Say It With Music: The Irving Berlin Saga


Say It With Music: The Irving Berlin Saga
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Say It With Music tells the story of Irving Berlin, a Russian immigrant with no formal education, and his pursuit of the American dream as he becomes the most successful songwriter in the world. Using dozens of popular hits from Berlin’s voluminous songbook, this show about the master songwriter and the country that shaped him is as American as apple pie!


In his 90s, Irving Berlin is the most successful songwriter in history. But he’s also become a cantankerous old recluse, who believes the world has passed him by. He begins dictating recollections to his long-suffering secretary, and for him the years start to slip happily away. He relishes recalling his rags-to-riches life— the immigrant kid from Russia who became an American institution.

He remembers it like it was yesterday— the early 20th century, when “Everything in America was Ragtime,” and he was being hailed as its king. He tells how his idol, George M. Cohan, “the man who owned Broadway,” championed him, and gave him a chance to introduce any new song of his in the “Friars’ Frolic.” And the song Berlin came up with became the biggest hit in a generation, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” He becomes internationally famous. Pictures of him at his beloved piano run in countless newspapers and magazines (“I Love a Piano”).

He’s lionized on his first visit to England. British reporters are surprised that they seem to know Berlin’s songs better than he does (“Araby,” “I’m Down in Honolulu…”), and when they hand him sheet music, he’s unable to play it. He confesses he can neither read nor write music; he plays the piano by ear— and not too well, at that. When he creates songs, a musical secretary puts on paper whatever songs he plays, sings, or hums. The skeptical reporters ask if they can witness the process; Berlin proceeds to create a song for them on the spot, on a subject they provide (“That Dying Rag”).

A fierce attack of homesickness forces him to cut short his visit to England, and he’s glad to get back to his home in NYC (“I Beg Your Pardon, Dear Old Broadway”). Home is important to Berlin, and he hates being away from his home any more than is absolutely necessary. He’s felt that way ever since he witnessed, as a small boy in Russia, his own family’s home being burned to the ground during a pogrom. The impoverished family made their way to America and started over. He sang for pennies on the street (“The Schoolhouse Blues”), and wherever else he could.

By his mid-teens, “home” for Berlin is a rough beer hall (with an opium den and whorehouse above it) on the Lower East Side, run by the local “fixer,” Mike Salter. For several years, Berlin works as a singing waiter for Salter, whom Berlin says is like a second father to him. (Berlin’s father died when he was young.) Berlin begins making up songs, which he sings, and which others at the joint sing as well (“I’ve Got to Have Some Lovin’ Now”). Berlin keeps singing, even when one customer is murdered right in front of him (“Everybody’s Doin’ It Now”).

With the help of musician friends, he gets his first songs published. He has no intention of becoming a professional songwriter; it’s just a little sideline. But when he gets fired from Mike Salter’s place, he scrambles to turn out as many songs as possible, desperate to make a living. He’s surprised to find his songs sell well. He’s amazed when he realizes it’s possible to make thousands of dollars from a single song (“My Wife’s Gone to the Country”).

Other performers start seeking out Berlin for songs to sing, from vaudeville stars like Sophie Tucker (“Stop! Stop! Stop!”) to an aspiring 19-year-old singer named Dorothy Goetz, with whom Berlin falls in love. Within a few weeks of their meeting, they’ve set a wedding date and are dreaming of married life together (“In a Cozy Kitchenette Apartment”). Dorothy’s father urges Berlin to take good care of his daughter (“Always Treat Her Like a Baby”).

On their honeymoon, Dorothy contracts typhoid fever. And she dies from it. Inconsolable, Berlin is unable to work at all for months. Eventually he pours his feelings into a song, in remembrance of Dorothy. And he returns to his work, full-time. It will be ten years before he so much as looks at another woman. But the song he’s written in remembrance of Dorothy proves to be an enormous hit— and his first mature ballad: “When I Lost You.”

Always deeply patriotic, Berlin serves his nation in the First World War by creating, producing, and appearing in an all-servicemen show, designed to boost morale and raise funds for the war effort (“We’re on Our Way to France”).

