Let’s Face the Music

Annie Get Your Gun

music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, as revised by Peter Stone, directed by Graciela Daniele, starring Bernadette Peters. at the Marquis Theater, New York City

The kings of Tin Pan Alley—Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and the rest—were a collegial but competitive bunch. Quick to praise each other’s music and to pay one another generous formal tributes, they dined together, played cards together, occasionally vacationed together—but always kept a sharp eye on the sales figures, their own and their rivals’.

Something of this friendly, feisty spirit seems to have permeated much of the writing about them. In biographies and theater reviews, in album liner notes and reminiscences, one is forever coming upon rankings and hierarchies: who was the best songwriter, and who the next best, which were the five finest musicals, the ten all-time greatest ballads. This is the domain of aficionados, and categories rapidly ramify into subcategories: the best bar songs ever written, the finest torch songs, the cleverest list songs…

But even among people keen for argument, there’s little dispute over who enjoyed the most remarkable life. What could be a more implausible, inspiring tale than that of Irving Berlin, born in 1888, who sold the rights to his first song for thirty-seven cents and went on to triumph, in his hundred-and-one years on the planet, in one musical revolution after another? More than half a century elapsed from his first hit, “My Wife’s Gone to the Country, Hurrah! Hurrah!,” in 1909, to his last Broadway show, Mr. President, which closed in 1963. (George Gershwin, by poignant contrast, was dead at the age of thirty-eight, felled by an undiagnosed brain tumor.)

Berlin launched his career in raucous Lower Manhattan, in an age when songs were boosted through “song-pluggers” in bars and theaters and stores, and hits were measured in the currency of sheet music; he plugged away as fervently as anyone, tossing off hit after hit, and became a partner in a firm of musical publishers by the age of twenty-three. When the rise of radio eclipsed the sheet music business—when a family no longer needed to perform a song themselves in order to bring it into their home—Berlin dominated the airwaves. When movies learned to talk and sing, he ventured out to California and, in a pair of Astaire-Rogers films, lifted the Hollywood musical to heights never since surpassed. He was still a commanding musical force—advance sales for Mr. President were a then-unprecedented two-and-a-half-million dollars—on the eve of Beatlemania.

There’s a pleasing irony to the notion that the man who became our nation’s unofficial songwriter laureate (the creator of, among other things, “God Bless America”) wasn’t born in this country—and a second appealing irony to the notion that his family origins were so misty. He might have sprung from Anywhere, Foreignland. No one in the family seemed to recall precisely where the Berlins had variously originated—“back in Russia” was about all that was certain. (Berlin’s daughter Mary Ellin Barrett reports, in her appealing account of her parents’ marriage, Irving Berlin: A Daughter’s Memoir, that “latter-day research…indicates that my father was probably born in western Siberia.”) To complicate matters, the Berlins weren’t…

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