Benjamin Sears's THE IRVING BERLIN READER Published by OUP this April
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by BWW News Desk
Noted performer and music historian, Benjamin Sears has an unprecedented familiarity with both Irving Berlin's work and the writings about him, much of which he has brought together in the new, The Irving Berlin Reader, part of the Readers on American Music Series from Oxford University Press, available in stores on April 6, 2012.
Irving Berlin was, and continues to be, one of the most influential figures in the twentieth century of American music and popular culture. He worked in Tin Pan Alley, on Broadway, and was a pioneer songwriter for Hollywood musicals, writing over one thousand songs during his sixty-year career. Over those years, much was written about him in newspapers and magazines which has been lost to the general public.
Grouped into three sections based on the chronology of Berlin's life and work, each section and article in the book features a critical introduction which puts the material in the context of Berlin's life, work, and the wider culture. A final section is devoted to writings by Berlin on songwriting and a sampling of letters he wrote to business associates, friends, and even some fan letters to leading performers of his songs. Overall, the selections in The Irving Berlin Reader provide a new perspective on the songwriter which highlights his musical genius and artistic development.
Benjamin Sears, with pianist Bradford Conner, is a noted singer of the Great American songbook who has appeared throughout the US and Europe. With Conner he has four CD release of Irving Berlin, with two more in process, all part of an unprecedented seven-CD overview of Berlin's entire songwriting career. A hallmark of this series is many previously unrecorded songs. Sears & Conner have also recorded songs by George & Ira Gershwin, E.Y. Harburg, also featuring historic first recordings. Their Ira Gershwin CD, Delishious (the only CD release for his 1996 centenary), was acclaimed by The Boston Globe as one of the best CDs of 1995. With duo Valerie Anastasio & Tim Harbold they have performed and recorded songs by Cole Porter and Noël Coward, and songs written for Ethel Merman and Fred Astaire.
Sears & Conner are leading Berlin scholars with significant milestones, including the discovery in 1996 of a long-lost Berlin song, Santa Claus – A Syncopated Christmas Song, which was written in 1917, over twenty years before White Christmas. They later wrote about their discovery for Sheet Music magazine. Together they have researched and reconstructed Berlin's first three Broadway shows, Watch Your Step (1914), Stop! Look! Listen! (1915), and Yip Yip Yaphank (his 1918 Army show), all for performances (in first revivals) by the Boston-based ensemble American Classics. They also reconstructed and produced the first revival of the classic 1931 revue The Band Wagon by Howard Dietz & Arthur Schwartz and George S. Kaufman.
Sears has provided entries on Ann Ronell, Kay Swift, and Dana Suesse for American National Biography (Oxford University Press); and entries on Ronell and Anne Caldwell for the new "AmeriGrove" (OUP). Sears & Conner wrote an article on researching Broadway shows, Reconstructing Lost Musicals, for the Music Reference Services Quarterly in 2007. Sears was consulted for the PBS American Masters program Yours For a Song: The Women of Tin Pan Alley. He is currently working on an article, Putting The Wheels Back on "The Band Wagon", about the reconstruction of that show, for an upcoming edition of Studies in American Musical Theatre dedicated to Broadway revues.
As a conference speaker Sears has presented Bing & Fred: A Look at the Brief Partnership of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, for the Hofstra University Conference Bing! Crosby and American Culture in November, 2002. In March 2003, Sears & Conner were panelists at the Hofstra University conference The Broadway Musical – 1920-2020 where they performed Irving Berlin's Mandy with Doris Eaton Travis, who danced the number in the original 1919 Ziegfeld Follies. In 2008 they were featured performers at Fred Astaire – The Conference at Oxford University, England. In 2011 Sears & Conner, with Valerie Anastasio and Tim Harbold, did a program of Berlin songs from the 1930s for the Hofstra University conference 1935: The Reality and the Promise.
With Conner, Sears lectures regularly on the American song from the first half of the twentieth century, including a course, American Popular Song, 1900-1950 which covers the repertoire and songwriters they feature in their shows. Other courses and lectures have looked specifically at Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, the great American lyricists, and performers such as Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, and Judy Garland. Sears and Conner have been featured as guest commentators for a special cabaret program of the AEI In-Flight entertainment, Overture, heard on USAirways domestic and international flights during May and June, 1999. In April, 2002, they gave the pre-concert talk for Barbara Cook's Mostly Sondheim at Boston's Symphony Hall for the FleetBoston Celebrity Series.
Sears and Conner perform at colleges, concert series, and other venues. They made their European debut in June 2008 with a closing day concert in the historic Holywell Music Room for Fred Astaire – The Conference held at Oriel College, Oxford University in June, 2008 and attended by Astaire's daughter Ava Astaire McKenzie. In 2011 they appeared on the concert series at the American Cathedral in Paris, France. On radio they appear regularly as performers on Boston and regional stations; and on the nationally syndicated The Connection (WBUR-FM, Boston) they spoke as commentators on the Gershwins, Sir Noël Coward, and Fred Astaire. Sears and Conner are Producing Directors of American Classics and are founding members of the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists (BACA), an organization promoting awareness and performance of cabaret in the Boston area. In 1999 they joined forces with voice and piano duo Valerie Anastasio & Tim Harbold to create and tour a Noël Coward centenary program, Noël and Cole – Together With Music, followed by a second show, Fred & Ethel – Great Songs of Astaire and Merman, which was also nominated for a 2001 IRNE award.