After the war, in the booming Jazz Age, Berlin becomes a major force on Broadway. He builds his own Broadway theater, the Music Box, and keeps it filled with revues he creates (“Bring on the Pepper”). He writes often for famed Broadway impresario Flo Ziegfeld, as well, creating the theme for the Ziegfeld Follies, “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.”

He eventually falls in love with Ellin Mackay, and they hope to marry (“Settle Down in a One-Horse Town”). But her fiercely anti-Semitic father, tycoon Clarence Mackay, does everything he can to thwart their romance, from threatening to cut her off financially, to putting physical distance between her and Berlin. Berlin worries their romance might not survive (“Someone Else May be There While I’m Gone”). But— in defiance of her father— she marries him and will remain his faithful partner for life.

Berlin is a major contributor to American popular culture of the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s… For him, the greatest satisfaction is that he gets to know and work with the greatest performers of his time. He recalls legendary stars, and numbers of his that they sang, such as Broadway’s longtime king, Al Jolson (“This is the Life”); endearing song-and-dance comedian Eddie Cantor (“Mandy”); Ziegfeld star Fanny Brice (“Wild Cherries”); two of his all-time favorite screen stars, Judy Garland and Fred Astaire (“When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam”); Hollywood icon/sex symbol Marilyn Monroe (“You’d be Surprised”); and musical-comedy queen Ethel Merman (“The International Rag”).

But of all the accomplishments in his life, the one he’s proudest of, Berlin says, is the all-servicemen show This is the Army that he created, produced, and appeared in during the Second World War, which raised ten million dollars for the cause. Servicemen got to express their feelings through songs by Berlin (“I’m Gonna Pin a Medal on the Girl I Left Behind”), and Berlin himself got to reprise a song he introduced during the First World War, “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”

But with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, Berlin found his role in popular culture changing. The phone wasn’t ringing as often. Young performers weren’t calling, asking to record the newest Irving Berlin songs. He found himself spending more and more time alone at home, writing quality songs that no one seemed to want. He was slipping into an unchosen retirement (“Lady of the Evening”).

Old friends at MGM give him hope. They pay him the largest sum ever paid a composer for a film. They’re planning a new Irving Berlin musical, with a mix of old and new songs that will be the biggest thing in MGM history. Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Julie Andrews will head an all-star cast. The film will be called Say It With Music. And they’ve commissioned top writers for the script. He can see it now(“Say It With Music”).

But there’s a corporate upheaval at MGM. Berlin’s old friends are forced out. A new young regime comes in. They cancel the plans for Say It With Music. They don’t want to spend a dime on an Irving Berlin musical. The times, they are a-changing. And the new management is focused on the youth market. To them, Berlin is passé.

Berlin can’t believe his career might end like this. He’s still writing new songs and touching up old ones, hoping— in his 90s— that there might still be one last hurrah, whether on Broadway or in Hollywood (“Everybody Step”). He wonders if everyone has forgotten him.

It’s now Christmas Eve. He hears carolers approaching his home. He is surprised and touched when he realizes they are serenading him with his songs (“Say it with Music— Reprise”). And Berlin, who has been a recluse for many years, opens his door, invites them in, and tells them they’ve given him the best possible Christmas gift.

Berlin died in 1989, at the age of 101. But his music lives on. As we’re reminded in an encore (“Play a Simple Melody”/“Musical Demon”).



(Note: Cast size is expandable and can be played by anywhere from 3 to 10 or more actors.)

Irving Berlin is this play’s central figure. At the start of the play, he is 98 years old; he is dressed in a conservative suit; he wears black-rimmed glasses and uses a cane. He is a rather crotchety, cantankerous old man (but in a loveable kind of way; if he comes across as mean or hostile and the audiences dislikes him, the play will not work). This play is a memory piece, and we will subsequently see Berlin at different stages of his life. If he is recalling himself as a young man, he will not use the cane or the glasses. He might take off his suit jacket. And his spirit will seem more buoyant. If he is recalling himself as a small boy (cheerfully singing “The Schoolhouse Blues,” for example), he might don a newsboy cap (which has been preset somewhere, perhaps on a hatrack). At the end of the play, Berlin will put on a robe.

