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The songs of Irving Berlin have never not been a part of my consciousness, probably dating back to in utero, as my mother had a penchant for bursting into popular song, whether at home or out in public, at the slightest provocation. However, when I was born on April 7, 1954, Berlin was only a dozen years away from the end of his 59-year songwriting career (56 of them spent on Broadway). His last original full-length score for a Broadway musical, Mr. President, opened in 1962, the same year in which I saw the national tour of Camelot and at age 8 decided upon a career in musical theatre. His last new songs for Broadway were “Who Needs the Birds and Bees?” and “Old-Fashioned Wedding,” written for the 1966 Lincoln Center revival of Annie Get Your Gun, though only “Wedding” made it to New York City, with “Birds and Bees” getting cut during the show’s out-of-town tryout in Toronto. Though I was 12 by then and starting to follow the Broadway season, I somehow wasn’t aware of that revival when it was happening (nor did I see its now-lost TV broadcast), though its original cast recording quickly became a favorite of mine. To this day I vividly remember the frisson of excitement it gave me to listen to a first-rate new Berlin tune. All of this is by way of saying that I spent my youth longing for a new Irving Berlin musical, but though he lived to the age of 101, dying in 1989, I never got one. I was born too late.

In 1924 composer Jerome Kern was asked by a reporter what Irving Berlin’s place was in American music, and his reply is always the first thing that comes to my mind about the songwriter: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.” Musically completely untutored (Victor Herbert advised him against learning music theory on the grounds that it might “cramp your style”), Berlin was fond of saying that there are only six tunes in the world, and yet he wrote over 1,500 songs in the course of his lifetime and certainly seemed to have more standards in his oeuvre than anyone else. And it’s as a songwriter that he resonates with me, not a dramatist. He never cottoned to the integrated book musical, preferring the plotless revues or ramshackle musical comedies of the teens, twenties, and thirties and resenting narratives that “got in the way” of his songs. Indeed, he initially turned down Annie Get Your Gun, ultimately his greatest theatrical success, because its plot was primary. Nevertheless, even the great Berlin couldn’t stand in the way of the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution, and his subsequent Broadway shows—Miss Liberty, Call Me Madam, and Mr. President—all attempted, with varying degrees of success, to be story- and character-driven.

Ironically, it was problems creating a workable story and characters that ultimately scuttled what was conceived of by Berlin as his great swan song, an MGM movie musical called Say It With Music. Titled for a hit tune from Berlin’s Music Box Revue of 1921, it was intended to be the mother of all songbook catalogue musicals, a genre Berlin was adept at, having already had Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Blue Skies, Easter Parade, There’s No Business Like Show Business, and White Christmas, all of which are named for Berlin standards and had scores that mixed his older tunes with a few new ones. In 1963 Berlin sold legendary MGM producer Arthur Freed on the property via a clutch of new songs he had written and walked away with a deal for $1 million. However, then someone had to cobble together a suitable script around the songs, and a number of high-profile scribes—Arthur Laurents, Leonard Gershe, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, George Wells, and, finally, Blake Edwards—were stumped by the task. (I recently had the chance to read Comden and Green’s version, which interweaves three love stories taking place in different years—1913, 1925, and 1966—“carrying out the thesis that no matter how the times change, human relationships and the need for love remain the same.” Alas, it’s not their finest hour.) Along the way such stars as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Sophia Loren, Ann Margaret, Brigitte Bardot, and Fred Astaire were attached to the project at various times. The film was at last slated to start filming in September 1969, produced by Freed, written and directed by Edwards, and starring Andrews, but rapidly changing popular tastes coupled with the financial collapse of MGM ended those plans. So much for my new Berlin musical. The lyrics for 12 new songs can be found in Robert Kimball’s The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin, but to my knowledge no one has ever recorded them. I sure wish somebody would.

Here is a list of the Irving Berlin tunes that mean the most to me and why.

“White Christmas,” from the film Holiday Inn
I don’t remember a Christmas without this Berlin classic, and watching White Christmas, the 1954 color remake of the 1942 black-and-white Holiday Inn, on TV was an annual family ritual. Whenever I hear it, I think of the brightly colored bubble lights on our tree.

“Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” from Yip Yip Yaphank
My father would belt this tune to raise his two errant sons from their slumbers. “Ya gotta get up” on the notes of reveille comes as natural to me as breathing. Here’s Berlin himself singing it in the film version of This Is the Army.

