Hal Royaltey (hal) Mon 23 Jan 06 00:10
We're pleased to welcome David Leopold, our next guest in the InkWell. David is an independent curator who has organized exhibitions for institutions around the country including the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge. He has been the archivist of Al Hirschfelds work for fifteen years and is the Director of the Studio of Ben Solowey in Bucks County. He is the Picture Editor for the literary magazine, Lincoln Center Theater Review. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and Pennsylvania Heritage. He heard his first Irving Berlin song played professionally at a Jerry Garcia Band concert in November 1981. Leading our discussion with David will be our own Angie Coiro. Angie is the host of Mother Jones Radio on the Air America Radio Network. She and the Mother Jones team debuted the show in June 2005; already it's ranked third of the most downloaded political content on iTunes. She conducts regular interviews with City Arts and Lectures, most recently with Mike Wallace and Andrew Weil. Angie's also worked in industrial and commercial voiceover for almost thirty years, with clients including Intuit and Oracle, and a decade-long run as the voice of PeopleSoft. She's been on the Well for seven years, is <aaronzent>'s spousal unit, and lives in a Winchester Mystery cottage, the remodelling project that has no end. Cats control her life. Welcome to the Inkwell!
Angie (coiro) Mon 23 Jan 06 06:10
This is great. I'm so pleased to be working with you on this, David. My first thought on hearing about your book was, "I wonder why?" Irving Berlin's is a life well-documented, with multiple biographies, significant chapters in Broadway and Hollywood history books. Why another, I thought. Then I discovered - was downright tickled to discover - that this is the companion book to three traveling exhibitions, three separate parts of the Irving Berlin tale. Can you start us off here by telling us how the exhibitions were conceived, how the division into three parts was arrived at, and what that told you about how to tackle the book? And may I suggest for those of you who haven't seen the book itself - get a glimpse of the cover at Amazon or another online book site. Even just that will give you a taste of the festive and fabulous offerings inside. Want to toss in any thought about that cover shot, David?
David Leopold (dleopold1) Mon 23 Jan 06 08:04
Angie, pleased to be here. Yes, I thought the same thing too. "Why another book on Berlin?" He has been the subject of bios since 1925 when Alexander Woollcott wrote a fascinating one. In 1988, James Agee's biographer, Laurence Bergreen wrote what seemed to be exhaustive one, and in 1994, Berlin's daughter, novelist Mary Ellin Barrett wrote a wonderful memoir about her father. So I imagined the subject had been well covered. But in looking over all of the above and more, I realized the Bergreen's and all the others had many facts wrong, and while Mary Ellin's is a touching and informative book, it still did not not tell his whole story. That and Berlin's entire career had been winnowed down to about 30 images, most of which were reprodcued ad nauseum. Berlin understood the show of show business. He worked with the top designers on Broadway and in Hollywood, and their art was almost as memorable as his words and music. Berlins career also coincided with a golden age of illustration. Audiences often received their first glimpses of Berlins latest triumph through caricatures, drawings, and paintings in publications across the country. The goal of the book and exhibitions is to show Berlins career as he and his audiences saw it, from the lavishly illustrated sheet music covers of his first songs to the image of Marilyn Monroe delivering a sultry version of Heat Wave in Berlins final film. This compendium of Berlin iconography demonstrates that the popularity of Berlins songs, stage shows, and films allowed his visual legacy to seep into the national consciousness almost as much as his music did. So while my editor at Harry Abrams suggested the porject, it eventually took on a life of its own. I quickly realized that Berlin's story told the story of the Broadway musical, the film musical and really American popular song - hence Broadway, Hollywood, America became the m.o. of the project. I wanted to tell Berlin's story inthe context of these three stories,a nd as a curator, my natural form is the exhibition. I divided the book into interleaving chapters that not only tell his story, but function as the catalogue of the three exhibitions. The exhibiton on his Broadway work will open in New York on February 14th at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, after a very successful run of five months in San Franciscio at the Performing Arts Library and Museum. Infromation on that show can be found at http://www.nypl.org/research/calendar/exhib/lpa/lpaexhibdesc.cfm?id=414 You can also get even more ifno at SFPALM"S site at http://www.sfpalm.org/exhibits/Berlin/Berlin.htm The New York run will feature many additonal wonderful artifacts from Berlin's Broadway career and is a chance to see even more of the NYPL's stunning collection. From New York (where it will be on through June 3rd) it goes to the McNay Koogler Museum in San Antonio from July through September. And based on the response its been getting, it will probably go on from there. The Hollywood exhibition opens at the James Michener Art Museum in Bucks County, Pennsylvania on May 27th. http://www.michenerartmuseum.org/exhibits/showbiz.php From The Jazz Singer to the integrated musical and beyond, Irving Berlins story tells the evolution of the Hollywood musical as an art form. And many wonder why Marilyn Monroe is on the cover of a book about Irving Berlin. The image shows Monroe as a Follies-like showgirl in his last film in 1954 titled THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS. I thought it wonderfully pulls together all three strands as she is in a film, about a stage production, and a true American icon (and she's singing one his no-production related songs). She makes you realize that Berlin's career encompassed so many parts of American popular culture in the 20th century. I like it because the image because it is both unusual and familar at the same time. There are over 400 images inthe book that bring the story to life and interleaving chapters on his Broadway, Hollywood, and American career that can be read sequentially or individually. In all it is a one stop shop for anyone interested in Berlin.
