- Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater by Jeffrey Magee
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m a song writer. Other people can call themselves composers.” So declared Irving Berlin, and so most of us know him: as the writer of famous songs rather than the composer of musicals. The original stage context for these tunes is often dutifully and succinctly recounted by scholars—that “A Pretty Girl Is like a Melody” first appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, or that “Easter Parade” was originally written for As Thousands Cheer in 1933—but the songs themselves usually take center stage. In Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater, however, Jeffrey Magee brings the shows into the forefront, illuminating our understanding of Berlin’s place within the development of musical theater in an astonishing career that spanned the greater part of the twentieth century.
The book begins by providing an overview of Berlin’s life and career, highlighting his many connections to the world of musical theater. Magee coins the phrase “Lower East Side Aesthetic” to describe the audience-centered values that Berlin developed when scraping by as a song-plugger and singer: “a practical, and even survivalist, view of creativity as a job joining ambition, entrepreneurship, mercantilism, and, not least, craft” (10). Positioning his discussion of this aesthetic within the scholarly discourse on Jewish immigrants’ contributions to American popular culture, Magee convincingly links Berlin’s eclecticism and crowd-pleasing sensibilities to his desire to be accepted as an assimilated American.
Magee summarizes the themes that characterize Berlin’s songwriting for the theater (repetition and simplicity, the use of musical cells derived from ragtime, and the use of antithesis in lyrics and musical styles), emphasizing Berlin’s conviction that songs should have the ability to stand alone, outside of their original context as part of a show. Magee also lays out Berlin’s theatrical influences: opera’s large-scale musical scenes and use of counterpoint; the eclecticism and variety of vaudeville, where Berlin got his start; the revue, with its focus on contemporary events and juxtaposition of musical styles; the conventions of minstrelsy, which would continue to inflect his shows into the 1940s; and book musicals, whose stock plots of marriage, backstage drama, and Cinderella stories provided a base for Berlin’s exploration of the themes of acceptance and American identity that permeate his work for the theater. [End Page 477]
After this introduction and overview, the bulk of the book is devoted to a chronological survey and analysis of Berlin’s shows. The earliest among them—Watch Your Step (1914) and Stop! Look! Listen! (1915)—defy easy categorization, blurring the traditional boundaries between vaudeville, revue, and musical comedy. American musical theater of this period, which Magee characterizes as “a kind of lawless Wild West” in its mix of styles (66), was the perfect fit for Berlin’s omnivorous sensibility, as he infused his Tin Pan Alley tunes with a range of stylistic idioms and references to famous classical and popular melodies.
Magee next looks at Berlin’s two World War I–era shows. His all-soldier revue Yip Yip Yaphank fused scenes of military life with parodies of musical theater conventions in his signature mix of styles. Berlin was also the principal songwriter for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, an enterprise for which he had written songs since its inception in 1911. The show featured Berlin’s eclectic range of song styles in typically lavish style, with topics concerning civilian life during war, Prohibition, and musical theater itself.
In the 1920s Berlin produced his own Music Box Revues, which drew on the formulas for success he had developed in previous shows: they were jokingly reflexive, featured contrasts of musical styles, and maintained a balance between nostalgia for a shared past and up-to-the-minute cultural references. These revues were followed by a series of collaborations with writers such as George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in the 1930s, yielding the revue As Thousands Cheer and the musical...