The Very Best Of Irving Berlin

Prolific Tunesmith's Work Is Celebrated At Cabaret Staged By Everyman Troupe

December 24, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

This is the most Irving Berlin-est time of the year, what with "White Christmas" being heard, in one form or another, a zillion times. But it's really always Berlin time, since the songwriter, who died in 1989 at the age of 101, was such a prodigious creator of treasurable hits.

A sampling of that legacy will be celebrated in "A Concert Tribute to Irving Berlin" opening Friday at the Everyman Theatre. This is the third in the theater's series of cabaret shows over the past few years guided by music director Howard Breitbart.

"Berlin wrote these great melodies and wrote these great lyrics, and yet he couldn't play the piano," Breitbart says.

The Russian-emigre songwriter, born Israel Baline, did develop an ability to pluck out tunes on the black notes of a keyboard and used a specially configured piano that allowed him to compose in different keys using only those few notes.

Despite that apparent limitation, Berlin proved to be exceptionally creative. His songs often ignore the conventional 16-bar format of Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths and develop in their own distinctive ways.

"Berlin was one of the great innovators of popular music," says Breitbart. "He was slightly ahead of the curve, writing about emotions in his songs before everyone did."

An early example is "When I Lost You," composed in 1912, after his wife of just a few months died ("I lost the angel who gave me summer the whole winter through ... when I lost you").

"I think that's when he put himself into the music more," Breitbart says. "He also reflected so much of what was happening around him."

Berlin scored his first great success in ragtime, with "Alexander's Ragtime Band." He went on to spice up the emerging musical theater genre on Broadway and then Hollywood musicals.

Asked to assess Berlin's stature in American music, Jerome Kern had a famous reply: "Irving Berlin has no place in American music; he is American music."

Kern went on to describe how his fellow songwriter "honestly absorbs vibrations emanating from the American people, manners and life of his time, and, in turn, gives these impressions back to the world - simplified, clarified, glorified."

That sort of intense appreciation is behind the cabaret show that Breitbart and director Matthew Gardiner are fashioning for Everyman Theatre.

"One of the things I want to show our audience is that Berlin's music is not going to be forgotten," Breitbart says.

Not that people couldn't use a reminder now and then, especially those on the younger end of the scale. Breitbart, longtime pianist for the popular political satire troupe The Capitol Steps, discovered that when he asked a 20-something roadie to name 10 Berlin songs. "He couldn't," Breitbart says.

The cast for "A Concert Tribute to Irving Berlin" - Sherri L. Edelen, James Gardiner, Matthew Pearson, Bayla Whitten - is "pretty young," the music director says, but has had no trouble getting into the Berlin legacy and spirit.

"I want the singers to give each song a certain emotion or context, to really think about it and bring something personal to it," Breitbart says. "They have done a wonderful job of finding that emotion in each song, finding a way to make the song fresh."

The only trouble with building the cabaret show has been choosing the music.

"It was really tough," Breitbart says. "I think the first list of possible songs had 75 on it. Right now, we have 24 out of Berlin's 1,200 songs."

Breitbart is particularly fond of such ballads as the well-known "How Deep is the Ocean" and the less frequently encountered gems "Fools Fall in Love" (from the 1940 show "Louisiana Purchase") and "For the Very First Time" (from the 1953 film version of the musical "Call Me Madam").

"But there are only so many ballads you can include before a show turns maudlin," he says. "We're trying to find the right balance, taking a little bit from everything - his movie songs, theater songs, novelty songs and ragtime. This isn't a biographical show. I just want to give people the very best of Irving Berlin."

If you go

"A Concert Tribute to Irving Berlin" runs Friday through Jan. 3 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Tickets are $30. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.

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