THE BOOK SHELF: Gerald Schoenfeld's "Mr. Broadway," Plus Two Books on Irving Berlin

By Steven Suskin
03 Jun 2012

Cover art for "The Irving Berlin Reader"

Books compiled from a Lifetime's-worth of press stories, anecdotes and memoirs range from wonderfully illuminating to a mass of oft-told tales more fanciful than actual. The Irving Berlin Reader by Benjamin Sears [Oxford] does the job well. Berlin was one of those make-up-your-story-as-you-go-along guys, sort of inevitable given his early years of severe poverty in Russia and on the lower East Side. Sears — the singer who with pianist Brad Connor is a fixture on the Boston cabaret scene — has selected 40-odd pieces which give us a good picture of the reclusive (and I suppose it is apt to say, miserable) man who more or less defined pop music for about a third of the 20th century.

The early accounts from journalists and collaborators are the best, as these poor souls were unaware that they were writing about a legendary icon. There are numerous sections pulled from autobiographies by equally legendary peers and coworkers (Rodgers, Astaire, Merman and more) plus some newer analyses. A typical comment unearthed by Sears: "it's easier to be Larry Hart or Cole Porter than Irving Berlin." The sentiment might seem oblique — this was Jule Styne talking, after all — but it is right on the mark.

Irving was a private man, certainly, by nature and prerogative. "The Irving Berlin Reader" doesn't assault and attack him, as one of his major biographers did. It just gives us several shades of Irving, and a sense of who he was behind the self-imposed public mask, at least in the early years.



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Cover art for "Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater"

Clashing deadlines afforded only a brief examination of a related tome, Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater by Jeffrey Magee [Oxford]. This book seeks to make a case for Berlin's "immeasurable influence on the American stage." Not having read it in full, I can't comment on the hypothesis; seems to me, though, that Berlin's seven full book musicals were behind (rather than ahead of) the times. Even Annie Get Your Gun, his only durable and revivable show, was seen as old-fashioned and a bit creaky — albeit with an amazing collection of songs — when it opened in 1946 in the wake of Oklahoma!, One Touch of Venus, On the Town and Carousel. Berlin's revue work through 1924 helped shake things up, but this was before the age of the immeasurably influential Gershwin, Rodgers, Sondheim et al.

I took the time to look at the discussion of two of Berlin's big musicals. Louisiana Purchase, the 1940 satiric attack on the populist governor and senator Huey Long (who died in 1935), has what I consider to be Berlin's most (and only) swinging score. What we get here are three unenlightened pages which don't provide much more than background and synopsis. Magee does tell us that the show was revived on Broadway "in the 1990s"; if he'd bothered to look for an actual date, he'd have discovered that Louisiana Purchase wasn't revived on Broadway in the 1990s or ever.

I next turned to his discussion of Miss Liberty, the 1949 musical that was so surefire that Berlin, his librettist, and his director decided to produce it themselves. Why share all those profits with a producer? The show was a top-heavy clunker, the dire reception suggesting that the great American public was soon to place the long-uncontested king of pop music out to pasture. Only I couldn't find a discussion of Miss Liberty; none at all. Magee obviously knows it exists — he includes one of its songs in a list of Berlin's contrapuntal duets — but the fifth of Berlin's seven major musicals is simply skipped. Magee does, however, give us four full pages about a proposed revue that never seems to have gotten beyond a memo of ideas.

It is best to reserve judgment of "Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater" until I have had time for a full reading, but while reviewing the first Berlin book I thought it proper to try to include the second. Maybe I just happened on the wrong 20 pages in my browsing; but that's what I read, and that's what I thought.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," now available in paperback, "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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