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U. of I. scholar's new book focuses on American music master Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin
Photo is courtesy of Rodgers & Hammerstein, on behalf of the estate of Irving Berlin.

Irving Berlin appeared onstage with the Eight Little Notes in a show called “Music Box Review.”

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9/7/2012 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts and Humanities Editor | 217-333-0568;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Jeffrey Magee, a music and theater professor at the University of Illinois, will talk about his latest book, “Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater,” at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca in New York City on Thursday (Sept. 13). The book draws on materials Berlin’s daughters donated to the Library of Congress, and reveals the theatrical context of many of Berlin’s most popular songs.

Jeffrey Magee
Jeffrey Magee | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

“He was a publishing powerhouse,” Magee said, “and still there are entire shows that have never been published. He would excerpt and publish certain numbers in the form of pop songs, but it turns out that some of those songs were just little diamonds, jewels in the crown of much longer musical sequences that never saw the light of day outside the theater after the show closed.”

Berlin’s eldest daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, plans to attend Magee’s talk at the Y.

Berlin was legendarily prolific, with more than 1,000 tunes to his credit, including “Always,” “Blue Skies,” “God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Magee, the interim director of the U. of I. School of Music, became fascinated with Berlin after spending more than a year editing Charles Hamm’s three-volume project, “Irving Berlin: Early Songs.”

“I went through every song – every measure, every syllable, every punctuation mark,” Magee said, “and his words and music just got under my skin.”

In his book, Magee traces the creation of Berlin’s theatrical numbers, typically written to fulfill the specifications of the plot, yet often with broader appeal. “His gift was to write songs that would fit particular characters in particular situations, but that would also be eminently extractable and capable of having independent lives of their own, outside of any stage or film context,” Magee said.

After editing Hamm’s project and writing his own book, Magee said he still enjoys Berlin’s music enough to play it on the piano and share it with his students, pointing out “what I think is great about the writing.”

Magee’s talk begins at 3 p.m. at the 92YTribeca, 200 Hudson St., in New York City.

Admission prices start at $21. For more information, visit

Editor's note: To contact Jeffrey Magee, email

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