by Mariah Fredericks
In 1914, the hot ticket on Broadway was On Trial, a play that employed the daring film technique of the “flashback.” You could catch the moody John Barrymore in Kick In, Douglas Fairbanks in He Comes Up Smiling, and Alla Nazimova in That Sort. Musical comedy hits included Chin-Chin, The Only Girl, and Watch Your Step, starring dance sensations Vernon and Irene Castle and featuring songs by that hot young composer of the smash hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”—Irving Berlin.
The son of a cantor, Berlin had grown up singing in the streets and saloons of New York City. This provided him an excellent education in what pleased people and what didn’t. In 1911, the Tin Pan Alley songwriter was stunned by the mania for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. He decided it was partly because the lyrics, “silly though it was, was fundamentally right…[and] the melody… started the heels and shoulders of all America…to rocking.” It’s easy to imagine Chuck Berry explaining the appeal of “Roll Over Beethoven” in much the same way.
One of the key elements of Death of a Showman is popular music. Jane Prescott’s former dancing partner, Leo Hirschfeld, is an exuberantly ambitious songwriter, confident that he’s about to have his first Broadway hit. Several of Leo’s “hits” are mentioned in the books. To come up with song titles like “I Want a New Man Who’s Nothing Like My Old Man,” “Pickle Barrel Rag,” and “One Smart Gal,” I borrowed heavily from the work of Berlin from 1910 to 1917.
In 1914, Americans were seeing themselves reflected in the larger culture in new ways. Their comedies, tragedies, and love stories were being played out not only on stage, but on film and in recorded songs. Berlin’s work in particular provides a special view into how American culture had evolved. Berlin knew he was writing for a diverse audience. Songs like “Jake, Jake, the Yiddisher Ball Player,” “Abie Sings an Irish Song,” and “My Sweet Italian Man” give a boisterous, if stereotyped, voice to the newest Americans. Scott Joplin had given the world ragtime, but Berlin put his own spin on it with “Yiddle on Your Fiddle Play Some Ragtime.” Parents’ ambitions for their children in this new land can be heard in such songs as “And Father Wanted Me to Learn a Trade” and “If the Managers Only Thought the Same as Mother.”
And of course, there are love songs. Berlin’s ear for verbal rhythms of his time is obvious in titles like, “Stop! Stop! Stop! Come Over and Love Me Some More” and “Some Little Something About You.” These tunes don’t give you the grand exalted passion of the opera. It’s the everyday lust, love and tussle of your average American boy and girl. He keeps it funny and relatable: “My supper consists of chicken a la King/I get indigestion and everything.” Or “Sing me that lovin’ song that goes something like Ummm, umm, umm, umm.” The lovers in these songs are raucous, flawed, and endlessly good-humored. They know what the ideal is supposed to be, they know their experience is different, more human, messier—and they’re just fine with that.
In 1917, as Uncle Sam was trying to persuade citizens to enter World War I, Berlin wrote “Let’s All Be Americans Now”. Today we remember him chiefly for the loftier—or more sentimental—”God Bless America” and “White Christmas”. But it’s the bouncy, naughty, subversive lyrics like “How Do You Do It Mabel on Twenty Dollars a Week?” that really evoke a young, scrappy, and hungry America that was about to take its place on the world stage.
Listen to more songs that inspired Mariah’s fictional character Leo Hirschfeld:
Mariah Fredericks was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives with her family. She is the author of several YA novels. A Death of No Importance was her first adult novel.
Tags: Death of a Showman, Irving Berlin, Mariah Fredericks, Music History