Musical of the Month: Little Johnny Jones

By Douglas Reside, Lewis and Dorothy Cullman Curator, Billy Rose Theatre Division
July 21, 2012
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

A guest post by Elizabeth Titrington Craft.

Little Johnny Jones pamphlet., Digital ID g99b742_001, New York Public Library

"I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy / A Yankee Doodle do or die / A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam / Born on the Fourth of July." If these lines conjure up a familiar patriotic ditty, perhaps learned in school or heard at Independence Day celebrations, then you already know one of the hit songs from George M. Cohan's 1904 musical Little Johnny Jones. This landmark show tapped into the nationalism of the day and fashioned Cohan's public persona, earning him his reputation as the "Yankee Doodle Dandy" himself. Cohan's theatrical "flag-waving" and his vision of nationhood both delighted and raised hackles, but they were impossible to ignore.

With its fast pace, colloquial language, and patriotic themes and tunes, Little Johnny Jones proved a prototypical Cohan musical. A certain plot template emerges from Cohan's so-called "flag plays," many of which were set abroad: Americans run amok in London or Paris, where fortune-hunting British noblemen, in cahoots with title-hunting American parents, create hurdles for brash young Yankee heroes and their charming sweethearts. In Little Johnny Jones, the musical's title character, loosely based on the real-life jockey Tod Sloan, has traveled to England to ride in the English Derby. Jones is in love with the heiress Goldie Gates, but Goldie's aunt Mrs. Kenworth, a wealthy widow and the leader of the San Francisco Female Reformers, has traveled to England to arrange Goldie's marriage to a British earl. Goldie intervenes, however. Unbeknownst to her aunt or Jones, she, too, has made the trip abroad, disguising herself first as a French mademoiselle and then posing as the earl himself. Meanwhile, the dastardly villain Anthony Anstey, "king" of San Francisco's Chinese lottery, has become betrothed to Mrs. Kenworth in order to reap her riches and quash her reform efforts. When Jones is accused of throwing the Derby, it looks like not only his honor but also his chance with Goldie is lost. But Whitney Wilson, the mysterious eccentric who turns out to be an undercover investigator, exposes Anstey as the crooked agent behind Jones's set-up. In the end, Wilson takes down the Chinese lottery, Mrs. Kenworth learns her lesson that an upright American beats an English earl any day, and Jones and Gates are happily reunited.

Amidst the upheaval wrought by industrialization, imperialism, and immigration, Little Johnny Jones informed audiences in overt and more insidious ways about what and who qualified as true-blue American. The cast list found in the libretto at the Museum of the City of New York and on playbills used the national label liberally, describing Johnny Jones as "the American Jockey" and Anstey as "an American Gambler." Cohan was billed in playbills and advertisements as "the Yankee Doodle Comedian." Starring as Jones, Cohan epitomized his own vision of the model American – young and energetic, honest and forthright, and a bit cocksure. In the entrance number "Yankee Doodle Boy," Jones introduces himself as patriotism personified:
I'm the kid that's all the candy,
I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy,
I'm glad I am,
[Chorus]: So's Uncle Sam

The refrain, which begins with the opening lines of this post, hammers home this personification of patriotism. The song is laden with musical and lyrical references from other well-known tunes, and some critics decried Cohan's lack of originality. But listeners loved the "brassy and bass-drummy" sound (in the words of one writer).

It may seem ironic that a musical so fixated on patriotism and American identity is set abroad. In part, setting the show in England allowed for suitably "exotic" colorful scenery and fun novelty numbers like "'Op in Me 'Ansom," in which a chorus of hansom cab drivers and female reformers sing about touring London. The European-American encounter of these shows also served up ample opportunities for a somewhat chauvinistic brand of humor, as when the heroine Goldie (in disguise as Mlle. Fanchonette) asks Anstey, "What makes the Americans so proud of their country?" "Other countries," he quips in response. In another scene, the humorously undiplomatic and apparently oblivious Wilson delivers London a backhanded compliment:

Wilson. I certainly had a good time here in Pittsburgh.
Starter. Pittsburgh?
Wilson. I mean, London. Ain't it funny I always get these two towns mixed? London and Pittsburgh. But say, no joking, London is a great town for fun.
Starter. Right you are, sir.
. . .
Wilson. And you take it from me, for a good time London makes Worcester and Springfield look like thirty cents.

The meeting of Europeans and Americans provided plentiful fodder for jokes while sending the clear message that traveling abroad may be fun, but life at home in the United States is best.

Little Johnny Jones pamphlet., Digital ID g99b742_009, New York Public Library

Yet Little Johnny Jones reflected the nation's lurking anxieties at the turn of the century as well as its confidence. Apprehension about European influence can be seen in the threat of Goldie's arranged marriage to the Earl of Bloomsbury, for example. Common wisdom on "international" or "foreign" marriages, the contemporary terms for those marriages between titled Europeans and high society Americans, held that the member of the nobility was seeking wealth and the American (or her parents) jockeying for a title. In this regard, Little Johnny Jones reflected contemporary distaste (tinged, perhaps, with admiration or envy) for these unions. The other major danger in the show, the Chinese lottery, is associated with another group of outsiders. While Cohan is careful to note in the script that the lottery is "controlled by Americans" and that the Chinese emperor would disapprove, like many playwrights of the period, he also traffics freely in offensive stereotypes of Asian characters for the sake of a cheap laugh. One such joke plays on the stereotype of the Chinese laundryman: "Just the fellow I want to see," exclaims the tactless Wilson upon meeting the Chinese character Sing Song. "Say, if I give you some laundry tonight, can I get it Friday night?"

