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Musical of the Month
Musical of the Month: A Biography of George M. Cohan
A guest post by Professor William Everett.
His statue stands in Times Square, the only one located at the "Crossroads of the World." This legendary showman did it all—actor, writer, composer, producer, manager, sheet music publisher. If one individual had to be chosen as an embodiment of the breadth of the stage entertainment industry at the turn of the twentieth century, an ideal choice would be George M. Cohan (1878-1942).
Born into a family of vaudevillians, it comes as no real surprise that George, while a child, became part of a family act with his parents and sister appropriately called The Four Cohans. Thanks to the young man's entrepreneurial and management skills, by 1900 the team was among the most popular on the variety circuits. At the same time, the youthful Cohan began to write plays and musicals, compose songs, and direct stage productions. His multi-faceted talents came together in 1904 for this month's "Musical of the Month," Little Johnny Jones. Cohan created the book, lyrics, and music for the show, as well as serving as its director, co-producer, and star. He continued to write, direct, produce, and headline shows for more than twenty years. Among Cohan's more notable musicals are Forty-five Minutes from Broadway (1906), George Washington, Jr. (1906), Hello, Broadway! (1914), Little Nellie Kelly (1922), and The Merry Malones (1927). Cohan did not limit himself exclusively to musical theater; his non-musical plays include Seven Keys to Boldpate (1913) and The Tavern (1920). On the business side of things, Cohan established an important partnership with Sam H. Harris that lasted from 1904 until 1920. In addition to producing musical comedies, revues, and straight plays, the team created a publishing company and acquired financial interests in several New York theaters.
Cohan possessed a strong sense of dramatic and musical pacing. At times this was rapid while at others more sentimental. His deeply rooted ability to control the overall flow of a work was matched by his careful attention to detail. This dualistic approach concerning the larger plan of a musical as well as a focus on its most meticulous aspects defined, in part, a Cohan show.
Cohan’s career moved in a slightly different direction in the 1930s when he appeared in works by other creators. He starred in three significant productions during the decade: the early film musical.The Phantom President (Paramount, 1932, with a score by Rodgers and Hart), Eugene O'Neill's play Ah, Wilderness!(1933), and George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's musical satire I'd Rather Be Right (1937, again with a score by Rodgers and Hart). In The Phantom President, Cohan played a dual role—first as the stuffy banker Theodore K. Blair, a presidential candidate who lacks personal charisma, and second as "Doc" Varney, a song-and-dance man who looks just like Blair. Rather than giving Blair a personality makeover, the banker's political campaign hires Doc to impersonate their man in order to gain votes. In I'd Rather Be Right, Cohan played not a fictional presidential hopeful but rather a theatrical incarnation of real-life President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Phantom President and I'd Rather Be Right are especially significant in that they are the only musicals in which Cohan starred but did not write, and both have overt political themes. Cohan, whose stage persona in shows such as Yankee Doodle Dandy did so much to define an American identity in the early years of the twentieth century, moved to playing national-level politicians in the 1930s. These were not overt and straightforward jingoistic patriotic roles by any means, for Cohan was anti-Union and reportedly was opposed to FDR and his policies.
Even though Cohan lacked formal musical training, he wrote over 500 songs, many of which became extremely popular. In addition to "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "Give My Regards to Broadway" from Little Johnny Jones, other especially significant songs include "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Mary's a Grand Old Name," "Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway," and the monumental patriotic song for two World Wars, "Over There." Cohan's songs have tremendous appeal because of their decidedly uncomplicated nature. They are easily remembered due to their generally straightforward form (introduction, two verses, chorus), direct lyrics, and unfussy musical language. Their relatively narrow vocal ranges make them eminently singable, whether as solos or in group settings.
George M. Cohan remains one of the most significant figures in American musical history. His life and work inspired a musical film and a stage musical: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), in which James Cagney played Cohan, and George M! (1968), featuring Joel Grey as the legendary showman. Yankee Doodle Dandy focuses on Cohan's musical legacy, fictionalizing aspects of its subject's personal life. The splendid re-creations of two scenes from Yankee Doodle Boy, "Yankee Doodle Boy" and "Give My Regards to Broadway," are among the film's most memorable moments. George M!'s thin book chronicles Cohan's career, but the show's highlights, following the lead of Yankee Doodle Dandy, rests in its impressive production numbers. Cohan was thus immortalized both in film and on stage, and it seems entirely appropriate that a statue of this quintessentially American entertainer, fittingly situated on Times Square, continues to greet throngs of theatergoers and tourists on a daily basis.