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He Don't Need Analyzin'


One of the shows I'm most looking forward to this autumn is Holiday Inn - The New Irving Berlin Musical. Not because it's going to be a game-changer in the American Musical Theatre (it isn't) or because it's going unearth hitherto unknown emotional depths in Mr. Berlin's songs. I'm going because I'm hoping that it captures that something which isn't nostalgia, but just simple theatrical musical comedy joy. And I hope it finds a way to create a show which is in its own way "timeless." Because timelessness in the theatre is something which eluded Mr. Berlin in his long and thrilling career.

His place in the pantheon of great American composers is unquestioned. The list of "standards" of which he is the author is astounding.

But what about the shows, how well have they fared? There's Annie Get Your Gun which is revived fairly often though less so now, due to its dodgy depiction of Native Americans, and Call Me Madam, which I adore but needs so much contextual explanation to a contemporary audience that it hardly seems worth it ("You see there was this woman named Pearl Mesta ...") and then there's...well golly, Mr. President? Face the Music? Louisiana Purchase? Miss Liberty? My point is that we know tons of his songs, but we don't know the shows. They aren't revived unless for special occasions or an Encores! production. They lack staying power. And the reason is that they were all basically trivial. Often they were vehicles for stars, but mostly they were vehicles for his delightful, romantic songs. The shows weren't built to last, the songs were.

So we are left with an extraordinary song catalog and a minor list of musical comedies. The best of which has, (arguably)the greatest list of tunes ever composed for one show, is pretty un-producable in today's political climate. Annie Get Your Gun has the following songs in it: "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Doin' What Comes Naturally," "Anything You Can Do," "I Got the Sun in the Morning," "They Say it's Wonderful," "The Girl That I Marry," "I Got Lost in His Arms," "My Defenses are Down," and "Moonshine Lullaby ," and those are the standards which came from this show. I mean really? Is there another show with that many standards. (I'm not talking about revisals which interpolate songs from other shows) well yeah, Porgy and Bess, but still, it's pretty amazing. And yet Annie Get Your Gun isn't a great show, it's almost always hugely enjoyable ( I say "almost" because I still can't unremember a horrific production at the Young Vic a few years ago directed by Richard Jones which oozed loathing of the musical comedy form in virtually every scene.) Yet when we make our list of the Best Musicals of all time, Annie Get Your Gun isn't there because of it's current state of un-producability. And if that's the best of his shows does that mean that there's no Irving Berlin show on the list? That just doesn't seem right.

As for Call Me Madam, it offers a great deal of joy, the Encores! recording featuring Tyne Daly & Lewis Cleale, was the first one to capture completely the easy wit and melody of the show. Cast album aficionados know why, but I'll tell the rest of you. When the show opened RCA Victor paid a lot of money for the recording rights to the show. But what no one thought about was the fact that Ethel Merman, the show's star (and creative raison d'ĂȘtre ) was signed to Decca Records. The result was that RCA had one their top recording artists (Dinah Shore) play Ms. Merman's part on the recording (alongside the rest of the original cast) while Decca had Ms. Merman record an album "Ethel Merman sings her hits from Call Me Madam." And while there was a film soundtrack featuring Ms. Merman, there never was a complete recording of the show which featured her.

The score has some great songs "The Hostess With Mostes'," "Can You Use Any Money Today?," "The Best Thing for You," "It's a Lovely Day Today," and, for me the best number in the show by far is Mr. Berlin's counterpoint show-stopping masterpiece: "(I Wonder Why) You're Just in Love." So while Mr. Berlin's songs stand the test of time, the book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse doesn't. Don't get me wrong, it's enjoyable and funny but with jokes about Margaret Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, it's all a bit too dusty for a general audience.

Over the years there have been number of attempts to create "a new Irving Berlin musical" (the way the Gershwins have done with shows such as Crazy for You, My One and Only and Nice Work If You Can Get It); such as Easter Parade or Top Hat (which one an Olivier Award for Best Musical a few years ago, but has yet to make it across the pond) and they've had some success with the stage adaptation of White Christmas which is fun and has a terrific cast recording, but by its very nature is ghettoized to a certain time of year. The same could be true of Holiday Inn but the show's producers are trying to sell the show in a non-holiday way, the ad campaign looks more like Brigadoon than anything else. That's fine by me, anything that brings Mr. Berlin's glorious timeless songs to a 21st Century audience is doing us all a great service. 

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