I'm Reading of a White Christmas
A new book documents the fascinating history of Irving Berlin's most enduring song, ''White Christmas.''
A book devoted solely to one song? Sounds crazy, no? But when that song is "White Christmas," the notion seems more understandable. The song has been recorded by more than 200 artists, from ol' pros like Bing Crosby to new ones like the New Kids on the Block. And what song did Ann Hampton Callaway choose to conclude her new album, This Christmas? You guessed it.
For 55 years after its 1942 debut, "White Christmas" sold more singles than any other -- until Princess Diana's death and "Candle in the Wind" eclipsed it. But there's a strong chance that "White Christmas" will regain its perch as the years continue. Hence, White Christmas: The Story of an American Song by Jody Rosen (Scribners, 224 pages, $24). What's of great interest to me is that "White Christmas" almost was a song from a Broadway musical. How I would have loved it if the once and future king of recordings would have come from where we live and breathe.
Berlin originally wrote "White Christmas" for a show that never happened, one called Stars on My Shoulder that was planned for the '20s. Then Berlin put both song and show away to work significantly on Broadway and, later, in Hollywood; but, according to Rosen, it was Berlin's fading star in California that made Broadway a viable option for the legendary composer-lyricist. For while Berlin had five good years in Hollywood, 1933-1938, with such hit films as Kid Millions, Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, On the Avenue, and Alexander's Ragtime Band, his Carefree got lackluster reviews and didn't do much at the box-office even though it included the wonderful song, "Change Partners." So Berlin decided to come back to Broadway and create The Music Box Revue of 1938. Fourteen years had passed since the previous Music Box Revue, which had been an annual attraction for four straight years. Now, Berlin would return to the grab-bag format and write topical songs about Hitler, Mussolini, Joseph Kennedy, and five Dionne Babies.
But the Music Box Revue of 1938 changed on its way to the Music Box (the house that Berlin owned with the Shuberts). Suddenly the show was going to be called The Crystal Ball and it would be "a three-act revue of today, tomorrow, and yesterday." The first act, of course, would be the past, while the second and third would then concentrate on the present and future. "White Christmas" would be the finale for the first act: The verse would be sung before a scrim, which would then rise on a Currier and Ives-like scene and the refrain.
Next, the show morphed into Happy Holidays, a musical revue that would celebrate 15 of our favorite holidays. As you may have guessed, the show never happened; the revue picked up a screenplay and became the movie Holiday Inn, the film in which "White Christmas" was heard. (Ironic that the man who wrote the song that best takes us into the spirit of the holidays somewhat dreaded them himself -- for Berlin's son, Irving Jr., was only three and a half weeks old when he died on Christmas Eve, 1928. Berlin never really got over it and, thereafter, could never get through the holiday season without brooding.)
And whom did Irving Berlin want for the female lead of Holiday Inn? His choice showed prescience, for at that time Mary Martin had been in only one Broadway musical and three films. (One of them, Rhythm on the River, shows a Martin that many of us never envision. Anyone who thinks of her solely as a staunch heroine (of South Pacific or The Sound of Music) or a fey hero (Peter Pan) needs to see how sexy -- yes, sexy -- she is in this film.) Nevertheless, the role went to Marjorie Reynolds, who was overshadowed by Fred Astaire -- and, of course, by Bing Crosby, who got to sing "White Christmas."
Another wound to those of us who love Broadway musicals is that the 1954 movie White Christmas was originally planned for the New York stage and not the Hollywood back lots. But everyone wanted Crosby and Astaire, and the latter said he'd only do it as a movie. As it turned out, he didn't do it at all, so the powers-that-be brought in Donald O'Connor, who didn't wind up doing it, and Danny Kaye, who did. Wish it had become a Broadway show, for I'd like to count "Sisters" and "Count Your Blessings" as show songs. (I don't mind, however, letting Hollywood take "credit" for "What Can You Do with a General?") Of course, if we all live long enough, we might see White Christmas on Broadway. A stage version was tried out a few years ago at the St. Louis Muny with Lara Teeter in the Crosby role, Lee Roy Reams in the Kaye part, and Karen Mason and Lauren Kennedy as the sisters they crave.
Actually, the Rosen book isn't just about the song "White Christmas" -- there's some other fun Irving Berlinia, too. He wrote "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" in a taxi while marooned in midtown traffic. A slightly different version of "God Bless America" was to be in his 1918 show Yip, Yip, Yaphank. We hear a great deal about today's standing ovations, but can any show make the claim that it got the response that This Is the Army got at its July 4, 1942 opening? According to Rosen, it got 10 full minutes worth of applause. Unlike virtually all movie versions of Broadway musicals, which are filmed only after the last national tour has closed, This Is the Army was filmed in 1943, when the show was still touring. Indeed, it wouldn't finish its mammoth tour until it shuttered in Hawaii in October of 1945 -- after the war ended.
The book is peppered with amusing quotations (Philip Roth's observation in Operation: Shylock that "God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin 'White Christmas'") as well as some facts about non-Berlin Broadway. (Who knew that the expression "the melting pot" originated as the title of a Broadway play? Irving Zangwill's 1909 Broadway hit The Melting Pot was responsible for putting that phrase into the vernacular.)
There's also some information on Berlin's wildly successful Annie Get Your Gun in 1946, his rather successful Call Me Madam in 1950, and his sadly unsuccessful Mr. President in 1962. In that last-named show, according to Rosen, Berlin "tried once again to cape the zeitgeist; but by fawning over the President, he proved himself out of touch with the mood of the dawning decade, an era in which protest music would migrate from the folk fringe to the mainstream." Indeed. But, for much more than one brief shining moment, Berlin did feel the musical pulse of the American people -- especially with "White Christmas."