Newton man helps honor Irving Berlin

Francis Ma

Irving Berlin got his big break at Pelham’s Café in New York City’s Chinatown, where he performed as a singing waiter. Decades later, his music wafted through Newton neighborhoods, where it was overheard by a young Alex LeFevre, who would later be inspired to act as music director and conductor of “Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano,” a musical tribute that plays at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston, through Sept. 30.

Maybe LeFevre first heard Berlin hits such as “White Christmas,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “There’s No Business (Like Show Business)” in the old black-and-white movies that featured them, but he also remembers hearing the music emanate from the homes of his Newton neighbors.

“Newton is a town that loves music,” says LeFevre. “And Boston really supports music. So to me, conducting a performance in Boston is better than Broadway.”

The two-hour plus show will feature 64 of Berlin’s songs and is equal parts revue and musical where the plot centers on the life of piano from the 1930s on.

“I like to call it a ‘revu-sical,’” laughs LeFevre. “We cram a lot of music into a lot of story. And what better way to tell the story of Berlin than with a piano?”

Berlin immigrated to the United States in 1893 from Belarus and got his big break when he worked as a singing waiter at Pelham’s Café in New York.

The owner of the café asked Berlin to write an original song (a rival café had done the same). Berlin came up with “Marie from Sunny Italy” and a legend was born (as was his name since his real name of “Israel Isidore Baline” was misprinted as “I. Berlin”).

“He was so thrilled to be here [in America],” explains LeFevre. “He lived the American Dream and is the perfect example of a rags-to-riches story.”

From the success of his songs came Broadway scores and musicals and from there came Berlin’s undying patriotism. During World War II, he supported the U.S. soldiers by writing patriotic songs like “Any Bonds Today,” donating the proceeds from the movie “This Is the Army” to the military, and going abroad to perform for the troops. And no one could ever question the patriotism of the man who wrote “God Bless America.”

LeFevre explains that Berlin lifted people’s spirits during wartime through his songs, and that same element is sorely needed today.

“His songs are very poignant,” says LeFevre. “And it’s amazing how relevant this show is today and how much we need to hear these songs. These are songs about love, the human condition and experiencing joy even in the most difficult times. He had a way of making people laugh about the war during war time.”

After a short pause, LeFevre adds, “Especially now, that we’re at war, I think this kind of music is definitely needed.”

But how can Berlin, a man who never embraced the changing trends of music (and who eventually lived the rest of his long life as a recluse), reach modern society with songs from another time period and social consciousness?

LeFevre says Berlin’s music is able to do this because he wrote from his soul.

“There’s no question that the same emotions are coming across,” explains LeFevre. “In rehearsal, we were going through the song ‘I’ll be loving you always’ and it has the men going off to war and the women finish the song alone. At the end of it, there wasn’t a dry eye in the cast. Despite being written so many years ago, it’s still powerful enough to move my cast to tears.”

But this isn’t a show about crying. So the director, Ray Roderick, quickly told his cast that the performance was great, and to do it with more optimism and to keep hope alive.

It’s an important and appropriate message, especially coming on the heels of the sixth anniversary of Sept. 11 and a report that American troops may remain in Iraq. And it’s a message that Berlin would have conveyed to the downtrodden and despondent in society.

“I wish I could say ‘thank you’ to him,” says LeFevre. “I really hope that wherever he is now, that he’s looking down and is proud. And I hope I can give new life to these songs.”