Angie (coiro) Tue 24 Jan 06 12:19
There's a ton of content to be delved into, and I promise we'll do that! But first let's talk mechanics. It's always been intriguing to me, that a good researcher/biographer can unearth letters, scripts, memos, pictures, etc. that, for whatever reason, have been untouched by people who undertook the same subject. Can you talk about your sources, how you gained access? Where were these little pockets of untouched gold? How did they escape earlier detection? What surprises did you find - both in terms of unexpected places you ended up looking, and valuable bits you never expected to uncover? Are there "protectors" of the Berlin legacy that you needed to negotiate with for some of the choicer pieces?
David Leopold (dleopold1) Wed 25 Jan 06 10:44
You'll forgive me for throwing so much out at you, but Berlin's career is so vast. Even with 240 pages in the book, nearly 500 images, and 50,000 words, there are still a few parts of Berlin's career that I was unable to explore in the depth I would have liked. I cast a very wide net for this project, looking at the obvious sources, as well as a number of not-so-obvious. For me it is detective work where there is a body but I am not interested in how he died, but how he lived. The place to start with Berlin is the manuscript collection at the Library of Congress. During his career, Berlin kept everything related to his business, but never let anyone see it. They have finally finished cataloguing the material. In order to use the material, one needs permission from the Estate (his three daughters are still alive and are represented by the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization). I went to one of their regular meetings and made the case for what I wanted to do, and asked for complete access, but without doing an "authorized' book. I feel an authorized book, would be more or less just a pr organ, and I was not interested in doing that. The family invited me to their homes and brought out everything they had, which was considerable, and their office also had a considerable amount sheet music and photographs. Then I went to numerous performing and visual arts collection in New York, Los Angeles, and many private homes all over. Of course knowing something about the period, I was able to put together random bits from one area with information from another to get a full picture, as well as making new discoveries of what inspired songs. Some of the surprises I found were a Diego Rivera painting that had never been seen. On a visit to Mexico in 1948, the Berlins were introduced to Diego Rivera who wanted to paint the songwriters portrait. Berlin demurred, but later commissioned the artist to paint a cover for a new song he had written I Gave Her My Heart in Acapulco. This painting was never used as it was deemed too cartoonish and with its scenes of interracial couples frolicking in the water, too advanced for the South, where sheet music still sold well. In learning that Berlin's first two Broadway shows were designed by Vogue magazine cover artists, it soon became clear that the classic song "Girl on the Magazine" was inspired by these artists, who had show girls coming to life right off of Vogue covers in Berlin's second show STOP! LOOK! LISTEN! (1915). I could go on, but fear than another epic post will scare everyone. More "surpises" and stories aobut the "protectors" to come...
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 25 Jan 06 11:15
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Ari Davidow (ari) Wed 25 Jan 06 11:26
Welcome, David. I hope this isn't too off-topic, but one of the things about Berlin is that he represents a generation of children of Jewish immigrants who were anxious to be American, as different from and opposed to being Jewish. Even early songs of his, in Yiddish, are notable for poking fun at Jews. After that, it's a subject he avoided. Does it come up at all in the material you were exploring? Was there more to his work than that of a thoroughly assimilated person of a Jewish heritage he chose to reject?
