- Historic Sites
A singer’s journey through the life of Irving Berlin
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
All the treasured details that I couldn’t fit into the show ran through my mind as I deliberately spent the daylight hours of my month-long engagement in solitude. I visualized him working all night in his study, pacing, worrying, suffering from indigestion, insomnia, and self-doubt. I thought of the drowning boy who held on tight to his handful of pennies and grew up into a man who made, lost, and gave away millions. I memorized the text of his 1933 letter to Cole Porter: “Dear Cole: I am mad about NIGHT AND DAY , and I think it is your high spot. You probably know it is being played all over, and all the orchestra leaders think it is the best tune of the year—and I agree with them. Really, Cole, it is great and I could not resist the temptation of writing you about it.” I pictured him in Hollywood, haggling over contracts and playing cards with Fred Astaire. I savored his daughter’s description of him at her parties, listening intently to the latest hit songs and plying her friends with questions about their music. I was touched by the willingness of an anxious and insecure man to recognize and praise the young songwriters he thought talented when their careers waxed as his waned: Frank Loesser, Lerner and Loewe, Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein. I was saddened by his description to Kimball at the end of his career: “It was as if I owned a store and people no longer wanted to buy what I had to sell.”
I sang to relaxed, happy audiences songs he hammered out in isolation, in dogged determination, and even in despair: “Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Love and the Weather,” “Heat Wave,” “How Deep Is the Ocean.” The holiday-songs medley was especially rewarding. I loved hearing audiences chime in on “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas.” I recounted briefly the storm of criticism generated by “God Bless America” in 1938 and then sang just the last half of it quietly and reflectively, often seeing and hearing people cry, sometimes having to fight back tears myself when I thought of why he had written it, all he had gone through over it, and how much (and how unfairly) I had once despised it. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “This Year’s Kisses,” “I’d Rather, Lead a Band,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” And finally, “The Song Is Ended.”
The more I talked about him and thought about him, the more moved I was.
The more I talked about him and thought about him, the more moved I was by his life and his spirit of survival. I forgave him everything. I was grateful for his very existence. I understand why people close to him are so defensive about the paranoia and negativity of his last years. I am that way myself now. It’s important to remember him for the eighty years he gave away everything rather than for the twenty years when, depressed and disabled, he couldn’t find it in himself to give any more. The old man, sensing himself sinking into infirmity and oblivion, clutched the songs that were the fruit of a lifetime of unrelenting labor as tightly as that drowning child clutched the pennies that were his day’s earnings. He was a remarkable man, a great man, and his is a great story.
The engagement ended, and I had to turn my attention to other projects, but Irving Berlin remains a strong presence in my life. I am always glad to revive my show about him in other cities and tell new audiences what it took me so long to discover: what a gifted and special human being this tough, determined man was.
Barrett writes that her father “was convinced that he would be forgotten, that it was a laugh to think people would sing his songs in the next century.” But as we inch toward the millennium, his songs still accompany our daily lives, piped into supermarkets and elevators and dentists’ offices, creating the mood for romantic scenes in new movies, recorded not just by singers of standards—but by rock and country and opera singers too. Recent television ads have pitched children’s clothing to the strains of “Easter Parade,” a hay fever remedy to “Blue Skies,” a car to “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” A New York revival of his 1933 revue As Thousands Cheer had a sold-out run this past spring.