Hilda is Berlin’s long-suffering secretary. She has been with him for 44 years and is used to the fact that he can be a bit of a curmudgeon. Nothing fazes her.

George M. Cohan, Berlin’s friend and champion, is a dapper, confident song-and-dance man, playwright, songwriter, and producer. Hailed in his day as “the Man Who Owns Broadway,” he was portrayed superbly by James Cagney in the biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Reporters The script has Berlin being greeted in London by two British reporters, one male and one female. (If you’re using a large cast, you can add additional reporters, of either gender, if desired.)

Mabel Jackson is a hotsy-totsy entertainer at the rough joint where young Berlin works as a singing waiter. Her dress and makeup are a bit flamboyant, in a low-class kind of way. When Berlin first meets her, he mistakes her for a prostitute.

Mike Salter runs the rough joint where young Berlin works. It is a beer hall on the Lower East Side, with a whorehouse and opium den above it. A Russian immigrant, Mike is a powerful man in the community— not just the boss of a popular nightspot, he is the neighborhood “fixer,” the man who can make seemingly any problem go away. To young Berlin, he is an admired father figure.

Sophie Tucker is, when we meet her in the play, a rising vaudeville star. She appreciates the same sort of sassy, sexy songs a Mabel Jackson might like to sing, but puts them over with more class. She sings in a deliberate, authoritative style. She is a hefty, well-dressed woman, who can carry off a stylish fur or a boa with ease. She carries herself with the regal bearing of the great star she knows she will soon be.

Ted Snyder is a song publisher and songwriter who published early songs by Berlin and also collaborated with him on songs. Ted Snyder imagined himself to be better than Berlin, because Berlin came from such humble origins. But Berlin had a much greater talent and soon eclipsed Snyder.

Berlin’s Mother is a Russian Jewish immigrant, who speaks with a strong accent, doesn’t fully understand her son’s success as a songwriter. Her only wish is that he finds himself a nice woman to marry.

Dorothy Goetz is a 19-year-old singer in vaudeville. Sweet, sincere, demure, and pretty, she shows up at Berlin’s office, asking if she could introduce a song of his on stage, and winds up becoming Berlin’s first wife. (In this play, she sings a duet with Berlin, “In a Cozy Kitchenette Apartment.”)

The Second Gal is another vaudeville singer who shows up at Berlin’s office at the same time as Dorothy Goetz, also seeking to introduce a song of Berlin’s. She is brash, pushy, aggressive— and winds up physically fighting over Berlin with Dorothy Goetz.

Dorothy’s Father only wants the best for his 19-year-old daughter, who is marrying Irving Berlin after a brief courtship. He expresses his wishes when he sings to Berlin “Always Treat Her Like a Baby.”

Goldie is the devoted secretary of Flo Ziegfeld, the Broadway impresario and creator of the world-famous Ziegfeld Follies.

Ellin Mackay, who becomes Berlin’s second wife, is smart, sophisticated, and free of prejudice. She comes from one of the wealthiest families in America, but would be happy to give up everything for the man she loves She sings a duet with Berlin, “Settle Down in a One-Horse Town.”

Clarence Mackay, father of Ellin Mackay (who became Irving Berlin’s second wife), was one of the wealthiest men in America. An insufferable bore, he was narrow-minded and anti-Semitic; he did not want his daughter— who was Christian— marrying Irving Berlin— who was Jewish. And he was used to getting his way.

Joe Schenck isa top Hollywood movie mogul, has been a lifelong friend of Irving Berlin, going back to their days on New York’s Lower East Side.

Al Jolson billed throughout his life as “the World’s Greatest Entertainer,” was a huge favorite of audiences— and of Irving Berlin. On songs he made famous, such as “Swanee,” “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goo’ bye,” and “California Here I Come,” he projected tremendous vitality. (You can listen to samples of his work on YouTube.) In this show, he performs with gusto an early hit of Berlin’s that he introduced, “This is the Life.”

