The classic Irving Berlin Musical “Annie Get Your Gun” will be playing at The Gary-The Olivia Theater in Bethlehem, CT on the grounds of The Abbey of Regina Laudis from August 1-17 this summer. This wonderful expression of “The American Musical” has caused me to reflect on its dynamic composer and lyricist-Irving Berlin.
What was Irving Berlin’s place in American music? According to the noted composer Jerome Kern, “Irving Berlin had no place in American music — he is American music. Emotionally, he honestly absorbs the vibrations emanating from the people, manners and life of his time and, in turn, gives these impressions back to the world — simplified, clarified and glorified.”
By the time he died in his sleep at the age of 101 on September 22, 1989, in New York City, the Russian immigrant wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, including such standards as “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Always,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Blue Skies,” “Easter Parade,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” He also scored dozens of musicals and films, and was nominated for nine Academy Awards, with seven nods in the song category, winning in 1943 for “White Christmas.”
George Gershwin described Berlin’s songs as “exquisite cameos of perfection, and each one of them is as beautiful as its neighbor. Irving Berlin remains, I think, America’s Schubert. But apart from his genuine talent for song-writing, 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…. Irving Berlin was the first to free the American song from a certain sentimentality which had previously characterized it, and by introducing and perfecting ragtime he had actually given us the first germ of an American musical idiom; he had sowed the first seeds of an American music.”
The man who became an American institution was born Israel Baline in the Russian village of Tyumen. When he was a child, his family fled the persecution of the Jewish community in the region, and settled in New York. They lived n Cherry Street, in a cold-water basement flat with no windows, on the Lower East Side. His father struggled to support the family by working at a Kosher meat market and giving Hebrew lessons on the side. He died when Irving was thirteen years old, forcing the young teen to help support his family by hawking newspapers such as The Evening Journal.
The young, self-taught pianist also worked as a street singer, and then as a singing waiter in Chinatown. His first published song was “Marie from Sunny Italy” in 1907. Baline’s name was misspelled as “I. Berlin” on the sheet music, and he decided to keep the name, becoming Irving Berlin. The legend began.
Soon after Berlin became a lyricist for the music publishing company Waterson & Snyder. His first major hit was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” in 1911, capitalizing on the ragtime craze, and he never looked back.
Berlin’s best known movies were “Putting on the Ritz,” “Easter Parade,” three Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films including “Top Hat.” He also wrote the music and score for “Holiday Inn,” with Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.” Berlin tapped into patriotic fervor in 1938, with Kate Smith singing his unofficial national anthem, “God Bless America.”
After the war, Berlin penned the 1946 smash hit musical, “Annie Get Your Gun,” inspired by the life of Annie Oakley. Starring Ethel Merman, it showcase several classic songs, including “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” “I Got Sun in the Morning,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
The scope of Irving Berlin’s songbook is staggering. He essentially wrote much of the soundtrack to America’s twentieth century — an immigrant who embraced and continues to profoundly enrich his adopted country with his timeless music.
Show times for Annie Get Your Gun are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and and Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm. Regular admission is $25. Opening night Gala performance including a wine and cheese reception during intermission featuring wines from Walker Road Vineyards and cheeses from Artisan Made-Northeast is $30 pp. Tickets at www.thegarytheolivia.com or at the box office 1 hr before show time.
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