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Untold story of Irving Berlin's 50 years of work in theater is scholar's focus

Jeff Magee
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L. Brian Stauffer

Musicologist Jeff Magee will present a lecture-demonstration, titled “Now It Can Be Told: The Unknown Irving Berlin,” March 26 at 7 p.m. EDT at the LIbrary of Congress. Three singers and a pianist will join Magee in the presentation, which will be webcast on the Library of Congress site for a limited time following the live presentation.

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3/11/2009 | Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor | 217-333-5491;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Even if you’re too young to be able to match the songs of Irving Berlin with the composer, you likely can sing a few lines of “White Christmas” or hum the tune to “God Bless America.”

Ditto Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

“The thing about Berlin is … people know his name and the titles of half a dozen of his songs,” says University of Illinois musicologist Jeffrey Magee. “They’re so ingrained. They’re like folk songs; people don’t realize he did them. Berlin’s the kind of guy where you say, ‘Oh, he did that? And he did that, too? ”

Just about everyone is inclined to have encountered bits and pieces of Berlin’s legacy, whether they grew up listening to his music on a Victrola, got a taste of it watching Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire movies on TV, or performed it in a high school musical. It’s hard not to have been touched by his music, Magee said, considering that Berlin – one of the few well-known popular composers who wrote both lyrics and music – was turning out the tunes for almost seven decades.

In addition to Berlin’s music being so integral to American culture, much has been written about the life and storied career of the composer, who – like George and Ira Gershwin and several other of his song-writing contemporaries – was born to Russian Jewish immigrants.

Among that emerging, immigrant population, “there was a cultural focus on entertainment because entertainment media like films, stage and music were not entirely reputable enterprises,” Magee said. “So, there was easier access for anybody who was talented and connected.”

Berlin wrote his first song in 1907 and continued to write lyrics until his death at age 101 in 1989. Since 1925, Magee said, at least eight biographies have been published about the composer. None to date, however, has focused specifically and in depth on his half-century of work for the theater.

Magee, who chairs the U. of I. School of Music’s musicology division, is researching and writing that story, which Oxford University Press plans to publish in its Broadway Legacies book series in 2011. He is receiving support this year from his appointment as an associate in the university’s Center for Advanced Study.

Later this month, Magee will preview some of his research observations for an audience at the Library of Congress. The lecture-demonstration, titled “Now It Can Be Told: The Unknown Irving Berlin,” will be presented March 26 at 7 p.m. EDT at the library’s Coolidge Auditorium, in the Jefferson Building. The event is co-sponsored by the American Musicological Society and the library’s Music Division.

The lecture-demonstration is being promoted as “an effort to amplify patterns in Berlin’s stage and screen career.” Magee also plans to highlight connections between the composer’s most popular and his lesser-known work – songs, scripts, plot treatments and other “notable documents.”

The U. of I. professor has tapped some of this material – much it housed in collections at the Library of Congress – while researching his forthcoming book. Among the materials in the Berlin archives is a relatively new trove of information – the composer’s papers, donated to the library by his daughters in 1992.

Three singers and a pianist will join Magee in the presentation.

“What I have in mind for this is not a traditional lecture,” he said. “I really want to put on a show.”

Magee said his show – which will feature the vocal talent of undergraduate music majors Ashley Klingler and Robert McNeily, and Illinois voice instructor Dawn Harris, along with pianist and jazz studies doctoral candidate Chris White – will be webcast on the Library of Congress site for a limited time following the live presentation.

The title of the presentation refers to the Berlin song “Now It Can Be Told,” which Magee described as “one of his great movie songs.” It also was the only new song Berlin wrote for the 1938 film “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

“That was the first of the anthology, or cavalcade, musicals where he uses his past songs,” he said. In those productions, the story is woven together and told through the incorporation of older compositions. He said the film “White Christmas” is perhaps the most famous example of this type of vehicle; the song was originally written for an earlier film – “Holiday Inn.”

Berlin also is known for recycling particularly catchy musical phrases from previous original tunes, Magee said. For example, it’s easy to recognize a string of notes from the 1918 song “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” in the 1930s ballad “Change Partners,” sung by Astaire.

People also associate Berlin with his gift for constructing witty and memorable lyrical phrases.

“He had a really keen ear for American slang, American vernacular language,” Magee said. “And he was always trying to pick up the latest musical trend. In the teens, he’s identified with ragtime; in the ’20s, he’s identified with jazz; in the ’30s and ’40s, he’s writing basically swing tunes. By the time rock really takes off in the mid- to late-’50s, he’s almost 70 and the music scene has passed him by.”

That period of time also was characterized by “a real paradigm shift in popular music,” Magee said. “His whole career is in the Tin Pan Alley era when you write a song, you publish a song, and other people – Frank Sinatra, Crosby, Ethel Merman, Astaire, Al Jolson – interpret the song. He was used to that system.

“Then rock comes along and the songwriter is the performer. And the definitive form is not a piece of sheet music, it’s the record,” he said. “It’s not so much that he couldn’t have absorbed rock. It’s the whole paradigm shift that rock brought” that pushed Berlin to the sidelines.

Among the nuggets of not-so-well known facts about Berlin that Magee has mined while researching his book is the composer’s compulsion for writing film scenario.

“Once sound film came along, he was not just interested in placing a song in the films, he was interested in coming up with the plots and characters,” as well as casting ideas.

“He liked to cook up the story, then he knew he had to leave it to professionals who would actually write the script dialogue,” Magee said.

“He wrote many of these scenarios – many of which ended up being movies. Many were never heard from again.”

Left for eternity in the might-have-been bin was one fairly well-developed piece called “Sentimental Guy.” Magee said the story – revived in Stephen Sondheim’s recent musical “Road Show” – “was based on the lives of the Mizner brothers, a real-life pair of siblings – one an architect involved in 1920s-era land speculation in Florida, the other “a sometime-writer/sometime-actor/playboy-about-town.” Berlin wrote several songs for the orginal show, along with a complete script through Act 1.

Among the most notable films that did make it to the screen were “Holiday Inn” and “White Christmas.” The former, Magee said, was originally envisioned as a stage revue.

With successes in every genre he had a hand in – whether composing in the Tin Pan Alley tradition or on Broadway or in Hollywood – Berlin remains the consummate American original 20 years after his death. And few could hope to rival his claim to the title Magee bestows upon him as “one of the most powerful forces in 20th-century American music and theater.”

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