Eddie Cantor was a beloved star of vaudeville, Broadway, radio, film, and early TV. In this musical play, he sings Berlin’s song “Mandy,” which he sang in the motion picture “Kid Millions.” (And which you can find on YouTube.) Also in this play, Berlin recalls fondly how well The Nicholas Brothers tap-danced to that number. If the play is performed with just three actors, Berlin himself can tap-dance to “Mandy.” But if you have a large cast, when Berlin mentions the Nicholas Brothers, you could have two actors representing the Nicholas Brothers— a peerless African-American dance team— tap-dance.

Fanny Brice (portrayed memorably by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl) became America’s highest-paid singing comedienne. Berlin became friends with her— and wrote songs for her— even before she was famous. In this musical play, she sings with verve an infectious early ragtime song of Berlin’s, “Wild Cherries.”

Judy Garland and Fred Astaire were, of course, two of America’s best-known stars. In this musical play, they’re seen doing a number, “When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam,” which they performed in the motion picture Easter Parade. You can find clips of them doing that number (and many others, of course) on YouTube.

Ethel Merman was for decades Broadway’s biggest female star; her brassy, commanding voice was widely known. In this show, she sings Berlin’s “The International Rag,” which she sang in the motion picture “Call Me Madam.” You can find many samples of Merman’s work— including her rendition of “The International Rag”— on YouTube.

Marilyn Monroe an American icon, sang Berlin’s “You’d Be Surprised,” in her famous sexy style, in Berlin’s motion picture “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” (And she sings it in this show) You can find many samples of Monroe’s work (including this song) on YouTube.

A Soldier for the purposes of this musical play, is a tenor; he sings the wistful ballad “I’m Gonna Pin a Medal on the Girl I Left Behind,” as part of Berlin’s all-servicemen show This is the Army.

Setting: The play opens in the home of Irving Berlin, 17 Beekman Place, New York City. We are in the Berlin’s study, and he is 98 years old. It is the morning of December 24, 1987. The setting should be simple, because this play is a memory piece, and subsequent scenes will take us through Berlin’s long life (which spanned the years 1888-1989).

  1. Everything In America Is Ragtime
  2. Alexander's Ragtime Band
  3. Piano Man
  4. I Love A Piano
  5. Araby
  6. I'm Down In Honolulu Looking Them Over
  7. The Dying Rag
  8. I Beg Your Pardon, Dear Old Broadway
  9. The Schoolhouse Blues
  10. I've Got To Have Some Lovin' Now
  11. Do Your Duty, Doctor
  12. Everybody's Doin' It Now
  13. Mary's A Grand Old Name
  14. My Wife's Gone To The Country
  15. Stop! Stop! Stop!
  16. Tell Me, Little Gypsy
  17. Smile And Show Your Dimple
  18. In A Cozy Kitchenette Apartment
  19. Always Treat Her Like A Baby
  20. When I Lost You
  21. We're On Our Way To France
  22. Bring On The Pepper
  23. Smile And Show Your Dimple-Reprise
  24. A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody
  25. Settle-Down In A One-Horse Town
  26. Someone Else May Be There While I'm Gone
  27. After You Get What You Want You Don't Want It
  28. This Is The Life
  29. Mandy
  30. Wild Cherries (Wild Cherry Rag)
  31. When The Midnight Choo Choo Leaves For Alabam
  32. You'd Be Surprised
  33. The International Rag
  34. I'm Gonna Pin A Medal On The Girl I Left Behind
  35. Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning
  36. Lady Of The Evening
  37. Say It With Music
  38. Everybody Step
  39. Say It With Music--Reprise
  40. Play A Simple Melody--Musical Demon
  41. Bows Music--Say It With Music
  42. Exit Music--Piano Man

Billing responsibilities, pertinent copyright information, and playwrights' biographies are available in the show rider that comes with your license agreement.

Materials: Digital Materials are provided via email as downloadable PDF files for you to print in-house. All materials are yours to keep! No deposits, no returns.

Required production materials for Say It With Music:

  • Cast Scripts
  • Vocal Books
  • Director's Script
  • Stage Manager's Script
  • Orchestrations
  • Piano/Vocal Score


  • Piano