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Nearly a quarter of a century after Irving Berlin’s death in 1989 at the age of 101, Jeffrey Magee’s magisterial analysis of his contribution to American musical theatre is, remarkably, the first to attempt to place the composer in the context of Broadway rather than Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley, where he first made his name with anthemic celebrations of a melting-pot America about to achieve global dominance.

Berlin’s career began in the saloon bars of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At its end, he had transformed the sound of American popular song and wrested musical theatre away from vaudevillian nostalgia to infuse it with a wholly contemporary and authentically American edge. Such were his many accomplishments that his songwriter-peer Jerome Kern famously declared ‘Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.’

Kern’s letter is one of more than 40 commentaries, essays and interviews featured in The Irving Berlin Reader, an invaluable companion volume to Magee’s vivid and revealing portrait. Both books boast scholarship of the highest order, with Magee making especially telling use of much previously unavailable archive material to take a clear-sighted look at the triumphs and travails of Berlin’s life and career – not least his struggle with depression and the anti-Semitism that dogged him for the fi rst half-century of both.

The obvious pleasure of the Reader is the first-hand, ink-still-wet-on-the-page immediacy of much of the material included that serves up one insight after another into Berlin’s art and reveals both the high esteem that illustrious contemporaries like Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen and George S Kaufman held him in, and the reverence accorded him by on-stage luminaries such as Ethel Merman and Fred Astaire.

Magee’s critically incisive and illuminating portrait, copiously illustrated with lyrics and music excerpts, sets the bar impressively high for any future explorations of Berlin’s achievements on Broadway by interrogating the man and his music with a clarity and freshness that is informed as much by the author’s obvious affinity with the world of his subject as by diligent research.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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