The Syncopated Walk: Early Irving Berlin (I)

Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday and the start of our first ever series of posts on the musical scores of Irving Berlin, a composer whose identity is inextricably linked with the definition of the American musical theatre! While we’ve covered several of Berlin’s later scores, we’ve never even touched his first Broadway works, beginning in 1914 — the furthest back we’ve been on this blog. Today, we’re starting at the very beginning with . . .


I. Watch Your Step (12/08/14 – 05/08/15)


Produced by Charles Dillingham, Watch Your Step is likely one of the first musical scores to employ ragtime sensibilities throughout its entirety — and in the very fabric of its creation. To Berlin, whose musical genius was predicated more on practicality than knowledge or study, ragtime was all about syncopation and Watch Your Step embodies this style with ease. Also, with iconic dancers Vernon and Irene Castle as the de facto headliners (at least, they got the most press), the show became lauded for the production’s dancing, along with some of the new step trends that were just burgeoning in mainstream entertainment. Together, this has given the show a reputation for being revolutionary. Having seen a concert production (at Harvard in November 2014), I can confirm the exciting and still palpable freshness of Berlin’s work. In fact, almost every song is a winner, and while very few remained in prominence after closing, there’s so much here worth recommending. Now there was a bit of a plot — ostensibly about a will that stipulates an entire fortune going to an heir who has never been in love, and the two gents who are in contention for that (dis)honor — but many audience members considered the production a revue, for it included loosely integrated sequences (like an electric bit where the ghost of Verdi comes to protest the ragging up of his opera).

Watch Your Step has never been the recipient of an actual revival, but a production was mounted in London in 1915, and a 2001 Musicals Tonight! concert yielded a full cast recording. Fortunately, the original orchestrations are in existence and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra just released an album with several cuts from the score (and I highly recommend the disc). The music is so collectively strong, however, that almost any rendition will do. We’ll start with the show’s best known, “Play A Simple Melody,” which is performed above by Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey (from the soundtrack of 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business).

One of the songs that jumped out to me when I saw the production at Harvard was “Settle Down In A One-Horse Town,” one of the more decidedly old-fashioned offerings from the evening. Yet the modern sensibilities are prevalent under the surface. Take a listen to the version above from the Musicals Tonight! album and see if you can tell what I mean.

Two really fun numbers, both from the Musicals Tonight! album, include “I Love To Have The Boys Around Me” (above), and “When I Discovered You” (below), the latter of which was co-written by Berlin’s former brother-in-law, E. Ray Goetz.

Irene Castle took the stage by storm with “Show Us How To Do The Fox-Trot,” in which she showed the ensemble how to do well, you guessed it, the fox trot! Here’s Ethel Levey and company’s rendition from the 1915 London cast.

There are a dozen more songs I’d like to share, but we’ll close today’s post with the number that gave this series of posts its title: “The Syncopated Walk.” Again, here’s the original London company.



Come back next Monday for another Berlin musical! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the seventh season of Cheers!