Nor do the outsiders within the United States' borders escape commentary, though Cohan's messages about immigrant Americans are decidedly ambivalent. The Chinese Americans and, in absentia, southern European immigrant characters remain outsiders. And in the second verse of "Yankee Doodle Boy," Jones employs nativist rhetoric, citing his parents' old-stock lineage to justify his Americanness:

Father's name was Hezekiah,
Mother's name was Ann Mariah,
Yanks through and through,
[Chorus:] Red, white and blue.
. . .
My mother's mother was a Yankee true,
My father's father was a Yankee too;
. . .
[Chorus:] Oh, say can you see anything about my pedigree that's phony?

This is a surprising statement from Cohan given that he, as a third-generation Irish American, could hardly claim such a lineage. And indeed, Cohan also shows his Irish American character, Timothy D. McGee, to be a "good man" and a good American, ultimately pairing him with the wealthy Mrs. Kenworth.

Little Johnny Jones, Digital ID th-30242, New York Public Library

Amidst the lessons in nationalism were the makings of a successful, "Cohanesque" style of entertainment. Journalists took to adjectivizing Cohan's name to describe the musicals for which he was not only book writer, composer, and lyricist, but also typically director and co-producer (with Sam Harris) and frequently star. The plot of Little Johnny Jones, though light, was coherent. The scenery and costumes were handsome – one Boston review reported "eleven distinct changes of wardrobe" for the chorus. And an ambitious "transformation" scene at the end of Act II impressed audiences while conveying the excitement of a key moment in the plot. Disgraced by the accusations of throwing the English Derby, Jones chooses to stay ashore as the steamship leaves for the United States. The detective Wilson is to signal Jones when his innocence is proven. "Give My Regards to Broadway," Jones and the chorus sing. The ship sets out, a bell rings, the stage darkens… and then, a skyrocket is launched from the steamship as the sign that Jones's name has been cleared of wrongdoing. Jones sings a final, elated chorus before the curtain falls.

The music of Little Johnny Jones, though not particularly innovative, was pleasant and catchy, with Tin Pan Alley forms and generous doses of ragtime syncopation. "As a composer, I could never find use for over four or five notes in my musical numbers," Cohan wrote in a letter to a friend, and he claimed he "never got any further than…four F-sharp chords." But while his music does have a straightforward simplicity to it, Cohan undersells his musical know-how. Musically and lyrically as well as dramatically, he was a craftsman. And his delivery of his songs as singer-dancer-actor, in his distinctive manner of speak-singing, helped put them over. The patriotic style he used in "Yankee Doodle Boy" was the most striking, but the philosophical "Life's a Funny Proposition After All" and "Give My Regards to Broadway," which could be either warmly wistful or jauntily energetic depending on the performance, also became favorites.
Although the first Broadway run of Little Johnny Jones was relatively brief (52 performances), Cohan responded by taking the show on the road and then returning to New York in 1905 and 1907, for a combined total of over 200 New York performances. Cohan wrote in his autobiography, "It was the one and only Broadway 'comeback' I have ever known or heard of." Reviews were mixed. A few raved, and a few ranted. (Life described the 1907 production as "the apotheosis of stage vulgarity.") Most, though, conceded finding it enjoyable as entertainment if not up to the standards of serious drama. Most important to Cohan, it received the endorsement of the box office and made him a Broadway figure of note.

The Yankee Doodle boy / [words and music by] Geo. M. Cohan.,Little Johnny Jones. Yankee Doodle boy. Vocal score., Digital ID g98c154_001, New York Public Library

The songs from Little Johnny Jones have stood the test of time much better than the show. A silent film adaptation was released in 1923 and a Vitaphone "talkie" in 1930; neither is commercially available today. A Goodspeed Opera House revival opened on Broadway in 1982 but was panned and closed after one performance. An excellent recording by Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra is a good way to experience a broad swath of Cohan's music, however. And Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) is a fun, if not particularly accurate, biopic of Cohan's life, with James Cagney doing his rendition of Cohan performing "Yankee Doodle Boy" from Little Johnny Jones.

Now, as for the early twentieth-century audiences and critics, Cohan's proud and exuberant "flag waving" provokes strong reactions. Some may find it endearing, others embarrassing. His conception of American identity may seem wholesome, outmoded, or even objectionable. As we pack up the flags and sparklers from the Fourth of July, the debates over what – and whom – we celebrate rage on.

A note on the text from Doug:

The text below was transcribed by Ann Fraistat and encoded for eReading by me. It is based on a copy at the Museum of the City of New York which did not include any of the lyrics. However, many of the songs can be found in NYPL's Digital Gallery.

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