'This is the Army:' Mr. Churchill, Mr. Berlin

11/22/2017 12:53 pm ET

The story is so good it sounds apocryphal. But it is entirely true.

In February 1944, Irving Berlin, America’s greatest Russian-born songwriter, was in London performing at the Palladium in his wildly successful servicemen’s show, This is the Army, written by Berlin as a fundraiser for the war effort. After opening on Broadway in July 1942 with a cast of 359 soldier-performers, and running there for 113 sold-out performances, This is the Army had toured the U.S. before arriving in London the previous November (with a slimmed down cast of 150). The show’s stint at the Palladium continued to be both a huge hit and a huge danger, with bombs falling throughout the run, including one that crashed through the roof during a performance, dangling, unexploded, from the flies.

Berlin was living at Claridge’s when he received an invitation from Winston Churchill to lunch at Downing Street. Churchill’s private secretary, John Colville, recorded in his diary what transpired at that lunch. The date was February 9, 1944:

“The other guests were the Duchess of Buccleuch, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff [Field Marshall Alan Brooke] and Lady Brooke, James Stuart, Juliet Henley and Mr. Irving Berlin,” Colville noted. “After lunch the P.M. forestalled Irving Berlin, asking leading questions:

“‘When do you think the war will end, Mr. Berlin?’

“‘How is war production in the United States?’”

According to Berlin’s biographer, Laurence Bergreen, Berlin hesitantly responded, “‘Oh, we’re doing fine… But if Roosevelt doesn’t run again, I don’t think I’ll vote at all.’

“‘You mean you think you'll have a vote?’” Churchill inquired, wide-eyed.

“‘I sincerely hope so,’” Berlin replied, barely masking his mounting confusion.

“‘That would be wonderful,’” Churchill went on. “‘If only Anglo-American cooperation reached such a point that we could vote in each other's elections. Professor, you have my admiration.’”

Perplexed at being pegged “Professor” by Winston Churchill and feeling utterly out of his depth, Berlin soon lapsed into silence.

“It later transpired that the reason Mr. Irving Berlin had been bidden to lunch was a comic misunderstanding,” Colville confided to his diary. “There are sprightly, if somewhat over-vivid, political summaries telegraphed home every week from [our] Washington Embassy. The P.M., inquiring who wrote them, had been told by me, ‘Mr. Isaiah Berlin, Fellow of All Souls and Tutor of New College.’ When Irving Berlin came over here to entertain the troops with his songs, the P.M. confused him with Isaiah and invited him to lunch – and conversed with him, to his embarrassment – as if he had been Isaiah.”

Berlin (Irving) returned to Claridge’s wondering why Winston Churchill had summoned him without ever asking a single question about This is the Army. Isaiah Berlin, also Russian-born, went on to become England’s greatest philosopher and political thinker of the latter-20th Century. Churchill, for his part, exited the luncheon that day muttering to an aide, “Berlin's just like most bureaucrats. Wonderful on paper but disappointing when you meet them face to face.”

On Veteran’s Day just a week or so ago, This is the Army was revived for one night only in a concert version here in NYC at Feinstein’s/54 Below, a supper club in the the old Studio 54’s basement. It was the first revival of This is the Army since the show’s opening 75 years ago (just around the corner, in fact) at the Broadway Theatre, off 53rd Street.

I was enormously curious.

The revived This is the Army possessed a new book written (as well as produced and directed) by one Jason Ferguson, a young theatrical with an intriguing resume: mounter of plays in offbeat settings around London (a room over a pub, an old train tunnel), also an award-winning advertising copywriter and creative director apparently, and a bit of a social media savant. Ferguson’s concert version wedged Berlin’s originally massive musical onto Feinstein’s tight nightclub stage with a cast of six and a five piece band. Reductionist, however, it was not. Utilizing as it’s source material a charmingly candid memoir, The Songwriter Goes to War, written by This is the Army’s original stage manager, Alan Anderson, the hour-long production explored the show’s backstory while giving full voice to Berlin’s legendary score. Knockout renditions of, among others, “This is the Army, Mr. Jones,” “God Bless America” and “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” were delivered by performers standing in for Alan Anderson, Kate Smith and Mr. Berlin himself (Tommy McDowell, Ally Bonino and James Penca, respectively), while also illuminating lesser-known gems from the score like “What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear” (well put over by Elijah Caldwell).

Mostly, though, the new version dwelled on what, in retrospect, may be the most compelling aspect of This is the Army: its ground-breaking offstage social engineering. Many African-American performers populated the original cast, thus creating, by default, the only integrated military unit in America’s fiercely segregated armed forces. The equality and independence of that unit was preserved, protected and defended by Berlin personally against the racism of superior officers, who would not permit black and white soldiers to perform together onstage. Offstage, at least, Berlin demanded they be free to fraternize, travel and bunk together. The Army grudgingly acceded.

This is the Army’s cast of showbiz soldiers also inevitably numbered quite a few who were homosexual. Again protected by Berlin, they were free, if they chose, to come out, within the company’s confines. Many did, the first openly gay soldiers in U.S. military history.

These facts were nicely dramatized by the new production without over-statement. In fact, they proved unexpectedly moving, both for me and for my daughters, Lea and Sara, ages 14 and 12, who dug the great songs in This is the Army but really leaned forward with special empathetic attention when the plight of the show’s black and gay original cast members was touched upon. It made This is the Army matter in a way that nether Winston Churchill nor Irving Berlin could have imagined.

Berlin intended the show as a morale booster for the Allies and their soldiers. He would ultimately donate every penny that This is the Army grossed to the Army Emergency Relief Fund — more than $2 million (over $30 million today). As it turns out, This is the Army remains a morale booster today for very different reasons. What went on in front of the curtain seems secondary to the breakthroughs behind the scenes. It’s a shame, really, that Winston Churchill did not get to ask Irving Berlin questions he actually was equipped to answer; questions about his show, This is the Army. That might have turned into quite a conversation.

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