Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater

By Jeffrey Magee | Go to book overview

5
“AN IDEAL COMBINATION”
BERLIN, KAUFMAN AND CO., 1 920S-30S

A lot of satin songs … with an acid, cruel sense of humor.
Percy Hammond

In the final scene of the 1929 comedy June Moon, two songwriters create a song with a lyric derived from one of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway’s prized conceits, the image of an innocent young couple settling “In a bungalow for two, / Where we can bill and coo—.” The playwrights punctuate this final line with a gratuitously opinionated stage direction: “Mercifully, the curtain is down.”1

From title to curtain, June Moon adopts a lightly satirical attitude toward the popular song industry. And that industry’s leading figure—judging by the number of references to him in the script—was Irving Berlin.2 In fact, just four years earlier Berlin had written a song called “A Little Bungalow” that may well have been the target of June Moon’s final jab. Eschewing the “bill and coo” cliche, Berlin’s song nevertheless tapped a common well of imagery, with “shady trees,” “birds and bees,” “clouds … drifting by,” and a “moon above.”3

That song was designed for the romantic leads in a 1925 musical comedy called The Cocoanuts, with a script by the very man who would spoof the style in June Moon: George S. Kaufman, a habitual collaborator working in this case with Morrie Ryskind. Intermittently over a span of three decades, Berlin would join forces with Kaufman and his cohorts on a series of musical comedies that bear the stamp of the creative tension between Berlin’s songwriting style, which embraced romance and sentimentality, and Kaufman’s witty, satirical, and decisively unsentimental comedic style.4 Kaufman and Berlin formed an odd couple indeed, for Kaufman held a long-standing cynicism about songs and songwriters—suggesting to Berlin, for example, that the last word of his famous lyric phrase “I’ll be loving you / Always,” would better confront the reality of modern romance if changed to “Thursday.”5 Almost proudly nonmusical, Kaufman famously quipped that “I don’t know the difference between Handel’s Largo and-well, Largo’s Handel.”6 According to Berlin, “George hated music so much that if I’d written ‘Rock of Ages’ he’d have thrown it out.”7

Claiming tone-deafness did not keep Kaufman from working on musicals with Broadway’s leading composers. His writing and directing credits for musicals exceed the resumes of many who loved them more. It began with a celebrated gender-bending sketch for the Music Box Revue of 1923 called “If Men Played Cards as Women Do,” followed by The Cocoanuts (with Berlin, 1925); Strike Up the Band (with George and Ira Gershwin, 1927, revised by Morrie Ryskind in 1930); Of Thee I Sing (with the Gershwins

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