Applause / Playhouse Brings Irving Berlin to Life
On July 4, 1942, the year after Pearl Harbor, “This is the Army,” a revue with sketches and songs about life in the service, opened at the Broadway Theater.
Part-way through, a slight figure wearing a World War I uniform walks on from stage left to engulfing applause. He begins to sing in a croaky, barely audible voice “Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning,” with its suggestions of murdering the bugler.
This was Irving Berlin, the Russian immigrant who composed “God Bless America,” the Jew who wrote “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade,” the New Yorker who — so proud of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor — celebrated her in a show called “Miss Liberty,” where he musicalized Emma Lazarus’ poem on the statue’s base: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Himself born poor, he parlayed his rise from selling newspapers on the Lower East Side to wealth and an apartment on Beekman Place. He was, in short, a one-man argument for welcoming refugees eager to partake of the American Dream.
Berlin lived till age 101 (1888-1989) and, in his time, was the greatest of all popular composers, playing a leading role in the evolution of ragtime (“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”), jazz (“Blue Skies”), pop (“Cheek to Cheek”), movies (“Be Careful, It’s My Heart”) and theater (“There’s No Business Like Show Business”).
In all, he wrote music and lyrics for more than 1,500 songs, including 20 Broadway shows and 15 films. He earned all of 75 cents from the sale of his first song, 1907’s “Marie From Sunny Italy” (“My sweet Marie from sunny Italy / Oh how I do love you / Say that you’ll love me, love me, too / Forever more I will be true”). He got better.
“For 60 years Berlin was the ‘it’ thing,” said Hershey Felder, whose one-man show on the composer comes to the Westport Country Playhouse this July.
Speaking by phone, Felder admitted, “Some called his work kitschy and corny, wearing emotions on his sleeve and so forth. To me, it’s a lot about what happens when you live so long and the world passes you by.”
Felder, born in Canada and married to Kim Campbell, the first female prime minister of that nation, performs a plethora of musical tributes throughout the world. In addition to Berlin, names like Gershwin, Debussy, Chopin, Beethoven, Bernstein, Liszt and Tchaikovsky are in his repertoire, as well as “The Great American Song Book Sing-along.”
He adapted and directed “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” seen last season at the Playhouse. He also composes, operates a full service production company and has been a scholar-in-residence at Harvard University’s Department of Music.
“I have an affinity for people who take nothing — it’s air — and they create something beautiful,” he said. “How could you not appreciate something like that? They make the world a more beautiful place.”
An accomplished pianist, Felder tackles Berlin with his own flourishes. But Berlin himself was not a trained musician. Indeed, he could play piano only in F-sharp, favoring the black keys. His compositions were then transposed by others.
“He played in one key because he had no serious music training, but he had a natural ability for music,” said Felder. “He had a perfect ear. After all, his father was a cantor and gave his son singing lessons, a skill Berlin used by becoming a singing waiter (in a Chinatown saloon).” “At any rate, some people can have all the technical training in music and it’s meaningless.”
Felder’s tribute, “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,” which The New Yorker called “lovely,” stems from the true-life story of carolers who used to stand outside Berlin’s apartment house to serenade the composer. Although crotchety in his advancing years, Berlin eventually invited them in where, the tale goes, he served them hot chocolate.
Felder’s evening takes off from that incident, linking compositions to worldwide events.
“This is the Army” was itself a first, integrating whites and blacks in the same unit. For Berlin was a staunch advocate of civil rights, honored in 1944 by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for “advancing the aims of the conference to eliminate religious and racial conflict.
“When I learned his story, I was very touched by it,” said Felder. “This immigrant who comes from this place in Russia where they’re burning down his house and he comes here and sees the Statue of Liberty. He wanted to give back a gift to America for the life it gave him. And it was genuine.”
Although his two wives (his first died young) were not Jewish, “he maintained his Jewishness his entire life,” said Felder, “and never stopped speaking Yiddish. He supported humanitarian causes which are, of course, also Jewish causes.”
Berlin’s talents and contributions will outlast those of most musicians. “He was an incredible force,” said Felder, “who had the ability to take the average person’s feelings and thoughts and with simple words create such poetry. And tell stories that are just really, really beautiful. To me, that’s miraculous.”
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, July 16-Aug. 3. Call 203-227-4177 or visit westportplayhouse.org.
Norwalk resident David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.