David Leopold (dleopold1) Wed 25 Jan 06 17:07
Ari, you are right, Berlin was of the generation that wanted to be American more than anything else. Their idea of America was inclusive, not exclusive, and his songs reflect that. The ethnic comedy songs he wrote at the beginning of his career were part of that assimilation. The fun he poked at Jews, Italians, Germans, and African Americans, was not particularly derogatory and was actually a form of acceptance. for an immigrant to come into a vaudeville theater and hear a song about a countrymen meant that he was too was becoming a part of America. it is the kind of humor that one makes of their friends. Similar to rappers' use of "nigga." Tin Pan Alley produced a flood of ethnic songs at the turn of the century. Beginning with his first song, Berlin wrote many in his first decade of songwriting. His neighbors on the Lower East Side were Italian, Irish, German, and of course Jewish, and he added their dialects to his musical vocabulary as he did the sounds of the city. He did write songs featuring black protagonists, but as historian Charles Hamm points out, many are appreciative numbers that celebrated music or dance of African Americans. His later coon songs, such as When the Midnight Choo-Choo leaves for Alabam, do not even mention the color or identify of the character singing. It is difficult to think of these songs as ethnic songs today. Berlin never wrote in Yiddish, although he wrote songs like "Yiddisha Eyes" "Yiddisha Professor." An early hit for both Berlin and Fanny Brice who popularized it was "Saide Salome" was the story of Moishe who goes to see his girlfriend perform in SALOME and wants her to keep her clothes on. The protagnists are Jewish, but the sentiments are universal. He gave up these songs as his career progressed for the simple reason that as he moved from the vaudeville stage to the Broadway stage and eventually to film, this type of humor was not as popular. Of course, it is ironic that Berlin would write the most popular song of all time: "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade." These songs have nothing to do with religion, yet they made the holidays seem special for everyone. Phillip Roth wrote the Berlin was the second greatest Jew after Moses because he took the Christ out of Christmas and the blood out of Easter. Berlin nationalized these holidays, making them ecumenical. The ethnic comedy songs do get people worked up these days, but what really gets people going is Berlin's enjoyment of blackface. Ask me about that.
Dan Levy (danlevy) Wed 25 Jan 06 17:13
David, what can you tell us about Berlin's enjoyment of blackface?
David Leopold (dleopold1) Thu 26 Jan 06 10:05
I find as I go out and talk about Berlin and the book, the one thing, above all, that gets people in a lather is when I talk about blackface. In an age when it seems that anything goes, I guess there are still things that are taboo that are more than a century old. What we know as the musical has its roots in the minstrel show, which lasted into at least the first three decades of the 20th century, and was a popular form of entertainment. The blackface minstrel show, like the ethnic comedy songs, were not meant to derogatory the way we view it today, but were rather a collection of stock characters (Mr. Tambo, Mr. Bones, George Primrose, and the Interlocutor) that created stylized entertainment like the commedia dellarte. Berlin loved minstrel shows. He wrote blackface numbers for vaudeville performers, his early Broadway shows had blackface comedians in them, and in 1927 he wrote an unproduced stage musical, MR. BONES, a story of doomed love on the minstrel circuit that was adapted in 1930 for the Jolson film, MAMMY. Yet if Berlin was racist, I doubt he would have written a number for his 1933 revue, AS THOUSANDS CHEER, in which Ethel Waters, under the projected headline "Unknown Negro Lynched by Frenzied Mob," sang "Supper Time" which begins: Supper time, I should set the table 'cuz it's supper time, but somehow I ain't able 'cuz that man of mine, ain't comin' home no more. This is not 1954 or 1964, but 1933. Waters, who thought if there was one song that told the story of her race it was this one, was sure the number would cut because it was simply too powerful. She felt how could they go singing and dancing after this. But Berlin insisted that it remain. When Waters co-stars objected to taking a curtain call with a black actress, Berlin decided that the solution was simple: there would be no curtain call. Of course, taking a bow from an actor is like taking candy from a child. The curtain call was restored for all performers. During World War II, Berlin put together 300 soliders in a morale boosting, fund raising show that electrified audiences around the world, THIS IS THE ARMY. Berlin's company in the Army was the first integrated unti in the armed forces, and they refused any invitation that did not include the entire company. In THIS IS THE ARMY black performers appeared in numbers alongside blackface numbers. No one assumed that the blackface performers were any more representative of African Americans, than the Keystone Kops were representative of police officers. These were stock characters, that were played for laughs. Not at their skin color, but at their actions. While visiting my folks during the holidays, I happened to catch Berlin's film HOLIDAY INN (1942) which he wrote numbers for many of the holidays of the year. The Lincoln's Birthday song, "Abraham," was filmed as a blackface number (Bing Crosby tries to hide his girl from Fred Astaire by having themselves black up). I was chagrined, but not surprised to see the number had been cut for the AMC showing. For those of you who have to see Bring Crosby in blackface, check out my book, which has a picture of the number. John Stausbaugh has a book coming on blackface, BLACK LIKE YOU, this spring, that is sure to be an interesting take on the subject.
