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Book review on Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater,
by Jeffrey Magee

In
his well detailed and extensively researched chronicle of Irving Berlin’s
incredibly successful career, Magee, (previously published by the Oxford
university press for ‘the uncrowned king of swing: Fletcher Henderson and big
band jazz (2004)) begins by offering a brief overview of berlin’s early life
and working career, as well as giving the reader a brief insight into Berlin’s
typical writing style. He summarizes the themes that characterize Berlin’s song
writing for the theatre as a good balance of repetition and contrast, whilst
remaining simple enough for all audiences, as well as highlighting berlin’s
skill when imitating ragtime and opera, sometimes simultaneously. After this
the book then works through the work mentioned in the introduction, in a chronological
order, giving the reader a chance to see the arc of berlin’s career. Magee
starts with Ziegfeld Follies, before working through the revue shows at the
music Box Theatre, ‘ideal combination’ with George S. Kaufman, this is the Army,
and of course his most well-known work ‘Annie Get Your Gun’.

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We
as readers can see a transformation in the American great’s career as Magee
takes us through the ‘conspicuously porous’ genres that suited Berlin’s style,
earlier in his career and the large range of cultures he took as influences
growing up in the lower east side that are ever present in his work. Magee
makes a strong point of this, probably because Berlin himself credited his
upbringing to his compositional style, and it is key to understanding the way
in which Berlin always seemed to write with such social reference. Magee also
lingers on the fact that Berlin considered himself a songwriter, who’s songs
could be taken out of their theatrical context and still be fully appreciated,
which is after all what Berlin strived for. Being from the pre-Oklahoma
Era himself, it is refreshing to have an avoidance of this term throughout most
of the book. Magee moves through his career of the 30’s where he wrote with George
S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, producing As Thousands Cheer and comedies, Face
the Music and Louisiana Purchase, which all put an almost satirical
spin of the events of war. Face the Music satirized a police corruption scandal
that was under investigation when the show opened, and as Thousands Cheer
parodied current newspaper headlines in each of its scenes, however they both
contained hit songs that have lived on after the show have been largely
forgotten. “Soft Lights and Sweet Music,” “How’s Chances,” and “Easter Parade,”

During
World War II, Berlin fully produced his own production of This Is the Army, and
withn a lack of celebrity performers, he elevated his role and composer to a
new level of authority, which magee hints was helped by his Officer positon as
well. Although still dependent on collaborations with performers, writers, and
producers, he effectively made the songwriter the star of the show, often putting
his own name in the titles of the shows billing. We stop next in 1945 at what
Magee calls “the first post-war musical comedy”: Annie Get Your Gun. This is perhaps
his landmark work, and also the closest thing he wrote to an integrated musical
but Magee doesn’t fail to make the point that berlin himself said that he felt
his songs could be taken from the musical and put into another show. Magee gives
us a detailed narrative of the shows creative process from idea to stage, looking
at music lyrics and texts and even comparing Annie’s character arc to that of
the show’s composer, Berlin, as he sees the reflection of it in Field’s writing
as she ‘dramatizes Jewish American assimilation’ (261)

Magee
offers many levels of detail throughout the book, touching on all types of
artist around Berlin over his long career, including performers, producers,
composers and writers. He also gives good overviews of almost all his major
works, ‘and specific examples in some of his best loved songs, showing both
musical and lyrical analysis with sufficient use of relevant materials’ the one
exception to this is the absence of ‘Miss Liberty in the book. He also goes
into some detail on Berlin’s inspirations, accounting the number of styles he
used and genre boundaries he blurred to the neighbourhood where he grew up,
honing his talents. He touches on revues

Impressive
depth of analysis is offered and context is also often provided too, showing
the remarkable ability berlin possessed in always being able to make his
writing relevant to the historical and social context of the time it was
published. The book is solid evidence for the famous Jerome kern quote, “Irving
Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music”. Magee also
highlights how Berlin was successful in bringing a much simpler audience
pleasing ragtime style into an operatic setting, often blurring the two into
what Magee refers to as ragtime opera, however Magee illustrates the decline of
Berlin’s operatic ambition throughout his career as he made bold moves to write
music for vaudeville shows, entirely on his own, something that hadn’t been
done much before,  again, elevating the
role of the composer. He improved on this control by even dabbling at the role
of producer and building his own theatre (the music box) to act as the venue
for his revues.   

As
we arrive at the final chapters of the book, Magee covers Berlins work with
Lindsay and Crouse, as we see the arc of berlin’s career reach its end. His
last two major shows, Call Me Madam (1950) and Mr. President (1962)
had varying degrees of success. The former, written specifically for Ethel
Merman had relative success for a comedy in the beginnings of Americas cold war
era, whereas the latter, Mr President, which had the events of the Cuban
missiles crisis and the assignation of JFK to partially thank for its lack of
success, despite opening with great anticipation. Magee hints at how this could
be seen as an inability of Berlin’s to change with the times, and as the
culture of America changed, post second world war, it appeared to leave Berlin
in the dust a little.

Through
examining Berlin’s illustrious career in composing Magee highlights the way in
which the talented songwriter could write with a ‘laser like focus on the American
scene’ (302) taking cue from the social, political and historical affairs of
the time, more often than not, with a decent amount of success. He continues
into the conclusion, stating that berlin often reflected society like ‘a
mirror’ onto stage and even pauses to touch on the ‘hoary clichés’ that were
less successful, and became outdated as America moved past these often
offensive stereotypes of the vaudeville shows. Whilst some of these stereotypes
are worrying in retrospect, they were eventually to die out, but Magee points
out that perhaps Berlin relied on these methods of entertainment for slightly
too long, using them alongside his minstrelsy in the style he had grown up
using. There are few links missing in the chainmail of this book, but the
appearance of no more than a sweeping comment of ‘Miss Liberty’ (1949) a
flop written post war, intended to tap into a sense of patriotism among
returning troops is one of these.

The
book as a whole provides a strong account of Irving Berlin’s long and decorated
career, whilst successfully putting it into context in its place in American
theatre. it shows Irving berlin almost bridging a gap between earlier review
shows and what would become the more coherent ‘integrated musical2 with his “legitimate
vaudeville” a phrase Magee makes much use of throughout this piece of
literature. Magee attempts to show this with bounds of useful information,
musicological and dramatic analysis as well as often relating it to the ever
important context in which it was written. It also touches on themes of current
affairs such as of immigration, assimilation, and acceptance that define Irving
Berlin’s idea of America. All in all, this piece is a much needed addition to
the library of musical theatre literature and certainly is successful in
bringing to light a fresh viewpoint on an already well appreciated figure in
musical theatre history.

 

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