Thursday, July 9, 2015

Big Names in Early 20th-Century Theater

This month we are hitting the highlights of American musical theater as it developed over the years and last time, we entered into the 20th century with the rise of the American idiom and Tin Pan Alley. Today, let’s look at a few major names from this period.

I’m sure you’ve heard the name Irving Berlin? Born Israel Baline, the infamous composer renamed himself after his name mistakenly appeared as I. Berlin on the front of “Marie from Sunny Italy” for which he wrote the lyrics. He decided to go with the new name, hoping its American sound would help his popularity. Berlin is most prominently known for works such as “God Bless America” and “White Christmas, but he first gained international fame with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which quotes Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home.” Before gaining fame, Berlin worked as a street singer and song plugger, performing his own works on Tin Pan Alley. He began his own publishing company in 1919 and then built the Music Box Theatre in 1921 where he staged four revues with some of his most popular songs. During the 1920s, Berlin began writing for Hollywood film musicals, collaborating with stars such as Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rodgers. Over the course of his long life, Berlin wrote over one thousand songs, having never learned to read music!

Irving Berlin-Courtesy of

What about the name George Cohan? Known for “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” Cohan Americanized the musical comedy. A jack of all trades in the theatrical world, Cohan was a successful actor, singer, dancer, playwright, songwriter, director, producer, and theater owner! He grew up in a vaudeville-family act and eventually expanded his own skits into full-length plays with songs. His Little Johnny Jones, Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, and George Washington, Jr. are a few hits that all deal with American ideals.

George Cohan-Courtesy of

Did you have a chance to read my post on Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat? Or what about George Gershwin? These names will go down in history for their influence on American musical theater. 

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart partnered together for 24 years during this era, producing many hit songs and stage productions including “My Funny Valentine” and Babes in Arms. When the prospect of creating Oklahoma! arose, Hart refused, saying it lacked wit and urbanity. Rodgers ended up going ahead with the project, collaborating with Hammerstein II and thus beginning the era of musical theater many people have come to know and love.

Rodgers and Hart-Courtesy of 

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