Dueling melodies: Irving Berlin’s counterpoint songs

Irving Berlin, Tony Martin, counterpoint songs

Photo of Irving Berlin and Tony Martin from the television program Irving Berlin’s Salute to America.

Lovers of Irving Berlin’s music know that he wrote double songs.

Two characters on stage sing different songs in succession. Then they sing them together in counterpoint.

Most may not be aware that Berlin published 15 of them between 1914 and 1966.

In some cases, he wrote a new song to combine with an existing melody. Most often, he composed both songs.

Not everything he wrote became a hit. The songs in his less successful musicals and revues have fallen by the wayside. Not all of them were ever recorded. Some recordings were made only decades after the song first appeared (and then disappeared).

“Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil” first appeared in Music Box Revue of 1922. Joan Morris and William Bolcom recorded the double song in the 1970s. When Berlin heard the recording, he conceived the idea of an entire recording devoted to his counterpoint songs. Nothing came of it.

Play a Simple Melody

He introduced “Play a Simple Melody” for his first Broadway musical, Watch Your Step in 1914. It featured the first of his counterpoint songs. The first one’s request for a simple melody is countered by ragtime tune. It shows Berlin had learned something about real ragtime since “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” of 1911.

No Tin Pan Alley composer had ventured to compose an entire musical for Broadway. Watch Your Step was successful enough, but has never been revived. “Play a Simple Melody,” however, remains well known.

I Hear Singing and There’s No One There

Harry Truman’s appointment of socialite Perle Mesta as Ambassador to Luxembourg inspired Berlin’s most successful musical with a double song. The families of Howard Lindsay and Ethel Merman were vacationing together in 1949 when Lindsay read about it. He thought Merman could portray a character based on Mesta.

Lindsay and Russel Crouse wrote the book for a play called Call Me Madam. Then they persuaded Berlin to compose the music. Merman played the ambassador, whose press secretary falls in love with the tiny country’s princess. In the counterpoint song, the young man has no idea what he’s feeling, so the ambassador explains that he’s in love.

Call Me Madam had a three-year run on Broadway as well as a production in London. A movie version, also starring Merman, appeared in 1953. The following video is from the movie, with Donald O’Connor as the young press secretary.

Empty Pockets Filled with Love

Berlin, Lindsay, and Crouse collaborated on Mr. President, which opened on Broadway in 1962. It turned out to be Irving Berlin’s last musical and the last collaboration of Lindsay and Crouse.

Mr. President has some wonderful songs, but critics didn’t care for it. It seemed old fashioned. It also had too many digs at the Kennedy family to survive his assassination. An attempted revival in 2001 closed after only ten performances.

In the counterpoint song, a young secret service agent finally works up the nerve to express his love for the President’s daughter. He offers lots of love, but not much money.

She has already expressed her feelings for him in perhaps the show’s best-known song, “The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous.” And now she’s skeptical that love can work without money. Of course, it’s only the first act.

We’ll Have an Old-Fashioned Wedding

Even as he worked on Mr. President, Berlin was preparing for a revival of one of his greatest hits, Annie, Get Your Gun. Its plot revolves around the rivalry between sharpshooters, Annie Oakley and Frank Butler. Eventually it turns to romance.

They wind up working for rival traveling wild west shows, which both go broke. When they encounter each other again, they confess their love for each other. But they still can’t get past their clashing egos.

Frank offers to give Annie all the medals he won. She has no place for them on her dress because of all she’s won. Berlin added a new counterpoint song to that scene for the 1966 revival. The show now seems incomplete without it.

Of course, the rivalry of “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” continues where it left off. Frank and Annie have completely different ideas of what kind of wedding they want. They reconcile in the last scene only after Sitting Bull persuades Annie to let Frank win their last match.

YouTube has more videos of “We’ll Have an Old-Fashioned Wedding” to choose from than any of the other counterpoint songs. Here’s Patti LuPone and an unidentified actor.

Irving Berlin wrote one more counterpoint song for a musical he never finished. “Old-Fashioned Wedding” is therefore his last composition to appear on stage.

Sources:
Irving Berlin’s counterpoint songs / Donald Romano. Great American Songbook Foundation

Photo credit: Public domain from Wikimedia Commons


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