THIS IS THE ARMY was a seminal work in the life of Irving Berlin and a milestone in American cultural and military history as well. Created by and for the soldier, THIS IS THE ARMY raised spirits and dollars during World War II, and served as a full-fledged military unit, albeit one that played Broadway, Hollywood and the London Palladium. Serving as stage manager on THIS IS THE ARMY or its entire three year tour of duty was Sergeant Alan Anderson; no stranger to the stage, he is the son of esteemed playwright Maxwell Anderson (whose Lost in the Stars we are proud to represent).
Alan Anderson has written a new book, THE SONG WRITER GOES TO WAR: THE STORY OF Irving BerlinS ALL-ARMY SHOW THIS IS THE ARMY to be published by Limelight Editions this fall. Irving Berlin eldest daughter Mary Ellin Barrett, who provides her own perspective on this work in her 1994 book, Irving Berlin: A DAUGHTERS MEMOIR, wrote the Foreword to Anderson's book, here excerpted with her permission:
I first met Alan Anderson more than sixty years ago at the final dress rehearsal of THIS IS THE ARMY, July 3, 1942, on the eve of what would turn out to be one of the most remarkable opening nights in Broadway history. I was the daughter of Irving Berlin, the shows creator, excited at being made part of a great occasion, an event I knew was of unprecedented importance in my fathers life. Alan was an Army sergeant and the shows stage manager. Fleeting glimpses of an attractive young man in uniform blond, with a quick smile, a down-to- earth manner and some urgent message, no doubt, to deliver to Mr. B., as Irving Berlin was known to the men of his company. Seeing this pleasant fellow in his early 20s, and being a teenager myself, I had no idea of the prodigies he was performing. What does a stage manager do? I asked my father. He makes things work, was the reply.
And how they worked! Opening night the curtain goes up on a stage full of soldiers delivering the opening chorus, and then takes off number by number, skits and songs kidding Army life, a military vaudeville show...two beautiful new Berlin ballads, Im Getting Tired So I Can Sleep, and I I.eft My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen...GIs tapping out a hot swing tune, getting their laughs dressed up in crinolines for Ladies of the Chorus (left over from YIP! YIP! YAPHANK!, Berlins soldier show of the first world war.)
... And then at the end of the second act, a small, black-haired man in an old doughboys uniform stands alone onstage, hat in hand, mouth open, ready to sing. The house explodes in a roar. It is ten minutes before Irving Berlin is permitted to deliver his theme song and the evenings number one showstopper, Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning. When the soldiers line up one last time for the finale, the curtain comes down on something much more than a Broadway hit.
Where did this khaki stage marvel come from and where did it go? That is the wonderful story Alan Anderson has to tell in THE SONGWRITER GOES TO WAR, a long -lost tale of frontline show business that only he at the center could have attempted - and finally has. How the show was put together sets the tone: a determined songwriter asking the impossible and getting it; a motley crew of recruits, some with experience, many more just full of pluck, molded into a musical comedy team; blacks and whites together in the first and only integrated division in the US Army.
Episode by episode the saga unfolds. The show, originally slated to play a modest month on Broadway, make some money for the Army Relief Fund and disband, keeps going and going; a coast-to-coast tour of the US, a pause to Hollywood to make a movie version (more millions for Army Relief), then overseas, its globe-circling tour ending only when the war itself ended.
Its a new way of looking at World War II, from a new angle, through the prism of a particular enterprise that is at once familiar and unfamiliar; a backstage story that ultimately involves transporting a full-scale Broadway musical revue to Great Britain in the blitz, the Italian front lines, the Persian desert and the jungles of New Guinea. From all levels of show business, performers were taking their talents to the edges of the battleground from the smallest USO troupe to the great stars of stage, screen, radio and concert halls. But nothing could compare to the mind-boggling logistics of THIS IS THE ARMY: the scenery the costumes, the lights, the setting up, taking down, moving on, with a cast of 150 to be billeted and fed, under the dual command of Army brass and the civilian Mr. Berlin, not always in perfect accord. (One riveting episode in Naples almost ends in a court martial.)
In Andersons relaxed, colloquial, carefully-detailed telling, the story builds, immersing the reader in this wartime world, its community, its mores, its lingo. Irving Berlin, the leading man, springs to life. You can see him moving quickly, in or out of uniform, the producer, busy with every aspect of his enterprise, guiding and watching out for his boys. You can hear his raspy voice getting a general on the phone to straighten out some ill-advised order that is screwing up the show, or hear the jumbled sound of the piano behind a closed door as he works on a new song...and reworks...and reworks. It is the father I knew yet did not know, could not know, as the men of the [THIS IS THE ARMY] company knew him.
What varied, interesting characters these men are..And always there is Alan himself making things work, apparently unflappable (even when inwardly seething), homesick for his young wife and baby son, the eyewitness laying it out place by place, scene by scene, from the every day nitty gritty to the most highly charged moments: the night in London when General Eisenhower comes backstage to congratulate the cast and tell them he is recommending that they be sent on to theaters of war to entertain and bolster morale for their fellow soldiers; the performance in Santa Maria, the little town north of Naples, where the show plays for the first time to war-weary men trucked in straight from the front.
THE SONGWRITER GOES TO WAR is a memoir, as personal as it is informed, an insiders recollection of a small but unique piece of theatrical and World War II history. Its a story Ive always hoped would be told, one in which, as that songwriters daughter, I take great pride. I thank Alan Anderson for writing it.
Foreword excerpt copyright 2004 by Mary Ellin Barrett...THE SONG WRITER GOES TO WAR will be in bookstores this fall...For further information, www.limelighteditions.com.