The Golden Door

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.

Young Irving Berlin
Irving Berlin circa 1910

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.

Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein
Irving Berlin with Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers at an audition.

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.


Sarah Rose Davis on Holiday Inn

What was the first show you were in at The 5th?

My first show at the 5th was  A Christmas Story in 2010. I was the swing, which meant I understudied eight women in the ensemble. It was my first professional job out of college and I had never even understudied one person in a show, let alone eight. I was terrified.

How many shows have you done at The 5th in total?

I had to actually go back through the season archives to figure out how many exactly. I have done 22 productions with The 5th and Holiday Inn will be my 23rd. That is only counting the mainstage productions. I have also done over a dozen new works and readings with the 5th.

1. Sarah Rose Davis as Linda Mason in Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn at The 5th Avenue Theatre - Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka

How do you feel you have evolved as an artist over the years?

I have grown immensely as a performer over the years. The 5th really pushed me to develop my dance skills by simply giving me numerous opportunities to dance in the ensemble and also in leading roles, encouraging me to become a stronger more confident performer all around. Dance was always something I considered to be my fourth or fifth threat (ha) but now I feel pretty confident as a singer, actor and a dancer, making me much more well rounded and versatile. I love playing a leading role, but dancing in the ensemble of shows can be incredibly difficult and demanding work, and I absolutely love having the opportunity to do both.

Who are some of the people you have acted for or with who have inspired you or motivated you to be better, particularly at The 5th?

It’s funny, when I started working at The 5th I was consistently one of the youngest people in the cast, starting when I was 21, and I would look up to people like Trina Mills, Taryn Darr and Billie Wildrick and admire their focus and professionalism, and now I not only do I get the opportunity to work and dance alongside them, but they are now some of my greatest friends. Eric Ankrim directed me in ELF and Grease, and now we are starring opposite each other for the second time! It’s just awesome that I get to work with people I have admired for so long that are now such a huge part of my life. The 5th feels like family, no matter what your role in a production is.

4. Eric Ankrim as Jim and Sarah Rose Davis as Linda in Holiday Inn at The 5th Avenue Theatre - Photo Credit Mark KitaokaWhat are you looking forward to about Holiday Inn?

I’m looking forward to working my butt off! I love working hard in a show, and this show is jam-packed with all the good stuff -beautiful classic holiday music and tap dancing to name a few. Being in a show around the holidays means guaranteed hangouts with some of my closest friends. Taryn, Matt, Eric and I are all really great friends and already have such a strong connection that I am excited to bring that to the show and our characters relationships. Also, Holiday Inn is one of my Dads favorite movies!


Lightning Round:

  • Favorite holiday? A tie between Halloween and Christmas!
  • Favorite cold-weather beverage? Hot chocolate with a million mini marshmallows
  • Cake or pie? Cake, unless it’s pumpkin pie aka the only pie I like.
  • Underrated musical? I Love You Because!
  • Favorite thing about Seattle at the holidays? The festive lights downtown, downtown shopping, and being in the Christmas show at the 5th.

Holiday Inn plays November 24 – December 31. Click here for tickets.

Photo credit Mark Kitaoka


Matt Owen on Holiday Inn

5. Matt Owen as Ten Hanover in Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn at The 5th Avenue Theatre - Photo Credit Mark KitaokaWhat was the first show you were in at The 5th?

The first show was Anything Goes in 2000. Where has the time gone???

How many shows have you done at The 5th in total?

I think Holiday Inn makes 20…or 21? Not exactly sure!

How do you feel you have evolved as an artist over the years?

Hmmm…tough question. I feel like I basically grew up performing at the 5th. My first show I did here was when I was 17 years old. I think with age comes confidence—knowing where my strengths lie, understanding how to better communicate with my fellow artists both on and off the stage. And like anything…the more you do something, the better you get. I feel like I should have a deeper more profound answer for this, but I’m sure Eric Ankrim’s answer will be very impressive…so…maybe I’ll just go with, “Whatever Eric said.”

7. Matt Owen and Taryn Darr in Holiday Inn at The 5th Avenue Theatre - Photo Credit Mark KitaokaWho are some of the people you have acted for or with who have inspired you or motivated you to be better, particularly at The 5th?