Angie (coiro) Thu 26 Jan 06 10:27
David, if you just keep prompting questions at the end of every answer like you did above, my job would consist of reading and drinking coffee here! Have at it. But seriously - I'd like to combine elements of those last two questions. That curtain-call decision reflects a strong but practical stance on the racisim he saw in the issue. Did his own status as a Jewish American sensitize him to mistreatment of minorities? How much of an issue was that for him, and for his familiy? Hollywood in particular was populated with very successful Jewish Americans, moreso in the front office than on the creative side (please correct me if I'm wrong on this). Did he face any barriers, any isolation, being a Jew?
David Leopold (dleopold1) Thu 26 Jan 06 11:17
Berlin once said that his first memory as child was seeing his home burning in pogrom in his native Russia when he was 5. While it would be easy, I think, to see his identification with minorities in this, it probably only played a role. Berlin's misfortune was also a good bit of luck. The America he came to, and particularly the Lower East side, teemed with just about every race and nationality. growing up in a culturally diverse neighborhood, and with everyone being economically disadvantaged, there were many more reasons to get along than not. It makes me think of a line by Bob Dylan (and Sam Shepard) "Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content." For Berlin, Jews, or any other minority, were not the Other, but rather his friends, neighbors, and colleagues. And they were all trying to assimilate into that great gray mass known as America, so in some ways they had the same goal. while the son of a cantor, Berlin nevertheless was non-practicing. I am sure he experienced anti-semitism in his lifetime, but there is no indication that nay particular experience left a scar on him. His father in law was not happy about his religious affiliation, social status, or profession, and that did cause him trouble at first, but Berlin ended up bigger than that. To get back to songs like "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade," especially after a season of the "War on Xmas." Berlin's "Happy Holidays" was not meant to obscure the religious nature, but rather was an invitation to join the celebration. The same people who wrap themselves in the flag and sing Berlin's "God Bless America" and think of him as a super-patriot (which he was in the best sense), forget about his inclusiveness as an individual and as a songwriter/publisher. As for Hollywood, most of the producers he worked with there, he knew back in New York, and many were Jewish. The story of "How the Jews Invented Hollywood" is well told in Neil Gabler's book. On the creative side, Berlin's most sympathetic director was a rabbi's son from New Brunswick, Mark Sandrich, who he made four films with including three Astaire and Rogers pictures and HOLIDAY INN. I think they are among his best films. Berlin's closest friend in Hollywood, or anywhere else, was in some ways the ultimate goy - Fred Astaire. both liked and respected each other, and somehow each brought the best out in the other. To answer your question, by the time Berlin got to Hollywood in 1927, he had been a success for nearly 20 years, and was able to call the shots. Already a legend, if his colleagues did not like working with a Jew, it certainly paid the bills, so no one was complaining.
art siegel (arto) Thu 26 Jan 06 12:11
Hello, David. I loved the book, not only your writing but the many fascinating illustrations, including that mildly risque Diego Rivera sheet music cover. Interesting to hear you elaborate on Berlin's Jewishness. If I remember correctly, his lasting marriage was to a wealthy non-Jewish heiress (though she was disinherited as a result). Did he self-identify as Jewish? I think people certainly must have viewed him as a Jew regardless. Apart from his creative achievements, the book talks about Berlin's business acumen, which I assume made him fabulously wealthy, something not true of many of his very talented peers in songwriting. Can you talk about some of his innovative business practices?