“Easter Parade,” from As Thousands Cheer
My mother’s family lived in Manhattan, and we always visited from Ohio for Thanksgiving and Easter. Watching the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue was another ritual, and of course we always sang along. To this day it seems wrong to me when Judy Garland sings the sex-reversed lyric to Fred Astaire in Easter Parade. Bing Crosby sings the original in Holiday Inn.

“The Old Man,” “What Can You Do With a General?,” and “Gee! I Wish I Was Back in the Army,” from White Christmas
My dad was a lieutenant in England’s Royal Navy during World War II, and though he was very self-effacing about his service, he loved these three military-themed numbers, though we substituted “navy” for “army” when singing the last one. To this day I think of him when I hear them and mist up.

“Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” a pop song
I remember my mother singing this to me when I was very small, often when it was time to get a move on and go somewhere. I think it was the first piece of ragtime music I knew, and I adored it. Here’s the Mighty Merman joyfully blasting as only Ethel can.

“Heat Wave,” from As Thousands Cheer
Another of my mom’s favorites, as she hated the heat, which could get fierce in an Ohio summer. I also remember being entranced by “she certainly can can-can,” one of the first pieces of lyric wordplay that I noticed. And here’s the lady who introduced it, the great Ethel Waters.

“There’s No Business Like Show Business,” from Annie Get Your Gun
One more song I don’t ever remember not knowing, it was chosen as the theme song of our Stagecrafters group in high school, the lyric prominently displayed full-time on our bulletin board in the hallway. I sang it for years before I knew what “turkey” really meant.

“Supper Time,” from As Thousands Cheer
I think I first heard this on the radio as a boy, though I don’t remember who sang it. I was struck by the starkness of its content. Later, when I started to pay attention to such things, I was surprised that it came from Berlin’s pen. It’s another Ethel Waters number.

“The Secret Service,” from Mr. President
By the time I became a serious musical theatre person this LP was long out of print. However, I eventually tracked down a copy, excited to finally hear a full Berlin score I didn’t know. Alas, I was largely disappointed, except for this comedy song in which Anita Gillette’s frisky first daughter complains about her Secret Service protection screwing up her love life. I clung to it as proof that Berlin hadn’t lost his touch. (I also rather liked Nanette Fabray’s manic “They Love Me,” but that was about it.)

“Better Luck Next Time,” from Easter Parade
When I was in college MGM records released a Silver Screen Soundtrack Series of “double features,” pairing the soundtracks of two MGM film musicals on one LP. I bought the Easter Parade one primarily for its partner, Cole Porter’s The Pirate, a film and score I did not know at all at the time. But though I had seen the Berlin picture, I hadn’t much noticed this gorgeous ballad that Garland delivers to Mike the bartender with muted melancholy. I played it over and over.

“Always,” cut from The Cocoanuts
I have to confess that I’m on George S. Kaufman’s side on this one; he removed “Always” from this 1925 Marx Brothers musical because he hated sentimentality. He told Berlin that if he would change the title to “Thursday,” he would believe it, and the song could stay. I thought that was very funny (and true), and then I discovered lyricist Howard Dietz’s parody, written in the style of Lorenz Hart: “I’ll be loving you/Always/With a love that’s true/Always/With a love as grand/As Paul Whiteman’s band/And ’twill weigh as much as Paul weighs/Always/In saloons and drab/Hallways/You’re the one I’ll grab/Always/See how I dispense/Rhymes that are immense/But do they make sense?/Not always.” Who wouldn’t love that? For Berlin’s original, try Kelli O’Hara’s take on her CD Always (though if you want to have some fun, plug in “Thursday” in your head).

“Let’s Go West Again,” cut from Annie Get Your Gun
Again during college an LP came out, this one from a scrappy homemade company dubbed Sound/Stage Recordings and labeled “a limited edition for the Judy Garland fan club.” That’s because it contained the unreleased soundtrack for Garland’s version of Annie Get Your Gun, a film she was fired from during shooting. It included this wistful ballad, which I later learned was written for but never used in the stage show (the notes for the album claimed that it had been composed expressly for Garland). It was exciting hearing a “new” Berlin tune, and I’ve always been partial to it. Garland’s replacement, Betty Hutton, also recorded and shot the number, but it was cut from the film before release. She did it well enough (check it out on YouTube), but Garland’s is the gold standard.


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