Working with a truly amazing group of people. I adore these folks. David directed my first professional show (Anything Goes 17 years ago), and Jamie Rocco and I have worked together many times. Also this cast, crew, and orchestra? C’mon! I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to work with. The 5th has always been my home away from home, and I feel so lucky to get to spend the holidays here.

What is it like to be in a holiday show at The 5th?

Holiday shows are always great. There’s just a positive energy in the air. The audiences really get excited, and being in Seattle (where I grew up, but no longer live) during the holidays is just special. Also, there are usually FAR more delicious backstage sweets. And seeing as I’m playing the “dancing role” in this show…I think I’m entitled to a cookie…or 50.

Lightning Round:

  • Favorite holiday?  Thanksgiving. Hands down.  Perfect excuse to eat my face off.
  • Favorite cold-weather beverage? Does Scotch count?
  • Cake or pie?  No question.
  • Underrated musical?  One of the best books of a musical ever written.
  • Favorite thing about Seattle at the holidays? Getting to spend time with my wonderful family…and pie.

Holiday Inn plays The 5th Avenue Theatre November 24 – December 31. Click here for tickets.

Photo credit Mark Kitaoka

Taryn Darr on Holiday Inn

What was the first show you were in at The 5th?

My first show was Gypsy in 2001(with Matt Owen!) I played a Hollywood Blonde and the front end of the cow, respectively.

2. Taryn Darr as Lila Dixon in Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn at The 5th Avenue Theatre - Photo Credit Mark KitaokaHow many shows have you done at The 5th in total?

I’ve lost count. I do, however, remember exactly where I was when I got my first offer at the 5th. I was home for Christmas in Gresham, Oregon. I cried tears of joy. I continue to be grateful for every moment I get to spend on this stage.

 How do you feel you have evolved as an artist over the years?

When I first started my career, the “gift” I gave myself after each show was to have the poster of the production framed. Maybe I thought I wasn’t going to be doing this that long (I had initially set out to be an archeologist), but needless to say, I ran out of both funds and wall space to continue that treat-yo-self idea. So with that, I’ll say I’ve grown to have a wee more confidence in myself and to know solidly where my strengths are as an artist.  That said, there are things that still terrify me, so there’s always something to work on.

Who are some of the people you have acted for or with who have inspired you or motivated you to be better, particularly at The 5th?

Oh, there are too many to name! I’ve been so fortunate with my time here in Seattle as well as New York City to have worked with some absolutely AMAZING artists and creatives. My nearly 20-year career as a triple threat has been shaped immensely by just watching others—seeing artists work tirelessly to develop a scene, sing with grit and guts, appear to dance so tall when they’re really so short, or chew scenery like it’s taffy. So many friends in this business are, simply by just being themselves, master classes on musical theatre.

What are you looking forward to about Holiday Inn?

The fabulous dancing! The stunning costumes! My hilarious friends! This swoon-worthy era! And the cookies! Any cookies.

What is it like to be in a holiday show at The 5th

A holiday show at the 5th is truthfully very busy! My family lives in Oregon and when I’m doing a show there just isn’t quite enough time to get down there for Christmas. What’s wonderful though, is that the 5th Avenue always makes everyone feel like family with its own holiday traditions. The tree-trimming party is my favorite—just the coziest, most joyful day. Cast, crew and creative gather together in the lobby on a break during one of our long technical rehearsals. We trim the tree, take lots of “family” photos, and usually end up eating so much that when we head back to rehearsal, our costumes magically have shrunk.

6. Matt Owen and Taryn Darr in Holiday Inn at The 5th Avenue Theatre - Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka

Lightning Round:

  • Favorite holiday? Thanksgiving. Food, friends and football! (Go Hawks!)
  • Favorite cold-weather beverage? Whatever goes with bourbon
  • Cake or pie? Peach pie and German Chocolate cake. I don’t do this one or the other nonsense.
  • Underrated musical? Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party
  • Favorite thing about Seattle at the holidays? (A show at the 5th!) The twinkly lights everywhere. The crisp, salty air coming off the Sound. Two open lanes and extra attendants in the parking garage.

Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn plays November 24 – December 31 at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Click here for tickets.

Photo credit Mark Kitaoka.