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