He may have been born in a Czarist Russia shtetl, but all-American red-white-and-blue coursed through the veins of Irving Berlin.
He’s generally considered to be one of the greatest songwriters in American history. As composer Jerome Kern put it, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.”
Now, Hershey Felder, Montreal-born pianist, actor, playwright, composer, producer and director, is bringing Berlin to life in a special holiday presentation of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” at the La Jolla Playhouse (December 16-January 3).
“I wouldn’t have chosen him,” confesses Felder, who has brought numerous composers and their music to the stage (Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Bernstein).
“I was a little uncomfortable with it,” says Felder admits, “because he wasn’t from the classical tradition. But once I really delved into his story, I realized that he was America’s Mozart.”
From Poverty to Celebrity
Berlin, who was born Israel Isidore Baline in 1888, moved with his family to New York at age 5. He remembered little of his early years, except the Cossacks banging down the door, and watching his house burn to the ground.
His Yiddish-speaking father, who had been a cantor in the Old Country, couldn’t find comparable employment in the New World, and worked in a kosher meat market, offering Hebrew lessons on the side. Young Izzy quit school at age 8 to help contribute to the family coffers, selling newspapers in the Bowery. By age 14, realizing that his financial assistance was virtually worthless, he left his family and joined the many other homeless young boys in the Lower East Side.
He soon realized his early life’s dream, becoming a singing waiter, making up songs or creating ‘blue’ riffs on popular ballads. After the bar closed for the night, he would stay late, teaching himself to play the piano. By age 18, he’d sold his first song – for 37 cents.
“He had a natural talent,” says Felder. “I don’t know anyone in America that had that kind of inborn talent. My show explores where that came from.
“What is education, anyway?,” Felder says, addressing Berlin’s lack of schooling or musical instruction. “It’s an open mind and a brain and the ability to read and assess. That, he had in spades. He was a voracious reader, and with that skill, you can learn anything. If he had had formal training, it might have affected his natural gift. He had no solid musical education, but he had a perfect ear.”
Berlin reportedly composed only in one key – F sharp, because he could play only the black notes. He had two special pianos made for him, to transpose into a different key.
“He played white keys, too,” says Felder. “The key of F sharp still has white keys. And he would tell his musical secretaries the specific harmonies he wanted. He was very particular. In other words, he was a real composer, not just a tunesmith. He was really a genius..”
For this show, as with many others, Felder started his research with the music, going through some 1000 songs; Berlin wrote 1500.
“Of course, we chose the great songs, like ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘God Bless America.’ But we didn’t want to make this a jukebox musical. The songs are used in a completely natural way, and I deliberately included songs nobody knows. There were even a couple of failures I dug out of the archives.
“Some songs really surprised me,” Felder continues. “Like ‘Supper Time,’ which was written in 1933 for the musical revue, ‘As Thousands Cheer,’ where it was introduced by Ethel Waters. Those harmonies had never been done before. And the content! It was about a lynching in the South, and why the woman’s husband wasn’t going to be coming home for supper. Berlin was out there on a lot of levels.”
Felder as Berlin
Felder’s new play is set on Christmas Eve, 1988. Berlin was 100 at the time (he died in 1989, at age 101).
“Every Christmas Eve, for 26 years,” Felder explains, “a group of carolers had gathered outside Berlin’s window. This time, he invited them in. The audience serves as the carolers.”
The genius of the man was one of the surprises Berlin encountered in his research. The other was “finding out what he did for his country.”
Berlin’s aim in his songwriting was to write in the American English vernacular.
“My ambition,” he said, “is to reach the heart of the average American, not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country.”
His big breakout hit, a worldwide sensation, was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911). He also brought his own life experiences into his work, writing “When I Lost You” in 1912, after his first wife died six months after their marriage, from typhoid fever contracted on their honeymoon in Havana. It was his first ballad, and it sold more than a million copies.
Thirteen years later, when he met his second wife, heiress Ellin Mackay, to whom he remained married for 63 years, he wrote the timeless “Always,” which was a number one hit multiple times, recorded by pop, R&B and country artists.
By age 30, Berlin had written hundreds of songs, churning out a few new ones every week. In 1917, he was drafted into the Army to serve in World War I. While stationed at Camp Upton on Long Island, he wrote a military musical and many patriotic songs, including “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”
Among his many honors were the Army’s Medal of Merit (from President Truman), in appreciation for writing the music and lyrics to “This is the Army,” and a special Congressional Gold Medal (from President Eisenhower) for “God Bless America.” President Gerald Ford presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1986 (in absentia), he was awarded a Medal of Liberty during the centennial celebrations for the Statue of Liberty.
During his 60 year career, he wrote the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films, with his songs nominated for Academy Awards on eight occasions. He won a Special Tony Award for his contributions to the American musical, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Although he came from an Orthodox family, Berlin became non-observant after his marriage, but he remained devoted to Judaism all his life, continuing to speak Yiddish and be a staunch advocate of civil rights. He was honored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for helping to advance its aims of “eliminating religious and racial conflict.” And the YMHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association) cited him as one of the 12 “most outstanding Americans of Jewish faith.”
In preparing for his latest play, which premiered last November and has been seen in some six or seven cities since, Hershey Felder became friends with the three daughters of Irving Berlin: Mary Ellin, now 90; Linda, 83 and Elizabeth, 79.
“They’re all still bouncing around,” Felder says, with an admiring chuckle. “They’ve got Energy! They’ve all seen the show, and they all said very nice things about it. They told me they felt like their father was up there, and what greater compliment is there than that?”
After Berlin’s death in 1989, The New York Times wrote that “Irving Berlin set the tone and the tempo for the tunes America played and sang and danced to for much of the 20th century…. His life became the “classic rags-to-riches story that he never forgot could have happened only in America.”
Or, as composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) put it, “Irving Berlin has had a greater influence upon American music than any other one man. It was Irving Berlin who was the very first to have created a real, inherent American music… I frankly believe that Irving Berlin is the greatest songwriter that has ever lived.”
Felder’s new play is firmly established, though he always feels that he could make adjustments. Still, he quips, “The public and press are happy, so who am I to complain?”
Indeed, the Los Angeles Times review noted that “the empathy, showmanship and craft on tap may just be the best match of historical figure and performing artist yet in this franchise.”
Return to San Diego
Felder is happy to revisit one of his many ‘theater homes,’ San Diego. He’s performed several times at The Old Globe, and presented the play he adapted and directed, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, twice. This is his first time at the La Jolla Playhouse.
“I always wanted to work at the Playhouse,” says the globetrotting Felder, who’s married to Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada; with multiple residences in the U.S. and abroad, they recently sold their Pt. Loma home and bought a house in La Jolla.
“I like the risky, inventive work the Playhouse does. It will be great to be back in San Diego. It’s such a good theater town, where people really like going to the theater.”
Meanwhile, he’s already at work on his next piece, in which he’ll inhabit the tortured Russian composer, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
“This is the last one,” he promises. “Enough with the crazy composers!”
But for now, he’s intensely focused on that quintessential American, Irving Berlin, of whom poet Carl Sandburg said, “he caught and immortalized in his songs what we say, what we think about, and what we believe.”
“HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN” runs at the La Jolla Playhouse from December 16-January 3.
Tickets and information: 858-550-1010; www.lajollaplayhouse.org
Published in The San Diego Jewish Journal
©2015 PAT LAUNER, San Diego Theater Reviews