David Gans (tnf) Thu 26 Jan 06 16:12
(I interviewed David Leopold on KPFA last fall; if you're interested in hearing that program, with lots of music incuded, it's in five parts suitable for download at http://www.gdhour.com/music/leopold/ )
Carl LaFong (mcdee) Fri 27 Jan 06 06:02
Ok, I know I'm coming in a little late and a little out of the thread of the conversation, but I would just like to say how tired I am of tortured discussions of minstrelsy every time an entertainer from the first half of the 20th century is discussed. I mean, if the entertainer being discussed is Al Jolson (or Bert Williams) fair enough. But for entertainers whose careers were not focused on those issues, maybe we should just stipulate that the minstrel tradition was around. If you were a successful entertainer in that period, you probably had some connection to it, even if it was only playing on a bill with others doing blackface. My dad's high school put on a minstrel show in the late 30s, I happen to know from an old clipping I found in my grandma's stuff. For all I know, my dad was up there on stage playing a banjo and singing coon songs (he's still around, but I haven't asked him). But what does this tell you about my dad? Nada. During its time, minstrelsy was thought of as absolutely normal and acceptable -- which tells us something about the time, but not much at all about individuals, because only a tiny subset of people ever think twice about doing things that society considers absolutely normal and acceptable. I'm sure many thing we now consider acceptable will seem strange, controversial or awful to people in 2100 (driving SUVs that get 10 miles a gallon, for example). Anyway, that's my rant.
Rick Brown (danwest) Fri 27 Jan 06 06:24
Did it have a point other than letting you climb back down off the soap-box at the end?
Mark K. McD (mcdee) Fri 27 Jan 06 06:28
<scribbled by tnf Fri 27 Jan 06 10:35>
David Leopold (dleopold1) Fri 27 Jan 06 06:32
Hi Art! thanks for the kind words about the book. I am sure Berlin identified as Jew his whole life, but how much of his identity was his faith, I don't know. He never visited Israel as far as I know, never wrote a song for it, but he gave to a number of charities (almost always anonymously) over his career. His children I believe were raised more in their mother's faith, although I believe she took them to temple as well at times. For Irving Berlin there really was no business like show business. Early on he learned how to sell a song, and never lost his enthusiasm for it. He understood the commerce that goes hand in hand with creativity, and without any formal training in either music or business, he became a genius at both. After his earliest efforts, he did not work with a collaborator, unlike most of his songwriting contemporaries. Berlin was also unique in that he published his own music for almost his entire six-decade career. Berlin also took an active role in producing his own Broadway shows; he owned his own theater; and he was the first songwriter in Hollywood to get a percentage of a films gross. A famous insomniac, he frequently took care of business during the day and wrote songs at night. Berlin felt that one could not write a popular song; it had to become popular because of the sheer number of people who bought the sheet music, recording, and/or tickets. Giving the people what they wanted was his uncanny talent. He could be considered an early adaptor as he recognized the possibilities in everything from the illustrated song slide to the animated film. During his extraordinary long and active career from 1907 to 1966, Berlin was at the forefront of every form of mass popular culture: sheet music, the Broadway stage, radio, records (he had twenty-six number-one songs), film, and television. He was also one of the founders of ASCAP which helped all songwriters get their due from their work. Unlike many show business stories, Berlin's never felt financially cheated in his work.
David Leopold (dleopold1) Fri 27 Jan 06 06:46
Carl, I only brought up the subject of blackface so that we could get it out of the way and talk about Berlin. As for it tells about Berlin, I think it shows he enjoyed the popular forms of entertainment of his time and built upon them. Blackface may not tell us alot about your dad, but as Berlin wrote blackface numbers, including the finale of the first act of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, considered by many to be the apotheosis of the series because of its stars, sets, girls, and songs. It featured nine Berlin numbers when it opened. Sterling Moon a blackface number from Yip Yip Yaphank (1918) was revised and called Mandy. It was part of the minstrel show first act finale, with Eddie Cantor, Bert Williams, and George Lemaire as blackface minstrels. The singing duo of Van and Schenck came on crooning the song with John Steele and Eddie Dowling. Marilyn Miller, dressed in pink satin, did a soft shoe number as the chorus around her tapped. Ray Dooley as Mandy, had ten other blackfaced chorus girls in tow, all dressed like Miller. Nearly fifty years later Berlin would remember that Everyone still thinks that [the Follies of 1919] was the best Follies Ziegfeld ever had and the Minstrel Finale was the high spot. The finale started with Berlin's "I'd Rather See A Minstrel Show" which featured the following chorus: I'd rather see a minstrel show Than any other show I know. Oh, those comical folks With their riddles and jokes! Here is the riddle that I love the best: 'Why does the chicken go...?" You know the rest. I'd pawn my overcoat and vest To see a minstrel show. When he writes about blackface, Berlin never mentions color, but the humor of it. that was the point of my post. Blackface was part of show business, Berlin loved show business, and wanted to share his enthusiasm of it with a wide audience. Considered not politically correct today, it is often misunderstood, just as his patriotism is often seen as reactionary, rather than fairly liberal for his time.
