How We Created Always: the Love Story of Irving Berlin
In the summer of 2002, KT and I were on our way to Australia to perform in the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. We had already created shows about the Gershwins and Richard Rodgers and we decided that the next master of the Great American Songbook to tackle was Irving Berlin. But how do you choose which numbers to do? Berlin wrote over 1200 songs and one is better than the next. We decided that we would focus on his love of and marriage to Ellin Mackay and the only songs that we would use would be those that fit into that story, like a book musical. For the first time in our working relationship, we chose the songs to fit the plot.
So, on the long plane ride to Australia, KT read several biographies of Berlin and I read Bob Kimball and Linda Emmet's The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin. One of the few good things about the endless plane ride to Australia is that there's time to read the complete lyrics of Irving Berlin. This is a thirty pound book, and I have to admit, in June of 2002, terrorists hijacking airplanes was on my mind. My thought was, "If this plane is attacked, I could bean the guy with this book." I imagined the front-page headline in The New York Post: GOD BLESS AMERICA! TERRORIST FELLED BY COMPLETE LYRICS OF IRVING BERLIN! But I digress.
In reading these lyrics, I came across several songs that neither KT nor I had ever heard -- songs that we absolutely had to do. "With A Family Reputation" told Ellin's story as if it had been written about her. It was written the year they met. Did he actually write it with her in mind? I believe that Mr. Berlin would assert that he did not.
"Lunching At The Automat", having fun with all those well known, blueblood names -- the social set of Ellin's father, Clarence Mackay -- was such a droll way to deal with the Great Depression. "A Little Old Church In England", "The Waltz of Old Vienna" and "Oh, To Be Home Again", on the other hand, seemed to distill the World War II experience into simple human terms that moved us deeply. "Well, Of All The Rotten Shows" seemed to perfectly express the critical reaction to Berlin's biggest theatrical disappointment, Mr. President.
When I read "I'm A Dumbbell", I didn't care how we fit it into the Berlins' story, I knew KT had to do it!! It takes a very smart woman to play a dumb blonde and no one does it better than KT. I have to add here, that my nine-year-old nieces and nephew (they are triplets) have adored that song since they first heard it when they were six -- in fact, it's the first song that they downloaded to their iPod. If Irving Berlin is watching from on high, he should have no fear that his songs are fading into obscurity.
As for "Me And My Piano", this song spoke to me on a completely visceral level. It immediately became my favorite. But there was a problem; Mr. Berlin never intended this lyric to be published. It was just a lyric sheet with no music. We were allowed to use the song as long as we promised to always put in the program that this song was not intended for publication. Berlin changed "Me And My Piano" to "Me And My Melinda", and set the new lyric to music, so that's the music I used. "Me And My Melinda" is an okay song, but it doesn't get me where I live, as "Me And My Piano" does.
But why didn't Irving Berlin want to publish "Me And My Piano"? I have a theory:
"Me And My Piano" was written in February, 1942, only two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The songs that Berlin was writing and publishing at this time had titles like "I Paid My Income Tax Today" and lyrics such as, "There's a job to be done, There's a war to be won." He was clearly very concerned about the state of the world and America's involvement in the war. I imagine him in the room where he composed, worrying about Hitler's mounting successes and how it would affect not only his family, but everyone and everything he knew and loved. I see him trying to concentrate on his work with these heavy concerns weighing on his mind. Yet, in the solitary hours after midnight, the time when he usually wrote, he could have a heart-to-heart with his piano. Only a pianist knows the solace this can bring. To my mind, "Me And My Piano" is undeniably intimate and perhaps, to Berlin in 1942, this felt self-indulgent. A soldier can relate to "Me And My Melinda", but who could possibly be touched by something as personal as "Me And My Piano"?
Berlin prided himself in not writing autobiographical songs. Yet, all great artists can't help but pour their lives into their work, whether they intend to or not. Each of these songs has the spark of Berlin's soul. Maybe that's why listening to them is like having a personal chat with a close friend. Performing one is like being that friend, so wise and clever, a pal to everyone from my brother's six-year-old kids to my grandparents. That's why these songs are not for just a day, not for just a year…
In the words of Jerome Kern, when asked about the relationship of Irving Berlin to American music: "Irving Berlin is American Music." One could also say that his story is America's story.
My parents were married on March 7th, 1947. Their song is "Always", the song that Irving gave to Ellin as a wedding present in 1926. James Sullivan and Elizabeth Fowler wed at sixteen in Oklahoma City and honeymooned in Galveston, Texas. Ellin Mackay's father took his daughter on an extended tour of Europe, hoping that she'd forget Irving Berlin. My grandmother took my mother on a trip to California, hoping she'd forget Jimmy Sullivan. I'm happy to say that neither trip produced the desired amnesia.
In 1996 my father had an emergency by-pass surgery in Houston. On their way to Houston, Mom and Dad took a sentimental journey through Galveston. As they were leaving the city, the radio started playing "Always".
Mark's paternal grandfather, Joseph Rachnudel, entered the U.S. from Poland at Galveston in 1912, (just after the publication of "Alexander's Ragtime Band"). Irving Berlin began as Izzy Baline. Just as Baline eventually became Berlin, Rachnudel thankfully became Nadler. Joseph Nadler died when Mark's father, Izzy, was thirteen, just as the Baline patriarch died when his Izzy was thirteen.
The two Izzys both had paper routes; Baline's on New York's Lower East Side and Nadler's in Sioux City, Iowa. Izzy Nadler eventually fell in love with and married Renate Rothschild.
In 1938 Irving Berlin wrote the verse to "God Bless America", which begins "While the storms clouds gather…" on the plane back to the U.S. after visiting Europe. Less than a year later, the ten-year-old Renate Rothschild and her family fled Nazi Germany. A year after that, she first saw the Statue of Liberty, which had welcomed the young Israel Baline a half century earlier.
Together Izzy and Renate Nadler had five children; their first being a girl and their second, a boy who died in infancy. Irving and Ellin also had a daughter first and their second child was also a boy who died in infancy.
But it is not just our families that have so much in common with the Berlins. Everyone seems to identify with their story in some way. People come up to us after every performance with tears in their eyes. Even in London, where we were a little trepidatious about singing "God Bless America" in the 21st century, we heard sniffling in the audience. After the show, an English woman explained: "Irving Berlin had the right to sing it."