HOORAY FOR IRVING BERLIN! — AND HERSHEY FELDER By Peter Filichia
It comes late in YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN.
Lucy Van Pelt simply sneaks up behind the Beethoven-obsessed
Schroeder and taps him on the shoulder. Once he turns around, she
says “Hooray for Irving Berlin!” and runs off before he can say
anything (or stone her).
Hooray for Hershey Felder, the pianist-actor who wrote the script for
his one-man show about Irving Berlin – and a darned good one it is.
Felder starts us with Israel Isidore Baline’s days as an immigrant
whose father always believed in singing away the blues. Once Israel
grew up and changed his name to Irving Berlin, he wrote songs that
sang away the blues for other people – including “Blue Skies.”
There were tragedies involving Berlin’s father, wife and son. What
happened soon after his honeymoon, Felder says, caused Berlin to
change from a “full of shtick” songwriter (“How Do You Do It, Mabel,
on Twenty Dollars a Week?”) into one who could write more serious
songs — or, as Cole Porter would pay tribute to him in ANYTHING
GOES, “a Berlin ballad.”
Felder also tells why the man who wrote “White Christmas” didn’t
enjoy the holiday after Dec. 25, 1928. And yet, Felder has Berlin say,
“A song will never leave you alone.”
Many songs that Felder sang last Saturday at 59E59 Theatre got
“mmms” of approval from the theatergoers who recognized the vamp
or first lines. When Felder asked them to join in on the big hits, they
gladly obliged and knew all the words, too. That isn’t so surprising,
for as Felder pointed out, Berlin had 232 Top Ten hits with twenty-
five of them reaching Number One.
Best of all, Felder gave time to Berlin’s four final Broadway musicals:
ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, MISS LIBERTY, CALL ME MADAM and MR.
Berlin wasn’t supposed to write the musical about Annie Oakley and
Frank Butler, the man she couldn’t get with a gun; Jerome Kern was
to provide music to Dorothy Fields’ lyrics. Then Kern died suddenly.
Producers Rodgers and Hammerstein might have done the score
themselves, but asked Berlin to provide it. Fields was gracious in
stepping aside for Berlin wrote his own lyrics. She lost millions of
dollars in the process.
Or did she? Not to take anything away from Broadway’s first great
female lyricist, but ANNIE GET YOUR GUN still holds the record for
the most hit songs in any one show: “The Girl That I Marry,” “They
Say It’s Wonderful,” “I Got the Sun in the Morning (and the Moon at
Night),” “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” and, of course,
“There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Without them, the show
might not have finished as the second-longest running book musical
in Broadway history.
Following a Big Hit Show is always hard, for expectations are always
higher. Just ask Lerner and Loewe, Shaiman and Wittman – and
Irving Berlin. MISS LIBERTY, about getting financing to get the
Statue of Liberty ensconced on Bedloe’s Island, ran about a third as
long as Berlin’s previous smash – and wouldn’t have lasted that long
if the advance sale hadn’t been huge.
For one song, Berlin was not his own lyricist; he set Emma Lazarus’
words at the base of the Statue — “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” –
to music. He was convinced that he had another “God Bless
America,” which didn’t happen. Felder shows it is nevertheless a
Besides, the book sunk MISS LIBERTY’s many fine songs.
“Homework” was written to have an encore, and deserves it. “You
Can Have Him” is Berlin’s version of Rodgers and Hart’s “Take Him” from PAL JOEY. And then there’s the show’s one hit “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk.”
Next was CALL ME MADAM, in which Mrs. Sally Adams gets the job
as Ambassador to Lichtenburg from a president identified only as
Harry. Everyone at the time knew this was a riff on Perle Mesta, a
multi-millionaire’s widow who gave parties in Washington – and
unflagging support for then-President Truman; as a result, he named
her our nation’s first-ever Ambassador to Luxembourg.
During the New Haven tryout, audiences were so responding to
Russell Nype as Sally’s attaché that star Ethel Merman said, “I want a
number with the kid.” At the same time, Berlin’s “Play a Simple
Melody,” was enjoying a renaissance through a new recording
courtesy of Bing Crosby and his son Gary. It was a quodlibet – one
melody is sung and played, followed by a different melody, and then
they’re put together. In that vein, Berlin wrote “(You’re Not Sick)
You’re Just in Love,” the show’s most enduring hit.
CALL ME MADAM opened on Oct. 12, 1950, got Berlin a Best Score
Tony (beating out Frank Loesser’s GUYS AND DOLLS) and played
644 performances – enough to make it Broadway’s sixteenth-
longest-ever-running book musical.
At the time, Berlin had recently moved into a five-story townhouse at
17 Beekman Place where he’d live until his death. Then it was sold
and became the embassy for the country of – yes – Luxembourg.
MR. PRESIDENT in 1962 was “a flop,” as Felder frankly admits.
Again, there were high expectations; let’s recycle the earlier sentence
that said it “ran about a third as long as Berlin’s previous smash –
and wouldn’t have lasted that long if the advance sale hadn’t been
This story of a president who doesn’t get re-elected got cover
recordings by the old (Andre Kostelanetz: “The Secret Service”), the
young (Robert Goulet: “Don’t Be Afraid of Romance”) and the even
younger (Vicki Belmonte – later a NUNSENSE original caster – “I’m Gonna Get Him.”). Kostelanetz even took a stab at “The Washington Twist,” Berlin’s acknowledgement of the dance craze that was then
sweeping the nation.
Felder does the final song “This Is a Great Country,” a proud anthem.
And yet, unlike “God Bless America,” this one takes into account that
“Patriotism has gone out of fashion.” Berlin’s conclusion: “If this is
flag-waving, do you know of a better flag to wave?”
MR. PRESIDENT concluded Berlin’s career – with one important
exception. In 1966, when Richard Rodgers, then president and
producing director of the Music Theatre of Lincoln Center, would
mount a twentieth anniversary production of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN
with Ethel Merman reprising her SECOND-most famous role, Berlin
delivered his last official song – and a quodlibet to boot.
“An Old-Fashioned Wedding” has Frank Butler crooning over what he
envisions on his nuptial day: “You’ll vow to love and honor and
obey,” he states – only to hear Ms. Oakley say “Love and honor? Yes
– but not obey.”
(Yeah – try to get Merman to obey. That’s an order tall enough to
recall another Berlin lyric: “How high is the sky?”)
Seriously: on the Saturday afternoon when I saw Merman and Bruce
Yarnell sing this at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., the
song received enough applause that it got – I’ll take a polygraph test
– SIX encores. And has there ever since been a production of ANNIE
GET YOUR GUN that hasn’t used this song?
As we approach Sept. 22, we see that it was a significant date three
times in Irving Berlin’s life. His MUSIC BOX REVUE – at that theater
that he had built and co-owned – opened on that date in 1921, and
two years later, a third edition opened on that date, too.
Then, on Sept. 22, 1989, Irving Berlin died, virtually a third-of-a-
century after he had written his last song. During those years, few
expected he’d write something new, but there was always the possibility that he might open up his trunk and find us something wonderful that he’d written before.
After all, as Hershey Felder informs us, that’s precisely what had
happened with “God Bless America.” Berlin wrote it in 1918 but was
discouraged from promoting it. Twenty years later, he changed his
mind, and “God Bless America” became the country’s honorary
And God bless Hershey Felder for informing us of that fact.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at
www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at
www.mtishows.com . He can be heard most weeks of the year on