IRVING BERLIN'S AMERICA Celebrates Milestones
Steele Spring Stage Rights, the Los Angeles-based play-publishing firm, has signed a contract to publish and license the play-the first play telling the life story of master songwriter Irving Berlin. "Berlin, who was a fanatically private person, blocked every attempt in his lifetime to dramatize his life story," Deffaa said. "Over the years there were many different stage, screen and TV producers-from BBC television to MGM--who wanted to dramatize Berlin's life in one way or another; he stopped every one of them.
"I once wrote an article in The New York Post, noting that a top New York supper club, Michael's Pub, was about to open a biographical revue celebrating Berlin's life. Berlin, who was way up in his 90s at the time, read my article, phoned the club, and threatened its owner, Gil Wiest, with legal action. Berlin said that people could do what they wanted after he was dead; but he would not permit anyone to dramatize his life as long as he was alive; he just wanted to be left alone. A shaken Gil Wiest-and it sure took a lot to shake that man--cancelled the planned salute. He was startled to get the phone call from Berlin because Berlin was virtually a total recluse for the last 20 years of his life. No one saw him."
Deffaa noted that another time, singer-songwriter John Wallowitch invited Deffaa and others to gather outside of Berlin's townhouse on Beekman Place, to serenade Berlin with his famous songs on Christmas Eve. "It was freezing cold that night-it was like 7 degrees outside-and I told John Wallowitch I'd pass." Deffaa recalled. "But John managed to round up 18 friends who sang Berlin songs for an hour outside Berlin's home. Then John rang the doorbell. To his surprise, Berlin-wearing a monogrammed silk bathrobe-answered the door himself, saying he'd been listening to the group sing his songs and thought it was the best imaginable Christmas present; he invited everyone into his home and served them hot chocolate and coffee. And from time to time afterwards, Berlin would call John on the phone, at two or three in the morning. John was flattered to get the late-night phone calls-even if they woke him up-from the famously reclusive Berlin. He'd tell me about Berlin. The idea for writing a play about Berlin was born them.
"Berlin was the most successful songwriter in history. For 50 years, he turned out more hits and made more money than any other writer. Yet he could not actually read or write music. He could play or hum or sing numbers he created, which a musical secretary would then commit to paper. His life, as well, as his music, fascinated me. I devoted years to researching his life."
ASCAP award-winner Deffaa, whose previous Off-Broadway successes include "George M. Cohan Tonight!" and "One Night with Fanny Brice," has now written no less than five different scripts about Berlin, each featuring different songs and stories. "Irving Berlin's America" is the first of the five to get a New York production, a cast album (Original Cast Records), and a publisher. "Eventually I hope to get all five of the Berlin scripts out there; they're available for licensing now."
Tonight's post-performance celebration will also honor Giuseppe Bausilio, who is turning 17. "He's a remarkable young man," said Deffaa "I think the world of him; so does his costar, veteran Michael Townsend Wright, who plays Berlin. So we're glad to have tonight's audience join him after the performance in wishing him happy birthday. We'll ask our music director, Richard Danley, to play one extra number, after the curtain calls-so the audience can help us in singing 'Happy Birthday to You' to Giuseppe. Born in Switzerland, Giuseppe speaks seven languages fluently. He's won gold, silver, or bronze medals in international dance competitions every year since 2006. He starred on Broadway in 'Billy Elliot,' and he's currently doing my show while simultaneously appearing on Broadway in 'Newsies.' And we're also looking forward to singing a song from the show one night at Jim Caruso's 'Cast Party' at Birdland, too; that will be fun. I don't know where Giuseppe finds all the energy. But God bless him. I think Mr. Berlin would have liked him. We'll toast the ghost of Mr. Berlin tonight, too--since this is the anniversary of his first hit, too. A lot to celebrate in one night!"