Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater

By Wright, Trudi | Notes, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater


Wright, Trudi, Notes


Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater. By Jeffrey Magee. (Broadway Legacies.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. [xiii, 394 p. ISBN 9780195398267. $35.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, discography, index.

Although many Americans know Irving Berlin's talent for songwriting, most are not as well versed in his seventy-year musical theater career, which profoundly influenced the American stage. Jeffrey Magee's thoroughly researched narrative delves into this previously untapped area of Berlin's career in a well-crafted style, and the results are extremely informative and engaging.

Because this book focuses on "the Broadway stage" (p. xi), a medium that cultivates close collaboration, its organization is guided by Berlin's theatrical relationships. I was immediately attracted by this idea because it reinforces Magee's focus on a life that, until now, had been most thoroughly explored through Berlin's songbooks. It is also important to note, although it is certainly not surprising, that Berlin worked with many of Broadway's top writing and producing talents, including Florenz Ziegfeld, George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Robert Sherwood, Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse, Victor Herbert, Dorothy Fields, Richard Rogers, and Oscar Hammer stein II. In this book, their stories, along with those of many significant Broad - way performers, are woven together with Berlin's to aid in Magee's analysis of many period masterpieces, which become the focus of the book's chapters. These shows include Watch Your Step and Stop! Look! Listen! (chap. 2); Yip Yip Yaphank and Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 (chap. 3); Music Box Revues, 1921-24 (chap. 4); The Cocoanuts, Face the Music, As Thousands Cheer, Louisiana Purchase, and Happy Holiday (chap. 5); This is the Army (chap. 6); Annie Get Your Gun (chap. 7); and Call Me Madam and Mr. President (chap. 8).

Because Berlin, the youngest child in an immigrant family, had to work at an early age in order to support his family and himself, it is surprising that "he regarded his childhood as ideal, insisting that 'everyone should have a Lower East Side in their lives' " (p. 9). Magee begins his first chapter with a discussion of this quote, which defines the driving force behind Berlin's success. Magee's notion of Berlin's "Lower East Side Aesthetic" bears exploration due to its central role in Berlin's work and Magee's book. It is an aesthetic that "holds a practical, and even survivalist view of creativity as a job joining ambition, entrepreneurship, mercantilism, and not least craft. The ethic required [Berlin] to work hard, meet deadlines, create opportunities, heed his audience's reaction, study the competition, and deliver the goods without cutting corners" (p. 10). Throughout the rest of the monograph, Magee reminds the reader of Berlin's beginnings in New York City and how they continually informed the main themes of his creative output for the stage and screen. This modern, urban aesthetic, fueled by his need to assimilate, turns up not just in the way Berlin worked, but also in the themes of his work-even in unexpected places, like the western-themed Annie Get Your Gun (p. 240).

The "Lower East Side Aesthetic" bears significant weight on Berlin's compositional values, which Magee emphasizes in his examination of Berlin's songs, as opposed to their style (p. 14). These include his overwhelming desire to write quality songs that "would reach the largest possible audience" (p. 11). His strong work ethic was an important part of his value system, described throughout the book in the words of his many collaborators. Perhaps his most important value from the perspective of his listeners, however, was the diversity of musical styles he assimilated throughout his career.

With his finger on the pulse of public aesthetics, Berlin wrote songs for the popular theatrical media of the day, starting with vaudeville and the revue, and moving into book musicals. Many of these songs, for example, carry "Berlin's brand of ragtime" (p. …

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