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Do What the Buglers Command!

Charles Wright reviews The Songwriter Goes to War: The Story of Irving Berlin's World War II All-Army Production of This Is The Army.

Irving Berlin, a cantor's son born in Siberia, emigrated to the United States with his family when he was four years old. His patriotism for his adopted country was so intense (and his wealth so considerable) that he even claimed to enjoy paying taxes. But in 1918, Sergeant Irving Berlin presented an even more lavish gift to his countrymen than cold hard cash -- a rousing musical revue with an all-soldier cast called Yip, Yip Yaphank. It utilized 300 male members of the Army (onstage and off), and ran 32 performances on Broadway -- raising $83,000 for the war effort while simultaneously raising the spirits of a conflict-weary nation.

Twenty-three years later, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the now 53-year-old Berlin was eager to serve his country again. So he proposed another all-soldier musical to General George C. Marshall, who immediately embraced the idea, promising Berlin space in Yaphank, Long Island to assemble the new extravaganza and another 300 soldiers to cast and staff it. The resulting revue, This Is the Army, opened July 4, 1942 at the Broadway Theatre, with Berlin himself -- famous for being a night owl - performing "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" (originally written for Yip, Yip Yaphank) .

This Is the Army lasted 112 performances in New York, before embarking on a much-lauded, three-year tour that included stops in Washington, D.C., London, Italy, Egypt, the Persian Gulf, New Guinea, the Philippines, the Mariana Islands, the Ulithi Islands, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Kwajalein, and Honolulu, where the company gave its final performance on October 22, 1945. (The show also made a pivotal stop in Hollywood, where Lieutenant Ronald Reagan joined the cast to transform This Is the Army into a Warner Brothers movie.)

Alan Anderson, the tour's production stage manager, has recounted the saga of that long, arduous odyssey in his new bookThe Songwriter Goes to War: The Story of Irving Berlin's World War II All-Army Production of This Is The Army (Limelight Editions, 362 pages; $27.95). It is an intelligent slice of history recounted by a memoirist noteworthy for his lack of self-absorption, and Anderson delivers the highs and lows of his wartime adventure in a forthright fashion, with humor and narrative verve. Punctilious about facts and chronological clarity, Anderson even orients the reader to the larger world picture by including bullet points at the top of each chapter that outline what was occurring simultaneously with the events recollected in the pages ahead.

Anderson, the son of the great dramatist Maxwell Anderson, is not a professional writer -- he made his living as a stage manager -- which may explain why he's occasionally a little prolix (a failing that might have been alleviated by a stronger editorial hand); and his phraseology sometimes quivers with an excess of nostalgia. Moreover, Anderson proves unable to draw those who were closest to him during the War -- his peers among the theater professionals functioning as the de facto management committee of the This Is the Army detachment - as full-bodied characters.

Yet, these are quibbles compared to the book's many virtues. Chief among them is that he renders Berlin with striking complexity as a warts-and-all character. As portrayed by Anderson, the songwriter is a dynamo, "always in motion," always "doing something." Though shy, private and emotionally distant, "Mr. B" earned the respect of his cast and crew. As the world's most popular tunesmith, he could wield considerable influence in both the civilian and military realms. Keenly aware of his power (despite his civilian status), Berlin worked the military system to his advantage, showing graciousness to those he considered talented, and giving a cold shoulder to those -- no matter their rank -- whom he found mediocre.

Although fabulously wealthy and flawlessly connected in the worlds of entertainment, business and politics, Berlin never lost the common touch, and was capable of great kindness. Throughout the show's tour, he visited military hospitals, performing on his own for small groups and going bed-to-bed to commune with ill and critically wounded servicemen. Returning to the United States at intervals, Berlin contacted his soldiers' families, gathering local news to carry back to the trenches, and reassuring the folks at home that the sons, husbands and fathers of This Is the Army were engaged in essential service to their country.

Throughout the book, Anderson's authorial voice conveys his pride at being part of This Is the Army -- and that's entirely justified considering what he and his colleagues endured to carry a full-fledged, professionally executed musical comedy to the ends of the civilized world in order to salvage the morale of service personnel. In a 1945 letter to his wife from the Pacific theater of war, Anderson recounts an epiphany of "how lucky we [the members of the This Is the Army detachment] are":

We've begun giving shows under impossible difficulties - small stages out in the open with thousands of boys on the benches, on the ground, in trees or trucks - trying to give them a Broadway show out of nothing, our guys hovering around a lantern in a small tent, putting on makeup and costumes without seeing, me running up homemade ladders focusing what lights we can operate fifteen minutes before overture. All sorts of hurried measures by everyone to do as much show as possible. And the amazing thing is, it is a Broadway show and they go crazy watching it. God, they shout and laugh and beat their hands in applause and our boys play as they never played.

Yet at times, The Songwriter Goes to War has a melancholic undertone; and that's perhaps inevitable in the recollections of one who knows himself to be among the last comrades standing. "Now that it is hard to find more than two dozen of us still alive out of the three hundred twenty-five or more who were involved in the show at one time or another in its history," Anderson writes. Of course, it's not just catastrophic illnesses such as AIDS that have decimated the ranks, but time itself has carried off the majority of those on the This Is the Army tour, including Berlin himself. "One of my greatest regrets," writes Anderson, "is that I didn't write this book in time for Mr. B. to see it."

While Berlin may be gone, The Songwriter Goes to War preserves for posterity a chapter in theater history for which he was largely responsible. The self-effacing composer, however, would no doubt say that The Songwriter Goes to War is a fitting tribute to a band of artists and technicians who employed their talents and their training to serve country and countrymen to the best of their ability in a time of war.

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