David Leopold (dleopold1) Fri 27 Jan 06 06:55
That leaves with me with David's post. I had the pleasure of walking through Berlin's career for more than two hours with David, playing the songs all along the way. The songs are where the real magic is, and I am delighted that David is making that piece available for all to hear. I've also had the pleasure of appearing on several other radio shows that have been archived on the web. I did a very fun hour with Irwin Chusid on WFMU. That can be found at http://www.wfmu.org/playlists/IC I also did an hour in Philadelphia with Marti Moss-Coane's Radio Times on WHYY. Go to http://www.whyy.org and follow the link to Radio Times' archive of shows. I appeared on 12/19 (2nd hour) . This show will also probably be aired on television in the spring when the exhibition I have organized on Berlin's Hollywood work opens at the James Michener Art Museum in Bucks County, PA
Angie Coiro (coiro) Fri 27 Jan 06 09:23
That's great, David, fills a huge hole. We can only talk so much here about Berlin without audio! So let's get into Berlin's evolution as a musician and composer. How soon were his talents evident? Was he a prodigy? Was his entry into the creative world something of a destiny, or arrived at after efforts in other directions?
Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 27 Jan 06 10:11
At every Jewish symposium about American Jewish musicians I've attended, where Berlin is discussed, he is always trotted out as someone who was, a best, ambiguous about his origins. Great American. Not notable for his ethnic identity. On the other hand, his songs were great and define a neat part of America. The Mandy Patinkin recording of a Yiddish version of "White Christmas" closes the circle ;-).
David Scott Marley (nightdog) Fri 27 Jan 06 12:05
David, I'm only about halfway through your book, but I'm fascinated by it. The extraordinary wealth of information you've put together is amazing. What I find so extraordinary about Irving Berlin is how versatile he was. You look at the fact that English was his second language, you look at his limited musical abilities, you'd have to figure this guy wouldn't have a very wide range as a songwriter. Yet he wrote such incredibly varied songs. Even in a revue like "As Thousands Cheer", you can hardly believe the same person wrote "Not for All the Rice in China" and "Easter Parade" on the one hand, and "Harlem on My Mind" and "Supper Time" on the other. And the same is true of all his shows, the songs are amazingly varied and amazingly surehanded in all these different styles. From a guy whose cradle tongue was Russian and whose musicianship was very limited. And when he started writing songs for book musicals he often wrote very specifically for characters. Not so much in "Louisiana Purchase," I think, but in "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Miss Liberty" and "Call Me Madam", without ever going outside of the form of the popular American song, he wrote songs for specific characters in specific situations. And they were still good popular songs, too. Whereas you look at, say, Cole Porter, or at the Gershwins, in the great majority of their shows they wrote these wonderful songs that were pretty much interchangeable; you could give "Night and Day" or "Fascinating Rhythm" to pretty much any principal character in any of their shows and set it up with a few lines of dialogue, but "Moonshine Lullaby" is both a terrific pop song in standard American song form AND a striking and personal statement about the character who sings it; you couldn't give it to anybody else in the show, nor to anybody in, say, "Miss Liberty" or "Call Me Madam", and have it make any sense. He must have been working very closely with his bookwriters in shaping these shows, and "Annie" at least was only three or four years after "Oklahoma!", when it was a very new idea in the musical theater that you could write songs tied to characters and situations in that way and still have a popular score. Cole Porter, who was a much more technically skilled composer, tried to change his style that way in his later shows, but the more he wrote for specific characters, the less good his songs became. So it's remarkable to me that, after writing for so many revues, Berlin was able to adapt to that style so quickly, and do it so well. And so I'm wondering if your research turned up any insights into how Berlin worked with his collaborators on "Annie" and "Call Me Madam" and the other book shows. Any correspondence turn up, any sketches or notebooks that might give us a peek into how he set about planning and writing a score for a book musical?
