Book published by the Oxford university press

Book reviewon Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater, by Jeffrey Magee In hisdetailed and extensively researched Magee, (previously published by the Oxforduniversity press for ‘the uncrowned king of swing: Fletcher Henderson and bigband jazz (2004)) begins by offering a brief overview of berlin’s early lifeand working career, as well as giving the reader a brief insight into Berlin’stypical writing style.

He summarizes the themes that characterize Berlin’s songwriting for the theatre as a good balance of repetition and contrast, whilstremaining simple enough for all audiences, as well as highlighting berlin’sskill when imitating ragtime and opera, sometimes simultaneously. After thisthe book then works through the work mentioned in the introduction, in a chronologicalorder, giving the reader a chance to see the arc of berlin’s career. Mageestarts with Ziegfeld Follies, before working through the revue shows at themusic 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 readerscan see a transformation change ‘conspicuously porous’ genres that suitedBerlin’s style, earlier in his career and the large range of cultures he tookas influences growing up in the lower east side that are ever present in hiswork. Magee makes a strong point of this, probably because Berlin himselfcredited his upbringing to his compositional style, and it is key tounderstanding the way in which Berlin always seemed to write with such socialreference.

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Magee also lingers on the fact that Berlin considered himself asongwriter, who’s songs could be taken out of their theatrical context andstill be fully appreciated, which is after all what Berlin strived for. Beingfrom the pre-Oklahoma Era himself, it is refreshing to have an avoidance ofthis term throughout most of the book.Wrote withGeorge S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in the 1930s,  writing As Thousands Cheer and comedies, Facethe Music and Louisiana Purchase, which all put an almost sattirrical spin ofthe events of warThis wasespecially true in his satiric shows from the 1930s, which Magee compares withmodern-day successors like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show in theirability to bring levity to serious news. Face the Music satirized a policecorruption scandal that was under investigation when the show opened, and AsThousands Cheer parodied current newspaper headlines in each of its scenes, yetboth shows also contained hit songs that have endured: “Soft Lights and SweetMusic,” “How’s Chances,” “Heat Wave,” “Easter Parade,” and others. During WorldWar 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 titleto back up his power. Although still dependent on collaborations withperformers, writers, and producers, he effectively made the songwriter the starof the show, often giving his own name top billing by including it in the titleWe stop nextin 1945 at what Magee calls “the first post-war musical comedy”: Annie Get YourGun.

This is perhaps his landmark work, and also the closest thing he wrote toan integrated musical but Magee doesn’t fail to make the point that berlinhimself said that he felt his songs could be taken from the musical and putinto another show. Magee gives us a detailed narrative of the shows creativeprocess from idea to stage, looking at music lyrics and texts and even comparingAnnie’s character arc to that of the show’s composer, Berlin, as he sees thereflection of it in Field’s writing as she ‘dramatizes Jewish Americanassimilation'(261)Magee offersmany levels of analysis throughout the book, touching on all types of artistaround Berlin over his long career, including performers, producers, composersand writers. He also gives good overviews of almost all his major works, ‘andspecific examples in some of his best loved songs, showing both musical andlyrical analysis with sufficient use of relevant materials’ the one exceptionto this is the absence of ‘Miss Liberty in the book. He also goes into somedetail on Berlin’s inspirations, accounting the number of styles he used andgenre boundaries he blurred to the neighbourhood where  he grew up, honing his talents. He touches onrevues Impressivedepth of analysis is offered and context is also often provided too, showingthe remarkable ability berlin possessed in always being able to make hiswriting relevant to the historical and social context of the time it waspublished.

The book is solid evidence for the famous Jerome kern quote, Wassuccessful in bringing a much simpler audience pleasing ragtime style into anoperatic setting, often blurring the two into what Magee refers to as ragtimeopera, however Magee illustrates the decline of Berlin’s operatic ambitionthroughout his career as he  Berlin. Mageehighlights Berlin’s bold moves to write music for vaudeville shows, entirely onhis own, something that hadn’t been done much before, elevating the role of thecomposer. He improved on this control by even dabbling at the role of producer andbuilding his own theatre (the music box) to act as the venue for his revues.   As we arriveat the final chapters of the book, Magee covers berlins work with Lindsay andCrouse, as we see the arc of berlin’s career reach its end. His last two majorshows, Call Me Madam (1950) and Mr.

President (1962) had varying degrees ofsuccess. The former, written specifically for Ethel Merman had relative successfor a comedy in the beginnings of Americas cold war era, whereas the latter, MrPresident, which had the events of the Cuban missiles crisis and theassignation of JFK to partially thank for its lack of success, despite openingwith great anticipation. Magee hints at how this could be seen as an inabilityof 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.Throughexamining Berlin’s illustrious career in composing Magee highlights the way inwhich the talented songwriter could write with a ‘laser like focus on the Americanscene'(302) taking cue from the social, political and historical affairs of thetime, more often than not, with a decent amount of success. He continues into theconclusion, stating that berlin often reflected society like ‘a mirror’ ontostage and even pauses to touch on the ‘hoary clichés’ that were lesssuccessful, and became outdated as America moved past these often offensivestereotypes of the vaudeville shows.

Whilst some of these stereotypes areworrying in retrospect, they were eventually to die out, but Magee points outthat 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. Thereare few links missing in the chainmail of this book, but the appearance of no morethan 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 ofthese.The book as awhole provides a strong account of Irving Berlin’s long and decorated career,whilst successfully putting it into context in its place in American shows Irving berlin almost bridging a gap between earlier review shows andwhat would become the more coherent ‘integrated musical’ with his ‘legitimatevaudeville’ a phrase Magee makes much use of throughout this piece ofliterature. Magee attempts to show this with bounds of useful information,musicological and dramatic analysis as well as often relating it to the everimportant context in which it was written. It also touches on themes of currentaffairs such as of immigration, assimilation, and acceptance that define IrvingBerlin’s idea of America.

All in all, this piece is a much needed addition tothe library of musical theatre literature and certainly is successful inbringing to light a fresh viewpoint on an already well appreciated figure inmusical theatre history.


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