There probably isn’t a soul in America who could not sing along to at least one song written by the extraordinarily prolific Irving Berlin. He was – as readers of this blog must already know – the immigrant who wrote “God Bless America”; the Jew who composed “White Christmas”; the cantor’s son who paid homage to his era’s popular music in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” He also wrote the lyrics and music to another twelve hundred or so other songs during a life that lasted over a century.
Berlin’s story is a classic tale of the American Dream, and Hershey Felder – who truly is, as his bio quotes, “in a category all his own” – may be the ideal person to tell that tale. Felder brings a triple threat of talent to this one-man bio-play: he is a fantastically accomplished pianist, a superb vocalist with a smooth and plummy baritone voice, and a persuasive performer who channels Berlin with a winning combination of sincerity and self-effacing humor. Along the way, Felder also busts out some credible imitations of some of the most recognizable voices in American music history, including Ethel Merman and Elvis Presley.
The show is essentially a first-person narrative that tracks Berlin’s rise from Lower East Side poverty to Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood success through a combination of talent, pluck, hard work, and preternatural business savvy. We learn, among other things, that Berlin was self-taught and never learned to read or write music; that he left home at the age of twelve to support himself after his father died; that he used the profits from writing songs for the Ziegfeld follies to purchase back the rights to all of his previous songs, a move that kept him solvent during the Great Depression; and that he composed “White Christmas” while homesick at a Beverly Hillls poolside. There are almost a hundred years of such anecdotes, and Felder has selected some of the juiciest and most poignant to share. Several moments of Berlin’s life – the death of his first wife and of his first child, for example – elicited audible gasps of dismay from the audience; others – like the anecdote about how he managed to convince his WWI Army commander to let him sleep in – prompted waves of laughter.
The narrative is punctuated throughout with songs from the Berlin repertoire, sung by Felder accompanying himself virtuosically at the piano; many of the songs are well-known, but Felder has also sprinkled some of Berlin’s lesser-known work into the mix. Having just helped teach a class on the history of American Musical Theater at CMU, I thought I knew a few things about Berlin, but there were surprise tidbits of information from his biography along the way even for the musical theater expert who came to see the show with me. Projections of old black and white photographs into a large picture frame on the wall of Berlin’s “apartment” help make the history he lived through feel specific and present, and as the show progresses Felder uses subtle changes in costuming, posture, and voice to signal Berlin’s aging.
At the beginning of the performance, the audience is “cast” as a group of carolers who come annually to sing at Berlin’s door and whom he invites in to hear his story. It’s a rather awkward premise that I didn’t fully buy, but it provides a rationale for invitations to the audience to sing along later in the performance to some of Berlin’s best known tunes, including “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” and “Always.” If one purpose of this love letter to Irving Berlin is to remind us of his oversized influence on American popular music, the fact that a contemporary audience needs little prompting or cueing to croon several of his tunes from memory is evidence of the point made. Moreover, it’s an endearing and moving testament to Berlin’s legacy that his songs – most of which were written more than half a century ago – can continue to bring a group of strangers together in communal harmony.