David Leopold (dleopold1) Fri 27 Jan 06 12:29
Berlin left his family on the Lower East Side at the age of 13 so that his widowed mother and hardworking brothers and sisters would not be burdened with his mouth to feed. He slept in flophouses, or sometimes on the streets around the Bowery, the most dangerous section of New York at that time, called the paradise of the criminal. He was one of more than 10,000 homeless in the region. He first worked as a newsboy, then a busker, singing popular songs in the streets or in saloons for whatever coins were tossed his way. Although not a great singer, he learned how sell a song, and his ballad singing could bring tears to even a hardened drunkards eyes. He soon got a job as a singing waiter at the Pelham Café, one of the areas more colorful watering holes. It was a regular stop for criminals, prostitutes, and anyone looking to lose himself in drink. Working all night, Berlin and his fellow waiters took turns at devising parody lyrics to popular tunes. Customers started to forsake the dive when Callahans, a saloon around the corner featured a new song hit written by their own piano player and waiter, titled, My Mariucci Take A Steamboat. In response, Berlin's boss, Mike Slater demanded that his staff come up a song and quick. Berlin worked with the saloons pianist on the assignment, with Berlin supplying the words. When they had come up with Marie From Sunny Italy, an Italian dialect love song, they were chagrined to discover that neither knew how to transcribe their work. Berlin had spent odd moments at the piano picking at only the black keys. It would be another twenty five years before he could take down a lead sheet. When the song was finally transcribed, they shopped it around Tin Pan Alley, a warren of offices on West Twenty-eighth Street. Berlin claimed thirty-seven cents was all he ever made on the song (although I have a roaylty statment in the book that shows that he made at least $1.20). The publisher mistakenly credited the songs lyrics not to Bailine (Berlin's given name) but to I. Berlin, and a new name and personality was born. Despite the songs failure, Berlin enjoyed the experience, and less than a year later he had another song published (in which he is credited with both the words and music.) Another flop. A third, written three weeks later for music publisher Maurice Abrahams fared no better. A singer asked Berlin for a wop song. The talk at the time was of the Italian marathon runner, Pierro Doronado, who had lost the race in the 1908 London Olympics owing to a technicality. Berlin used the idea of the runner as the basis for the story of his song. The publisher, Henry Waterson of the Ted Snyder Co., saw promise in the young man and offered him a job as a staff lyricist. Soon the songs began to pour out. A month later he scored another, even bigger, hit with a Hebe song, Sadie Salome (Go Home), a comic song about a man who goes to see the risqué opera Salome, only to discover that his own sweetheart is singing the title role. Again, Berlin had drawn on current events, as the Mets controversial production of Strausss opera Salome, with its Dance of the Seven Veils, had recently been closed after one performance in response to public outrage. As a lyricist working with different musicians, he was the constant in all of these successes, and he may have contributed much to the music as well. He often started with a title or an idea, and gradually worked up some verses and picked out a melody on the black keys of a piano. Once he felt he had something, he would ask a trained musician to take it down. On his earliest songs, the pianist had indeed been a collaborator. Soon, however, Berlin bought a composing piano, which had a wheel under its keyboard that allowed its player to shift into any key. He often referred to it as my Buick. A fixture in Tin Pan Alley, the composing piano soon became part of the Berlin legend. Still working on the black keys in F sharp, Berlin would soon hire a musical secretary to transcribe what he had worked out on his piano.
