Before Hershey Felder speaks or sings or plays the piano as Irving Berlin, there are signs that, in this one-man show about arguably the greatest of American songwriters, we’re in for an evening of schmaltz. The set at 59e59 Theater features a Christmas tree, next to an empty wheelchair, and some very fat snow flakes falling outside two fake windows.
But, as it turns out, schmaltz is delicious, when ladled out by Felder, an accomplished pianist, a competent singer, and even a delightful mimic. “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,” which Felder has been taking around the country for at least four years, is a polished, old-fashioned entertainment by a man who has made a career out of creating solo shows about great musical figures (including Beethoven, Chopin, Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.)
What made Berlin great, which becomes clear in spending two hours learning about his life and listening to his music, is not just the enduring popularity of his songs, although it is certainly that. (See the song list of the show below.) To quantify his achievements – thousands of songs, 18 Broadway shows, 16 feature films, 232 top-10 hits – doesn’t really communicate how remarkable they are. This is the man who wrote songs that people assume always existed – like “God Bless America,” “White Christmas” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” his first hit, which he wrote in 1911. With that one song, as Felder puts it in the show, “little Izzy Beilin from Tolichin, Mogilove, Belarus, at the age of 23 years old, was the most famous songwriter in the whole world.”
But Berlin changed American culture as much as he influenced American music.
Let’s take that word schmaltz. Its origin of course is Jewish – it means both exaggerated sentimentality and chicken fat. But Berlin made it as American as apple pie…and changed apple pie in the process. In the novel Operation Shylock, Philip Roth riffs mischievously on two Berlin hits, Easter Parade and White Christmas: “The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ—the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity—and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow. Gone is the gore and the murder of Christ—down with the crucifix and up with the bonnet!”
Felder doesn’t go into any of this explicitly; far from it. On the surface, this is just a good-humored, often sentimental show, one in which we are on several occasions actively encouraged to sing along. But, given the rich story of Irving Berlin, it’s not hard for the audience to come up with the subtext on our own.
As the show begins, it is Christmas Eve, 1988, Irving Berlin is 100 years old, and living for years as a recluse in his mansion on the East Side. We the audience are the annual Christmas carolers who sing his songs outside his window. For the first time, he’s invited us into his home, and begins to chat about his life.
He tells us how he was an impoverished Jewish immigrant to the Lower East Side (“We had roaches the size of small rats. We had rats the size of small dogs.”)
who dropped out of school in sixth grade and left home at 13, when his father died. He became a busker on the street and then a singing waiter in a restaurant in Chinatown.
Once he became famous, it was one hit after another. According to Felder, many of them were inspired by what was going on in Berlin’s life. Five months after he married a woman named Dorothy, she died of typhoid. Blocked for a time, he finally produced a song in her memory, When I Lost You. Intended as a personal song, it became a huge hit.
Felder: “So, after some 130 published comedy numbers, full of shtick, chutzpah and dance-like routines, Dorothy gave me a gift that would last me the entire rest of my life. Dorothy taught me how to write a song.”
Berlin’s second wife, Ellin Mackay, was the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the nation. They stayed married for 62 years.
Felder brings us through many highlights of Berlin’s career, aided by projections of still photographs and movie excerpts. We see film clips of Fred Astaire performing what amounts to a medley of the songs Berlin wrote for him. He tells us how he came to write the score for “Annie Get Your Gun,” which was produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Jerome Kern had been hired to write it, but he died suddenly, and Berlin was persuaded to write the hit show for Ethel Merman. “Writing for Ethel Merman was not like writing for a human being… it was like writing for a steamship foghorn – and it was the most exciting thing in the world.” And then, in a highlight of the show, Felder/Berlin demonstrates, with a human foghorn rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Too much of Felder’s show presents Berlin after his career effectively ended, with the advent of rock and roll. Felder shows Berlin comically resentful of “that boy with the hair and the voice and the hips” – and we see him make a sour face as we hear Elvis’s version of White Christmas.
The feeling is apparently mutual. In 2015, Rolling Stone Magazine put out a list of “the 100 greatest songwriters of all time,” and Irving Berlin wasn’t even included (nor was George Gershwin, or Duke Ellington or Cole Porter or, well, Mozart – though non-rockers Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and Burt Bacharach were.) For all its sentiment, “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” might surprise even the most resolute rock fan into realizing that there was good music before 1957 – and we’re still humming it.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Book and performance by Hershey Felder
Directed by Trevor Hay
Scenic design by Felder and Hay, lighting design
by Richard Norwood, projection design by
Christopher Ash and Lawrence Siefert, sound
design/production management by
Running time: 2 hours with no intermission.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is on stage through October 28, 2018
Marie from Sunny Italy
Alexander’s Ragtime Band
My Wife’s Gone To the Country (Hurrah)
When I Lost You
Oh! How I Hate To Get Up In the Morning
A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody
What’ll I Do?
My Little Feller
Puttin’ On the Ritz
Fred Astaire Medley (Puttin’ On the Ritz, White Tie Top Hat and Tails, Cheek To Cheek)
God Bless America
There’s No Business Like Show Business
Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor (Words by Emma Lazarus, From Miss Liberty)
A Cappella Medley: I Love A Piano, Steppin’ Out With My Baby, Happy Holiday, Easter Parade,
How Deep Is The Ocean? We’re A Coupla Swells, I Got The Sun In The Mornin’ and The Moon At Night, You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun, Let’s Face The Music And Dance, Doin’ What Comes Nat’rally, Let Me Sing A Funny Song, etc.
This Is a Great Country
Count Your Blessings