By Albert Evans, Artistic Associate
In 1949, Irving Berlin added a new song to his soon-to-open Broadway musical, Miss Liberty, a fictional account of the sculpting of the Statue of Liberty.
Instead of writing his own lyric, Berlin borrowed lines from “The New Colossus,” a sonnet by Emma Lazarus engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted on the statue’s pedestal.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
These words held a special meaning for Berlin. In 1893, when he was five years old, his family fled Tsarist Russia—along with the many thousands of other “homeless, tempest-tost” refugees driven from their homes by brutal anti-Jewish pogroms.
Berlin’s last memory of Russia was watching his house burn down while his mother held him and wept. His first memory of America was seeing the Statue of Liberty, her torch lifted to welcome him and his family as their crowded boat arrived in New York Harbor.
Twelve million immigrants—Irish, Jewish, Chinese—arrived in the United States in the late 1800s. Some came with money; others, like Berlin, came with little more than the clothes on their backs.
As difficult as immigration was, assimilation proved even harder. Firmly shut out from most professions by the “old-money” Protestant establishment, some new Americans seized on the opportunities provided by the theater.
The Irish were the pioneers. Vaudevillian George M. Cohan and symphony conductor Victor Herbert invented early musical comedy and American operetta. But by the second decade of the twentieth century, most of the writers and producers of musical theater (and many of the performers) were Jewish.
Irving Berlin was the first of the great Jewish success stories.
As “Izzy Baline,” he was raised in dire poverty in the stinking New York slums. He peddled newspapers and sang for pennies on the street. His father was a cantor who died when Izzy was young, leaving behind his mother, two sisters and a brother. Izzy left home at 13—the pennies he earned weren’t enough to pay for his keep.
Although Izzy Baline was a musical illiterate with only crude piano skills, he somehow taught himself to write music and lyrics (someone else had to write down his tunes). In 1907 he changed his name to the American sounding “Irving Berlin,” and in 1911 “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” propelled him into the top rank of songwriters. He remained America’s Songwriter Laureate until his death in 1989, aged 101.
Berlin’s story became the mythic template for the lives of all Jewish songwriters: early poverty, entertaining on the street, living on dreams, name change, sudden success, fur coat for Mama (optional).
For the most part, this is a myth, encouraged by Hollywood rags-to-riches tales. Although they had to struggle to succeed, nearly all theater songwriters came from comfortable, even privileged backgrounds. Most of them were second-generation Americans whose immigrant parents had done the hard work of establishing themselves in the New World.
George and Ira Gershwin’s father was a successful dreamer who loved to start new businesses, and when George showed a precocious musical talent he was immediately provided with good teachers. By his mid-teens, he was working for a Jewish-run music publishing house, where he made valuable contacts with theater producers and Broadway stars.
Jerome Kern’s father was a Jewish German immigrant who became a stable owner and a prosperous merchant. The Kerns sent Jerry to the best schools, and even to Germany to study piano and composition.
Richard Rodgers and his two future collaborators, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, wrote varsity shows at Columbia University. Hammerstein’s grandfather, Oscar I, built theaters and opera houses; his father managed the largest vaudeville palace in Manhattan.
Dorothy Fields—a rare female lyricist for Broadway and Hollywood who wrote everything from “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” to Sweet Charity—was the daughter of the retired vaudeville headliner Lou Fields.
The most notable non-Jewish songwriter was the Episcopalian Cole Porter, grandson of the richest man in Indiana. While a student at Yale, he became determined to write musical theater songs. He tried for ten years to place his sophisticated pieces on Broadway. Finally, one day he confided to Richard Rodgers, “I think I’ve found the key to success. I’m going to write Jewish tunes.”
Nowadays we’d call that cultural appropriation. But Porter was on to something. Musical theater songs had undergone a striking change since the influx of Jewish composers. Consciously or not, Jews had brought the flavor of temple chants and klezmer tunes to Broadway melodies: modal scales, “bent” notes and major/minor ambiguities.
By a remarkable cultural coincidence, some of those Hebraic influences corresponded with root elements of African-American blues, making Jewish-inflected tunes irresistible to jazz artists.
Harold Arlen made the “Jewish blues” his signature style in songs like “Stormy Weather,” “Blues in the Night,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” “The Man That Got Away” and dozens more.
And of course, Gershwin mastered the hybrid style. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” borrows its melody from a Jewish prayer. That clarinet solo that kicks off “Rhapsody in Blue”—is it a blues riff or a klezmer wail? The creations of these and other Jewish songwriters (and musical convert Cole Porter) form the basis of the Great American Songbook, the “standards” that are rediscovered and reinterpreted by every generation.
What writers avoided in their musicals was the long, painful Jewish history of persecution and exile. Instead, they disguised their concerns by telling stories of other cultures and races and classes in conflict. So instead of Jews versus goyim, we get musicals about Sharks and Jets, an Oklahoma farm girl and a “Persian” peddler, an upper-class gentleman and a Cockney flower girl, an English schoolmistress and an Asian king—et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
In the 1960s, Fiddler on the Roof—a musical that ends with the destruction of a Russian shtetl—finally broke the taboo against telling the true Jewish story. It could have been about Irving Berlin’s early childhood.
Berlin, like many immigrant Jews, struggled to leave behind his past, though the old melodies sometimes crept into his tunes. He genuinely loved his adopted country and aspired to write not just its popular songs, but its anthems: “Easter Parade,” “White Christmas,” “God Bless America.” Berlin even wrote the theater anthem, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Finally, in 1949, at the pinnacle of his fame and secure in all he had achieved, he wrote his majestic Statue of Liberty song, perhaps addressing it to the frightened young Izzy Baline:
“Give me your tired, your poor . . .
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
For tickets to Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn at The 5th Avenue Theatre, click here.