Book of swing: Fletcher Henderson and big band

Book review
on Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater, by Jeffrey Magee

 

In his
detailed and extensively researched Magee, (previously published by the Oxford
university press for ‘the uncrowned king of swing: Fletcher Henderson and big
band jazz (2004)) begins by offering a brief overview of berlin’s early life
and working career, as well as giving the reader a brief insight into Berlin’s
typical writing style. He summarizes the themes that characterize Berlin’s song
writing for the theatre as a good balance of repetition and contrast, whilst
remaining simple enough for all audiences, as well as highlighting berlin’s
skill when imitating ragtime and opera, sometimes simultaneously.

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After this
the book then works through the work mentioned in the introduction, in a chronological
order, giving the reader a chance to see the arc of berlin’s career. Magee
starts with Ziegfeld Follies, before working through the revue shows at the
music Box Theatre, ‘ideal combination’ with George S. Kaufman, This is the Army,
and of course his most well-known work ‘Annie Get Your Gun’

We as readers
can see a transformation change ‘conspicuously porous’ genres that suited
Berlin’s style, earlier in his career and the large range of cultures he took
as influences growing up in the lower east side that are ever present in his
work. Magee makes a strong point of this, probably because Berlin himself
credited his upbringing to his compositional style, and it is key to
understanding the way in which Berlin always seemed to write with such social
reference. Magee also lingers on the fact that Berlin considered himself a
songwriter, who’s songs could be taken out of their theatrical context and
still be fully appreciated, which is after all what Berlin strived for. Being
from the pre-Oklahoma Era himself, it is refreshing to have an avoidance of
this term throughout most of the book.

Wrote with
George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in the 1930s,  writing As Thousands Cheer and comedies, Face
the Music and Louisiana Purchase, which all put an almost sattirrical spin of
the events of war

This was
especially true in his satiric shows from the 1930s, which Magee compares with
modern-day successors like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show in their
ability to bring levity to serious news. Face the Music satirized a police
corruption scandal that was under investigation when the show opened, and As
Thousands Cheer parodied current newspaper headlines in each of its scenes, yet
both shows also contained hit songs that have endured: “Soft Lights and Sweet
Music,” “How’s Chances,” “Heat Wave,” “Easter Parade,” and others.

During World
War II, Berlin assumed total control over the production of This Is the Army,
with no celebrity performers to challenge his authority and an officer’s title
to back up his power. Although still dependent on collaborations with
performers, writers, and producers, he effectively made the songwriter the star
of the show, often giving his own name top billing by including it in the title

We stop next
in 1945 at what Magee calls “the first post-war musical comedy”: Annie Get Your
Gun. This is perhaps his landmark work, and also the closest thing he wrote to
an integrated musical but Magee doesn’t fail to make the point that berlin
himself said that he felt his songs could be taken from the musical and put
into another show. Magee gives us a detailed narrative of the shows creative
process from idea to stage, looking at music lyrics and texts and even comparing
Annie’s character arc to that of the show’s composer, Berlin, as he sees the
reflection of it in Field’s writing as she ‘dramatizes Jewish American
assimilation'(261)

Magee offers
many levels of analysis throughout the book, touching on all types of artist
around Berlin over his long career, including performers, producers, composers
and writers. He also gives good overviews of almost all his major works, ‘and
specific examples in some of his best loved songs, showing both musical and
lyrical analysis with sufficient use of relevant materials’ the one exception
to this is the absence of ‘Miss Liberty in the book. He also goes into some
detail on Berlin’s inspirations, accounting the number of styles he used and
genre boundaries he blurred to the neighbourhood where  he grew up, honing his talents. He touches on
revues

Impressive
depth of analysis is offered and context is also often provided too, showing
the remarkable ability berlin possessed in always being able to make his
writing relevant to the historical and social context of the time it was
published. The book is solid evidence for the famous Jerome kern quote,

Was
successful in bringing a much simpler audience pleasing ragtime style into an
operatic setting, often blurring the two into what Magee refers to as ragtime
opera, however Magee illustrates the decline of Berlin’s operatic ambition
throughout his career as he  

Berlin. Magee
highlights Berlin’s bold moves to write music for vaudeville shows, entirely on
his own, something that hadn’t been done much before, elevating the role of the
composer. He improved on this control by even dabbling at the role of producer and
building his own theatre (the music box) to act as the venue for his revues.   

As we arrive
at the final chapters of the book, Magee covers berlins work with Lindsay and
Crouse, as we see the arc of berlin’s career reach its end. His last two major
shows, Call Me Madam (1950) and Mr. President (1962) had varying degrees of
success. The former, written specifically for Ethel Merman had relative success
for a comedy in the beginnings of Americas cold war era, whereas the latter, Mr
President, which had the events of the Cuban missiles crisis and the
assignation of JFK to partially thank for its lack of success, despite opening
with great anticipation. Magee hints at how this could be seen as an inability
of Berlin’s to change with the times, and as the culture of America changed,
post second world war, it appeared to leave Berlin in the dust a little.

Through
examining Berlin’s illustrious career in composing Magee highlights the way in
which the talented songwriter could write with a ‘laser like focus on the American
scene'(302) taking cue from the social, political and historical affairs of the
time, more often than not, with a decent amount of success. He continues into the
conclusion, stating that berlin often reflected society like ‘a mirror’ onto
stage and even pauses to touch on the ‘hoary clichés’ that were less
successful, and became outdated as America moved past these often offensive
stereotypes of the vaudeville shows. Whilst some of these stereotypes are
worrying in retrospect, they were eventually to die out, but Magee points out
that perhaps Berlin relied on these methods of entertainment for slightly too long,
using them alongside his minstrelsy in the style he had grown up using. There
are few links missing in the chainmail of this book, but the appearance of no more
than a sweeping comment of ‘Miss Liberty'(1949) a flop written post war,
intended to tap into a sense of patriotism among returning troops is one of
these.

The book as a
whole provides a strong account of Irving Berlin’s long and decorated career,
whilst successfully putting it into context in its place in American theatre.
it shows Irving berlin almost bridging a gap between earlier review shows and
what would become the more coherent ‘integrated musical’ with his ‘legitimate
vaudeville’ a phrase Magee makes much use of throughout this piece of
literature. Magee attempts to show this with bounds of useful information,
musicological and dramatic analysis as well as often relating it to the ever
important context in which it was written. It also touches on themes of current
affairs such as of immigration, assimilation, and acceptance that define Irving
Berlin’s idea of America. All in all, this piece is a much needed addition to
the library of musical theatre literature and certainly is successful in
bringing to light a fresh viewpoint on an already well appreciated figure in
musical theatre history.