In Context: Music, the World, and Irving Berlin

In Context: Music, the World, and Irving Berlin


Hello, and welcome to the ATC blog! My name is Katherine Monberg, and I’m the Literary Manager at ATC. Among the many theatrical aspects that all combine to make a production is the wonderful world of dramaturgy: adding context and depth to the stage since theatre began! And that’s where I come in. As the dramaturg at ATC, I think of myself as a conduit of connections – among the actors, creative team, literature, world and theatrical history, and you! As an audience member, you provide that final component which completes the theatrical experience, along with all of your own life experiences that accompany you into the auditorium. The connections that I dig up and explore give the actors and the director layers of meaning to play with as the production develops, add layers of detail that deepen the authenticity of the world on the stage, and hopefully spark conversations that carry into the world we experience once we leave the theatre. Here’s a little tidbit of some of the dramaturgical background that went into the making of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.


Map depicting the Allied and Central Powers in World War I.

World War I

On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria sparked an international diplomatic crisis that drew in all the great economic powers of the world, divided into two opposing alliances: the Entente Powers or Allies, and the Central Powers. The Allies initially consisted of the United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire (united by the Triple Entente alliance of 1907), and were eventually joined by Italy, Japan, and the United States. The Central Powers consisted of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and were eventually joined by the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.

American music during World War I took on a patriotic purpose, believed to be a language that inspired and moved the hearts of men, and necessary to the war effort at home and abroad. Berlin, a fierce patriot, was drafted into military service in 1917, where he dedicated his skill toward engendering support for the war through music. Composed during his army service, Yip! Yip! Yaphank (1918) was written as a tribute to the U.S. Army to raise money, awareness, and a sense of American nationalism; it transferred to Broadway the following year for a short and successful run, officially placing Irving Berlin on the list of Broadway show composers that would continue to thrive throughout the 1920s as musical theatre emerged as a genre of the American stage.

The Allies claimed victory in World War I on November 11, 1918, though a formal state of war continued until the implementation of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. By its end, World War I had escalated into one of the largest and most destructive wars in history, aided by new technologies such as chemical warfare, resulting in more than 16 million casualties worldwide, including seven million civilians. Major international changes were initiated upon its conclusion, including the dissolution of the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires, and a series of treaties imposed during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Berlin returned from the war to open his own Music Box Theatre with partner Sam Harris, which would serve as his Broadway and musical home for the rest of his career.

Crowd gathering outside the New York Stock Exchange after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

Crowd gathering outside the New York Stock Exchange after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

The Great Depression
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 began on October 24, also known as Black Tuesday, and marks the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States, which fueled the subsequent ten-year-long Great Depression. The wealth and excess of the Roaring Twenties poured profits into American cities and created widespread financial hardship for American farmers, coupled with wild speculation in the stock market. After the crash, business uncertainty led to massive layoffs, declining consumption, bankruptcies, and bank failures; unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25%, and the economic effects were felt internationally as worldwide GDP fell 15% from 1929 to 1932. In the early 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal domestic programs sought to stimulate demand and provide work and relief from impoverishment through increased government spending and financial reform. By 1936, many economic indicators had recovered to their pre-Crash levels, though unemployment remained high and rising at approximately 11%. Some world economies improved throughout the 1930s, but many did not recover until the outbreak of World War II, when wartime economies provided military employment and necessitated increased industrial production.

Berlin weathered the Great Depression relatively well thanks to the proceeds of the Berlin Music Corporation, established in 1919 to manage the (wildly profitable) rights to his prolific body of work. He continued to actively compose throughout the 1920s and 1930s as jazz and blues entered into the American musical consciousness, as well as the swing and big band music of the 1930s and beyond. The introduction of sound in film in the late 1920s also introduced a new aspect to the music business and to Berlin’s career, as music began to play a central role in film narrative.

Map depicting the Allied and Axis alliances of World War II.

Map depicting the Allied and Axis alliances of World War II.

World War II
After World War I, the weakened economic and political state of much of Europe combined with a renewed sense of nationalism and resentment, which fused with the economic hardship of the Great Depression to fuel the rise of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler. World War II is generally thought to have begun with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and subsequent declarations of war by France and the United Kingdom. Germany conquered much of Europe from 1939 until early 1941, forming the Axis alliance with Italy and Japan, and countered by the primary Allied forces of the United Kingdom, the British Commonwealth, and the Soviet Union (after its invasion by Germany in June, 1941). China, already at war with Japan since 1937, joined the Allies in 1941, along with the U.S., who escalated from a financial to physical alliance with the Allies after the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Again, music emerged as a political and patriotic force during World War II, used to reach the common American through the universality of radio waves. Practical songs encouraged people to buy war bonds, support the troops and the economy, and promote a collective American identity. Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which had originally appeared in 1938 during a performance by Kate Smith celebrating World War I’s Armistice Day, became the unofficial second national anthem of the United States, a reputation that it maintains into the present day. Berlin also continued to compose for the Broadway stage throughout the 1940s, generally regarded as the beginning of American musical theatre’s Golden Age.

The Berlin Legacy
Critical of the sound and style of rock and roll that emerged in the 1950s, Berlin turned increasingly to film and the stage as popular music moved in a direction contrary to his own personal taste. Long hailed as perhaps the greatest musical influence toward the creation of an American musical identity, Berlin’s practical style, based on popular appeal and simple, straightforward musical craftsmanship, has identified him as one of the greatest American composers of all time. As stated by his fellow composer and collaborator Jerome Kern: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music.”

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