Wouldn’t you say it’s time for a new Irving Berlin musical?
So the branding for Holiday Inn would have you believe. Coming to Broadway in September is, as it is officially called, Holiday Inn: The New Irving Berlin Musical. New? Nu! Not bad for a songwriter who died in 1989.
Obviously, while the book may be original (it’s inspired by the 1942 film), Berlin has not, of course, returned to us to endow us with a spiritual sequel to Annie Get Your Gun. Rather, the show is essentially a jukebox musical of his hits.
And that’s what isn’t “new”: this idea of repackaging the songs of a past great has been tried, such as when Broadway cobbled together Gershwin numbers in 2012 for Nice Work If You Can Get It. Then, it was to mediocre effect; there was always that lingering feeling that you could just attend a Gershwin retrospective concert and dispense with the rest as padding.
Whether Holiday Inn suffers the same malady is yet to be seen, but what is to be heard can’t help but be wonderful. In anticipation of the show, The Eldridge Street Synagogue and Museum hosted a lecture last Sunday about Berlin’s early life on the Lower East Side, punctuated with performances of his music by the cast of Holiday Inn. If nothing else, the music holds up.
The talk emphasized Berlin’s Jewish, immigrant roots (there was also a tie-in to the opening of the new Ellis Island exhibit about the Red Star Line, and entire museum in Antwerp), despite admissions that the show itself may not be so Semitic. Like the film, the plot of the stage version of Holiday Inn is about a former performer who opens a holiday-themed, yes, inn, and finds love. The holidays include Easter and Christmas, not Hanukkah or Yom Kippur.
In terms of Berlin’s more Jewish music, Sunday’s performances (mostly by Lora Lee Gayer and Amanda Rose) included what might have been a world-premiere of a song: “Yiddisha Eskimo” was originally written for Fanny Bryce in 1924, but when the plan fell through, Berlin, who kept tight control over his work, shelved the piece.
This wasn’t unusual; Berlin was hugely prolific, and he wrote about 1,200 songs during his lifetime, obviously, many of them unused. His rediscovered gems shouldn’t be referred to as trunk songs. They’re too big for a trunk. Maybe they’re wardrobe songs, or walk-in-closet songs, or portals-to-Narnia songs.
“Yiddisha Eskimo” is a cute, so-so piece from Berlin, whose mediocre creations are greater than most. As it goes:
Oh, oh, oh, I’m a yiddisha Eskimo
Where the weather is cold as ice.
Take my advice – don’t go.
Because there ain’t much fun in the land of the midnight sun
Living in a house of snow without a steeple
I’m one of God’s frozen people.
The full room on Sunday was mostly composed of elderly folks from God’s frozen/chosen people. It’s hard to imagine a few short months into the future, when young, gentile families will be pouring into Studio 54 (perhaps with a few fans of former teenage heartthrob Corbin Bleu, who’s in the cast), hoping to hear “White Christmas,” again. (White Christmas was already on the Great White Way, adapted from the 1954 film for Broadway during the holiday seasons of 2008 and 2009.)
For this event, I accidentally sat next to Berlin’s eldest daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, there with her own daughter and grandson. It was really hard to not stare at her throughout the performance to measure her reactions (she seemed to have a good time). I almost told her that my distant cousin Larry Weeks appeared in This is the Army as a juggler, but then thought better of it.
I hoped it wasn’t her last chance to hear “Yiddisha Eskimo.” That song, it seems, will not be appearing on Broadway, though at least one never-before-heard song shall. But I wouldn’t place bets on it being one of Berlin’s Jewish works.
As Sunday’s organizers emphasized, Irving Berlin was proud of his Jewishness, and famously proud of belonging to America (the event even concluded with Daniella Rabbani singing “God Bless America” in Yiddish, as Mandy Patinkin has recorded it). But I couldn’t help but feel that the afternoon was a private nod to Berlin’s identity, a cathartic exercise before charging ahead with something more, well, gentile.
In 2016, aren’t wider groups ready to accept the Jewish with the American identity, or can this only be at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, however lovely it is?
So maybe “Yiddisha Eskimo” isn’t right for Holiday Inn. But what about one of Berlin’s other songs, like “Yiddisha Ball,” “Yiddisha Eyes,” Yiddisha Professor,” or “Yiddisha Wedding” (yes, those are all real!)?
As long as gentile audiences are getting their dose of “White Christmas,” they can handle a bissel yiddishkeit.