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Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theatre by Jeffrey Magee (review)
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The last decade has seen a much-needed movement in scholarship on American musical theatre in favour of exploring the archival evidence of shows and their creators from the so-called ‘golden age’ of Broadway and before, and Jeffrey Magee’s contribution on Irving Berlin’s Broadway career is a welcome addition to Oxford’s Broadway Legacies series in that vein. Drawing on relatively newly available material from the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, Magee is the first to produce a book-length study of the composer that draws on the rich archival legacy he left behind. The result is a careful and thought-provoking excavation not just of Irving Berlin’s contributions to the Broadway stage from 1914 to the early 1960s, but also of the larger trends in American theatre history in the early and mid-twentieth century. Magee shows Berlin’s career to be both indicative of, and exceptional to, the Broadway stage of his time.

After a brief biographical sketch, Magee’s second chapter lays out his methodology, outlining what he calls a ‘Lower East Side Aesthetic’, an approach to creativity characterized by ‘ambition, entrepreneurship, mercantilism, and, not least, craft’ and an attitude that, to quote Berlin himself, ‘the mob is always right’ (p. 10). Magee also outlines what he sees as the common threads of Berlin’s musical and lyrical style: a reliance on ragtime, dedication to simplicity, frequent repetition, minstrelsy, and certain rhetorical gestures. He highlights both Berlin’s ability to adapt to generic demands and his stylistic consistency (both in songwriting and in dramaturgy), while still dispelling the notion that Berlin had no personal style, and preferred to defer to the ‘mob’—a somewhat anti-Semitic view that has dogged not only readings of Berlin’s career, but also other Jewish composers of the era.

The rest of book concerns Berlin’s theatrical career post-1914, picking up where Charles Hamm’s groundbreaking Irving Berlin, Songs from the Melting Pot: The Formative Years, 1907–1914 (New York, 1997) leaves off. Each chapter focuses on Berlin’s work with a different set of collaborators, including revue moguls Charles Dillingham and Florenz Ziegfeld; playwrights in the George S. Kaufman circle and the Lindsay and Crouse team; musical comedy book writers such as Dorothy and Herbert Fields; and the amateurs of Berlin’s army shows. The book covers some fourteen shows in all, from the more obscure early musical comedies such as Stop! Look! Listen! (1915) to Berlin’s best-known show, Annie Get Your Gun (1946)—the only show to receive a full chapter to itself—and late flops like Mr. President (1962).

Among other things, Magee has uncovered several scripts and piano-vocal scores that provide a unique insight into two genres that have remained resistant to scholarly analysis: the revue and the pre-Oklahoma! book show, which have sometimes appeared indistinguishable from one another. Both genres are well represented in Berlin’s oeuvre, and while Magee acknowledges the difficulty of approaching material that was in flux from performance to performance, and often highly improvisational, he nevertheless reveals the method behind the madness of these two fluid genres. Of particular interest are reconstructions of several extended sequences in Berlin’s revues, including the number ‘A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody’ from Ziegfield’s Follies of 1919. Magee discusses set of lost lyrics for the medley of classical tunes that accompanied a procession of Ziegfeld girls in elaborate costumes. These new sources reveal that, rather than offering a sentimental spectacle, Berlin not only infused the number with gentle humour, but also celebrated the new, modern woman, thereby uniting the two driving forces of the Ziegfeld empire: girls and comedy.

Perhaps the most interesting new source that Magee discusses is the complete piano-vocal score for the 1921 edition of The Music Box Revue, the first of a four-year series that Berlin presented at the newly built Music Box theatre. Although he had written complete scores for musical comedies with Dillingham and amateur revues for army camp shows, The Music Box Revues represented his first professional revue score, and the first time a songwriter—rather than a star or producer...

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