Associate 2008-09

Jeffrey S Magee



For his songs and shows, his influential roles in the entertainment industry, and his ability to distill and define the musical, social, and political spirit of his times, Irving Berlin stands as one of the most powerful forces in twentieth-century American music and theater. Professor Magee is writing a book about Berlin’s work for the stage. During his Center appointment, he will complete three remaining chapters and finalize the manuscript for publication.

Chapter 1 will survey Berlin’s various biographies and analyze the ways his story has been told by successive generations of biographers. It also defines Berlin’s approach to entertainment, informed by his immigrant experiences in the uniquely dense and diverse population of Manhattan’s Lower East Side around the turn of the century. Those experiences taught him to see songs and musicals not just as light diversion but as forms of survival and exhibitions of citizenship in his adopted country.

Chapter 2 will present an overview of the two fundamental elements of Berlin’s craft: writing songs and creating shows. Professor Magee will argue that Berlin’s songwriting style must be understood together with a conception of musical theater that, although ostensibly disdaining “integration,” reflects a deep concern with how words and music work together with other theatrical elements–a concern that dates from his earliest stage efforts.

Chapter 8 deals with Berlin’s final stage shows, Call Me Madam (1950) and Mr. President (1962). These collaborations with playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse both feature a likeable, well-meaning Everyman (or Everywoman) protagonist thrust into the center of politics and into situations that test the durability of personal relationships. Striving to do the right thing, the protagonists are forced to confront their strengths and limitations.

The book has been accepted for publication by the Yale Broadway Masters series, Yale University Press