In 1914, Irving Berlin, already world-famous for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” became a charter member of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Arrangers and Publishers. Until then, holders of copyrights on songs were compensated only haphazardly for the use of their work; Stephen Foster, the most popular American songwriter of the previous century, died in 1864 with three cents and some Civil War scrip in his wallet. ASCAP’s monitoring and payment system allowed Berlin and his heirs (his three daughters are still alive) to prosper from his output, which was astonishing in its size and has proved even more so in its durability. He wrote at least 1,200 songs, of which perhaps 100 are still instantly recognizable, at the heart of American music.
But each year dumps another bushel of Berliniana into the public domain; if the songs are not gathered into a new dramatic work that remonetizes them, the income they produce for the rights holders drops to zero. And there you have what may be the most compelling reason that a contraption called Holiday Inn, the New Irving Berlin Musical has just opened the Roundabout’s Broadway season at Studio 54. I don’t mean to be cynical: Who wouldn’t try to keep working the family mine while there’s still ore left in it? And it is a noble thing to promote Berlin’s songs, with their profound simplicity about mixed emotions. But it’s hard to watch Holiday Inn and not ask why, if the cart was going to be put before the horse, the cart wasn’t better built.
Anyway, it’s less of a cart than a jukebox. Holiday Inn is based, of course, on the 1942 Bing Crosby–Fred Astaire movie about a Connecticut hostelry run by a song-and-dance man who has left the business. On national holidays — the only times the joint is open — he produces there a suitably themed revue, giving Berlin the opportunity (the plot was his idea) to write a clutch of suitably themed numbers. You already know what he came up with for Easter and Christmas; you can easily guess what holidays go with “Plenty to Be Thankful For,” “Let’s Start the New Year Right,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” and “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers.” If that last one is obscure, get a load of “I Cannot Tell a Lie” for Washington’s Birthday and the minstrel number “Abraham” for Lincoln’s. Horribly enough, the latter was, in the film, performed in blackface.
The authors of the new show — the book is credited to Gordon Greenberg, who also directed, and Chad Hodge — have wisely dumped the presidential numbers. Less wisely, they have undermined their own gimmick by cramming the score with too many others. Among the 22 songs, many more relate to the wisp of a love-triangle plot than to the supposed theme, thus emphasizing the buildup instead of the payoff. And that buildup is tedious, as the former song-and-dance man, Jim Hardy, and his hoofer ex-partner, Ted Hanover, compete for the affections of Lila Dixon, a leggy bimbo, and then Linda Mason, a homey good girl. Indeed, the lumpy structure makes you wait until nearly the end of the first act for the “inn” numbers to start, and thus for the show to get moving. At that point a terrific production number of “Shaking the Blues Away,” led by Megan Lawrence as a butch “fix-it man” — don’t ask — briefly makes you forget how unsatisfying the show has been so far.
Partly that’s because of problems endemic to the jukebox genre. The shoehorning of songs from one context into another, often based on a superficial aptness, feels too on-the-nose, as when “Blue Skies” is made to cover Jim’s transition from city to country because of, you know, the blue skies. To force other songs to fit into the story, violence is done to them musically, as when “Cheek to Cheek,” that paean to suavity, keeps jerking its tempo in strange directions to demonstrate the leading man’s agitation. And then there’s the other jukebox problem. With not only “Blue Skies” and “Cheek to Cheek” and “Shaking the Blues Away” but also such classics as “Heat Wave,” “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” vying for time, the portions are too small or too jammed together to enjoy. We don’t even get the verse to “White Christmas,” just two choruses and good-bye until the finale. Perhaps that’s an attempt not to step on the toes of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, a subtler jukebox that opened on Broadway in 2009 and has played all over the country since. That show gave each of its far fewer numbers — including “Blue Skies” — plenty of time. Holiday Inn is, by contrast, less a “New Irving Berlin Musical” than a new Irving Berlin medley.
But that seems to have been the intention, using the cover of old-fashioned family entertainment to excuse the let’s-throw-it-all-on-the-stage aesthetic. The emphasis on brightness and speed is so extreme that the show too often feels paradoxically dim and tiresome. (The sets are flat, the lights are glare-y, and the costumes are garish.) Certainly the dialogue, which is mostly backfill, doesn’t help. In a far too typical sequence, Linda reminisces about how her father always said, “Time marches on.” (Really? Her father did?) Jim responds, “I like that” — and cue the song “Marching Along With Time,” a not-great Berlin number written for, and dropped from, the movie Alexander’s Ragtime Band. On another occasion I guffawed for the wrong reason when an agent, trying to stop Jim from breaking up the act, said, “You know what happens in Connecticut? Nothing. You’ll end up wearing plaid and repressing your feelings.” At that moment Jim was wearing a very plaid outfit.
Sloppiness and corniness emphasize but are not the source of the problem. Holiday Inn was coherent but mediocre, and in some spots patently offensive, in the early 1940s; why did anyone think it would clean up well for our day with just a few superficial modifications? We expect more of new musicals than hackneyed tributes to an earlier era’s status quo; in fact, we expect more from old musicals, too. Must we really have the Jew-out-of-water agent in Connecticut? The brainy Asian boy? The beaming chorus of undifferentiated enthusiasts? At the very least, as long as the adapters were reconfiguring the leading women (there’s really only one in the movie), they might have given them something richer to play than I need to be a star or I need a husband. As it stands now, whenever Linda, who is of course a schoolteacher, says her work is rewarding or that she enjoys her independence, we are meant to understand that this is a joke. No woman could, when there is an unmarried song-and-dance man in town!
Somehow, though, Lora Lee Gayer, a notably funny Young Sally in the most recent Follies revival, puts sufficient spin on the character to make her lovable. If the others don’t achieve as much, they at least perform their numbers serviceably. (As Ted, Corbin Bleu aces the Fourth of July tap number that Denis Jones has choreographed, one of only two in the show given enough time to really spark — in this case literally.) But all the charm in the world could not compensate for the reverse alchemy that has turned Berlin gold into brass plate, and Holiday Inn into Labor Day.
Holiday Inn is at Studio 54 through January 15.