BOSTON — More people today seem to be turning the pages of the "American songbook" - those Broadway and nightclub tunes of the 1930s to 1950s that once represented American popular culture - and humming along.
Maybe the millennium is sending us looking for what's of value in the past. Maybe baby boomers are bored with "oldies" rock and turned off by hip-hop and rap. That old smoothie Tony Bennett seems more popular than ever. Frank Sinatra's legend only grows. And people are heading to the intimate setting of live cabaret shows to hear songs that speak to their hearts.
Now perhaps the greatest contributor to that American songbook is back on Broadway as his "Annie Get Your Gun" is revived yet again (see our story, Page 20). The show, which opened in 1946 starring Ethel Merman as Annie, ran until 1949, with 1,147 packed performances. It went on the road in 1947 starring Mary Martin, and a movie version appeared in 1950. Thus were "There's No Business Like Show Business," "I Got the Sun in the Morning," and the incomparable love song "They Say It's Wonderful" spread abroad.
Berlin's life and times are captured beautifully in a new book coming out next month, "Irving Berlin: American Troubadour," by Edward Jablonski (Henry Holt & Co.). Mr. Jablonski tells how Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers had long wanted to stage a musical version of the story of Annie Oakley, but were too busy to write a score themselves.
Berlin was reluctant to step in. "I can't do hillbilly lyrics," he told wordsmith Hammerstein, who replied, "Don't be silly, Irving. All you have to do is drop the final g from most of the verbs." (Hammerstein, Jablonski notes, was known for writing dialect songs, a "master of a special language dubbed Apostrophe." After taking his advice, Berlin cooked up a little number called "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly.")
It was Jerome Kern, Jablonski says, who saw Berlin's songs as epitomizing America. "Both the typical Yankee and a Berlin tune had humor, originality, pace, and popularity," Kern once told an audience in London. "Both were wide-awake, and both sometimes a little loud - but what might unsympathetically be mistaken for brass was really gold."
Berlin was more modest about himself. In a wistful lyric, he wrote about selling a song: "Heard by the critic without any heart - / one of those fellows that pick it apart,/ Cares for the finish, but don't like the start -/ Makes many worthless suggestions;
Sold to the public - that is, if they buy -/ Sometimes they do, and the royalty's high/ - Most times the statement brings tears to your eye -/ Take it without any questions."
Berlin brought tears, all right - and smiles - to generations of audiences. Welcome back to Broadway, Irving.
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