Jerome Kern famously said, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.” Even today, virtually every American knows the lyrics and melody of “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.” His greatest songs (such as “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “Blue Skies,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “What’ll I Do” to name just a few) form the bedrock of the “Great American Songbook,” and Annie Get Your Gun (while difficult to revive today due to its gender politics and cartoonish depiction of Native Americans) is considered to have one of the best scores in the musical comedy cannon.
But in the political climate of 2018, two years into the divisive Trump presidency, what does Irving Berlin’s legacy mean – and what do we get out of revisiting his rags-to-riches, immigrant-turned-model-American-life story? Does his story have increased relevance today (in showing the vital contributions of immigrants to American society), or have we become too jaded with the political process to fall in line with Berlin’s openhearted patriotism?
The opportunity to consider Berlin’s legacy at this particular moment in time has arrived with Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, the latest one-man show by Felder (a versatile, knowledgeable and enterprising pianist/author/actor) in which he impersonates a famous composer (all part of a so-called “Composer Sonata"), following pieces devoted to George Gershwin (which played Broadway in 2002), Leonard Bernstein, Chopin, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. (While Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter will probably eventually follow, I’d like to see him play Jonathan Larson. Now there’s a story.)
The unapologetically sentimental but enjoyable show (directed by Trevor Hay, with book and scenic design by Felder) has a simple setup of biography mixed with song, running just under two hours without intermission. It is set in Berlin’s secluded townhouse on Beekman Place in the late 1980s on Christmas Eve, right after Berlin has turned 100 years old and his wife of 62 years (former socialite Ellin Mackay) has passed away.
With carolers outside singing “White Christmas,” Berlin invites (or at least he imagines inviting) them inside and proceeds to tell them his life story, from his childhood as a Russian immigrant struggling to survive on the Lower East Side, to becoming the most successful writer of American popular song of the 20th century, to turning into a recluse who feels out of touch with and discarded by a changed country. It ends with Berlin insisting to the crowd, “I did it all for you!”
Felder (who speaks to the audience as if they are the unseen carolers) frequently moves to the bench of his baby grand piano and proceeds to play through Berlin’s biggest hits as they pop up in chronology, from the breakout hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (which is not really ragtime) to the Annie Get Your Gun anthem “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (where we get also get an impression of Ethel Merman’s distinctively forceful vocal delivery).
When it comes to “White Christmas” and “God Bless America” (which Berlin wrote in 1918 and kept hidden in the drawer for 20 years), Felder signals to the audience to sing it in his place. Whereas Felder’s hands effortlessly glide along the piano keys, Berlin could barely play the piano and even required a mechanically reconfigured one with a level in order to play in different keys (his so-called “Buick”). Recognizing this incongruity, Felder suggests that we are hearing the music as it would have sounded in Berlin’s head.
Even though the show is constructed in a by-the-number fashion, and the writing can be heavy-handed and overloaded with exposition, it is truly engrossing and heartfelt. Oddly enough, it also represents the modern jukebox musical at its most simple, persuasive and dramatically effective levels. In addition to tacking on a thick New York accent, Felder portrays Berlin with a restless intensity, suggesting Berlin’s determination to succeed, fervent patriotism, love for his family and anger at becoming a casualty of the rock-and-roll revolution.
Without question, the story of Berlin’s life and success reverberates in the current political atmosphere. He was the immigrant who wrote “God Bless America,” and the Jew who married a Catholic socialite and wrote “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.” By the show’s end, even the most dispirited and cynical among us may be able to appreciate the heart and sincerity behind so many of these classic songs.