David Leopold (dleopold1) Fri 27 Jan 06 13:17
Thanks for the wonderfully insightful post about Berlin. Even after spending as much time as I have with Berlin, the sheer breadth of his accomplishments leave me a bit baffled. How did he do it? he worked hard for sure, and seem preternaturally tapped into the American vernacular. As for how he worked on book shows and writing for characters. With ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, of course, his producers were Rodgers and Hamemerstein, his director was Josh Logan, and the story is about show business, so he had the right mentors and the right subject. But if you look back to some of his earliest shows and films, you will see that he is already writing remarkable hits that happen to be perfect for his characters. Although OKLAHOMA! (1943) is generally considered the start of the integrated musical (with a bow to SHOWBOAT in 1927), I think the integrated musical might begin in Hollywood in the 1930s. Berlin's first great film there is TOP HAT (1935) and his score for that is not only incredible (the first to have all five songs in the Hit Parade at the same time) but great songs for the film's characters. At the top when Astaire sings "No Strings" we not only get a clear idea of his character, but his dance introduces him to Ginger Rogers, not in a performance setting but in a "book" setting. Now the film closer, The Piccolino is in no way a integrated song, but its great nonetheless. Even earlier in 1930, Berlin wrote a script and a score for film originally titled LOVE IN A COTTAGE, but then renamed REACHING FOR THE MOON. The script is a romantic comedy, much in the style of Astaire and Rogers (before the duo ever danced together - actually both were still on Broadway and not as an act) but without the dancing. The songs were very well integrated, but were cut from the film during production, leaving a completely disjointed film. Film musicals were considered box office poison at the time and the powers that be decided they could do without them. You never heard of the film, well you see how good that decision was. To get back specifically to ANNIE. Berlin was asked by R and H to take over for Jerome Kern who had died suddenly before he started to work on the show. Berlin had his doubts. His idea of the West was the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. It had been six years since his last book show. Berlin also admitted to Hammerstein that he did not feel comfortable with hillbilly lyrics. Hammerstein counseled him to drop the final g from most verbs and he would be fine. After reading the one and only act at that point, Berlin wrote Doin What Comes Naturally and They Say Its Wonderful in a weekend. Two decades later, Berlin recalled that the songs came quickly and easily because of the possibilities in the Fields script, my association with Rodgers and Hammerstein and, above all, writing songs for Ethel Merman. Josh Logan tells a story in his autobiography that they finished a production meeting and knew they needed a duet for the two leads. When he returned home 15 - 20 minutes later his phone was ringing. It was Berlin who played him "Anything You Can Do." When Logan said where did you find that one? Berlin said he wrote inthe cab on the ride home. He knew they needed something quick. Although already a living legend, Berlin was a team player. Open production meetings for Annie Get Your Gun were held at Hammersteins home in New York, and the group ironed out many of the problems that were normally left for the out-of-town tryouts. In New Haven, Berlin may have felt odd not having any of the usual backstage dramas, and he continually re-worked Doin What Comes Naturally, before leaving it as it was originally written. For CALL ME MADAM, playwright Russel Crouse confided to his diary on August 22, 1949, Lindsay and Irving Berlin to dinner and tell him our idea, and hes never heard of Perle Mesta and doesnt know much about square dancing. And I am discouraged but he warms up later. Lindsay and Crouse had thought up a new idea for a musical based on the exploits of Perle Mesta, a wealthy manufacturers widow who had moved to Washington a decade earlier and raised money for the Democratic Party. After Berlin's wife told him who Mesta was, Berlin called Crouse the next day enthused about the project. By December Berlin had written half of the score, including some of the best numbers in the show The Hostess With Mostes On The Ball and Can You Use Any Money Today? they did rest mostly by mail, as Berlin was a warm weather person and wrote the score in Nassau. He lett the sitatuions dictate the song, but he considered himself a songwriter, not a composer, so he wrote hits. Couldn't stop himself. Ive tried to work completely from their book. The songs Ive written are topical enough to be in a revue. The show is a topical as State of the Union, Berlin said right before the show opened, referring to Lindsay and Crouses comic hit about life in the White House. The songs Ive done are certainly not for the Annie type of show. Ive tried not to write for Ethel Merman but for the situations that the boys have provided. Im sure that Ethel can sing any song Ive written but it better be good.
Franklin J. Flocks (fjf) Sun 29 Jan 06 12:09
Hello David - I am very much enjoying your book. You mentioned on page 153 that Woody Guthrie considered the ideas behind Berlin's song, "God Bless America" to be reactionary and that (in 1939) it inspired him to write "'This Land Is Your Land," originally titled "God Blessed America." Did Berlin say anything in response? - I have read that the last verse of This Land is Your Land originally read: "One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple By the Relief Office I saw my people -- As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if [God blessed America for me.]" (See http://www.geocities.com/Nashville/3448/thisl1.html) Even if Berlin never heard it in that form its a pretty strong statement.
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