The personable Felder also makes the composer/lyricist both humble and endearing as we learn the facts of his life as both a public figure and a private one. While Berlin had 230 top ten hits and 25 number one songs, he also had some extreme lows as well as incredible highs in his fabulously long career. Since most of the songs have become so well known, Felder includes audience sing-alongs for numbers that have entered the American consciousness.
The show begins on Christmas eve, 1988, on Beekman Place, as the 100-year-old curmudgeonly Berlin sits in his wheelchair listening to carolers serenade him with his “White Christmas” and complaining that today people have no idea why these songs were written in the first place. Felder playing a younger Berlin invites the carolers up and addresses us as if we were they. One of his earliest songs, “Russian Lullaby” commemorates his birth in what his now Belarus, Russia. Emigrating to the Lower East Side of Manhattan after a pogrom wiped out the town, life was difficult for the Beilin family (his original name) and when his father died as he turned 13, he moved out and lived on his own. Becoming a singing waiter in Chinatown, he wrote “Marie from Sunny Italy,” his first published song, for the staff to sing.
Written to cash in on the new music craze, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” made the newly named Berlin the most famous songwriter in the world and proved he could write more than comedy numbers. Many of Berlin’s songs were inspired by events in his own life: “When I Lost You” commemorating the premature death of his first wife Dorothy; “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” his service in the American Army in W.W. I; “What’ll Do?” written on the death of his mother; “Always” dedicated to his second wife Ellin; and “My Little Feller” written for his son Irving Berlin, Jr.
We also learn about his Broadway shows: Yip Yap Yaphank written as the World War I Army show, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” tailored to producer Florenz Ziegfeld’s need to have a number to show off the expensive costumes he had ordered for The Ziegfeld Follies of 1919. Eventually he decides to go out on his own and builds the beautiful Music Box Theatre to showcase his own revues. This includes the topical satire, As Thousands Cheer, in which Ethel Waters became the first black performer to get top billing as well as a solo turn on Broadway when she sang “Supper Time,” written to bring to America’s attention the 24 lynchings that had taken place in 1933.
Berlin contributes to Hollywood films from The Jazz Singer on, but while the sound systems were primitive he did not like the flat sound – nor did the public. On his return to Hollywood at the beginning of the Depression when he has lost all his money, he is teamed up with Fred Astaire and his luck changes. Felder treats us to an Astaire Medley including “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “White Tie, Top Hat and Tails,” and “Cheek to Cheek.” World War II brings him back to Broadway with This is the Army written for 30 soldiers to perform all around the country and on the front lines.
The death of Jerome Kern offers him the score for Annie Get Your Gun and his first collaboration with Ethel Merman (“There’s No Business like Show Business.”) When business drops off on his serious show, Miss Liberty, he joins Merman again for the huge musical comedy hit Call Me Madam (“You’re Just in Love”). With the failure of his last Broadway show, Mr. President, inspired by the Kennedys, he finds that he is out of step with the times due to rock’n’roll and to the new singers like Elvis Presley. He becomes a recluse until he is rediscovered on his 100th birthday and the tributes roll in.
Although the opening is rather confusing with Felder as the younger Berlin in his heyday addressing his invisible 100-year-old self, he is always personable and always endearing as he recounts the sudden tragedies and equally sudden windfalls that beset him throughout Berlin’s storied career. Felder’s own book for this musical really does explain the genesis to almost of all of these songs and they are quite a story. While unaccountably Felder uses a different voice for his singing than the one he uses for his narration, his virtuoso piano accompaniment to most of the songs is always top drawer. A fine medley is performed a Cappella.
The set designed by Felder himself creates an intimate living room with Christmas tree, grand piano, fireplace, personal photographs and wheelchair, making for a cozy environment. The subtle lighting by Richard Norwood augments the mood changes in the story and the music. Brian McMullen’s appropriate projections (which often cover the entire back wall of the stage) depict all the people mentioned as well as Hollywood film clips. The sound design by Erik Carstensen includes original records of some of the musical stars referred to as well as Berlin himself singing “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” Director Trevor Hay’s staging is unobtrusive and moves Felder around the set interestingly.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is a superior entertainment with a score made up of classic songs. Call it a juke box musical if you wish, but it is also a biography of the man who was called by colleague and rival George Gershwin “the greatest songwriter who has ever lived.” Felder beautifully delineates the story behind the songs as he recounts Berlin’s remarkable life in chronological order. As once both the songs and the story would have been better known, the show also brings back the story of the man who was – and still is – “American music.”
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin (through October 28, 2018)
The Town Hall, with Eva Price, Samantha F. Voxakis, and Karen Racanelli
Theater A, 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59E59.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission