MUSICAL COMEDY IS BORN

This article was originally published in The Story of America's Musical Theater. David Ewen. New York: Chilton Company, 1961. pp. 65-76.

IF there is one man who can be singled out as the father of musical comedy as we know it today he is George M. Cohan. Musicals like Little Johnny Jones (1904) and Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway (1906) were neither extravaganza nor burlesque, neither operetta nor revue. This was a completely new form, combining some of the elements of all these branches of our musical theater. From the extravaganza, musical comedy took attractive costuming, mountings, and production numbers; from burlesque--travesty, satire, and chorus girls; from operetta--romance and glamour, a world where good always triumphs over evil and the boy always gets the girl; from revue--the star system and the set routines for principal performers.

Yet musical comedy also brought something fresh and new and personal: a racy American identity. In George M. Cohan's musicals the characters were the kind Americans were familiar with personally or through newspapers and magazines (a jockey, an ex-boxer, a U.S. Senator, a super-patriot, a manufacturer, and so forth). The settings were also familiar--New Rochelle, Broadway, or Washington, D.C., for example. All this may have been true more or less with the burlesques of Harrigan and Hart and Charley Hoyt, but what was not true of them--and was of Cohan's musicals--was that the dialogue was also colloquial and native; the lyrics and the music had a light and jaunty air about them uniquely American; and the over-all spirit engendered by the Cohan productions were breezy, cocksure, energetic, chauvinistic in an unmistakably American kind of way. One of Cohan's pet routines was to drape an American flag around his body and run up and down the stage singing the praises of country and flag. Figuratively speaking, the American flag was also draped all around the body of his musical comedies.

George M. Cohan's musicals were only one of many expressions of national pride prevailing in the early 1900's. The birth of the 20th century had brough a new era to this country. America had just gone through a brief and victorious conflict with Spain, and was about to extend her influence further by leasing the Canal Zone in Panama for the construction of a canal. The country was prosperous. Everywhere were signs of growth and expansion: in the West through the application of science to agriculture and through the development of railroad transportation; in the South with the exploitation of natural resources and the rise of factories; in the East through the bulging of the modern city and through expanded trade with Europe. The new century thought in big terms. The trust had become a giant in industry: a survey in the early 1900's revealed that some 5000 organizations had been swallowed up into less than 300 trusts. Finance was controlled by giants like Rockefeller and Morgan. The first skyscraper (the Flatiron Building in New York in 1902) carried a similar concept of bigness to architecture. Sheet music, newspapers, magazines, novels achieved bigness through fabulous circulations.

The new century looked into the future with confidence as electricity, the telephone, and other inventions opened new vistas. The railroad, the trolley car, the subway, and the automobile were quickening the tempo of everyday movement and living.

Everyone seemed conscious of the promise held by the new century. Consequently there was a bulging of the national ego, and a wave of chauvinism began to sweep over the country. It found a voice in the rousing marches which John Philip Sousa was writing. It was reflected in the books of Jack London, Edith Wharton, and Frank Norris, who sought out American backgrounds, experiences, and characters for their stories. It was found in serious composers beginning to free themselves from European traditions and thinking by having them write American music: composers like Henry F. Gilbert, who based concert music on minstrel-show tunes and Negro spirituals, like Edward MacDowell, who wrote symphonic works with American-Indian melodies and rhythms, and Walter Damrosch, who created an American opera in The Scarlet Letter. Native American drama emerged in plays like The Gread Divide by William Vaughn Moody. Ziegfeld was glorifying the American girl. And, completely in the spirit of the times, George M. Cohan was writing American musical comedies.

George M. Cohan established some of the rules that would govern musical comedy for many years. Any thread of a plot, however slender, served Cohan's purpose, just so long as it could tie together into a neat package the kind of songs he liked to write, the kind of dances he liked to perform, the kind of humor he liked to project, and the kind of characterizations, ideas, and routines he liked to present. It did not concern him overly that the coincidences dramatizing his story and carrying it to a denouement were far-fetched, that the situations into which he thrust his people were highly improbable, and that most of his material was sublimely irrelevant to the basic plot line. The only thing he was interested in was projecting his cogent, dynamic, irresistable personality across the footlights and through that means providing an audience with an evening's entertainment.

And the personality he projected over the footlights with such assurance and skill was his, and his alone. He wore his hat cockily over one eye; and in his hand swung a bamboo cane. He sang out of the corner of his mouth with a peculiar nasal twang. He would continually gesture to his audience with a forceful forefinger as he delivered a homey message. He liked to strut up and down the stage as if it were his entire world, and he its emperor. He liked best of all to sing the praises of his country dressed up in a flag.

He wrote his own plays, lyrics, and music. But that was not all. Often he was the star performer as well, and occasionally even part producer. He was, in an age of trusts, occasionally even part producer. He was not equally gifted in every department, and he knew it. "I can write better plays than any living dancer," he once remarked facetiously, "and dance better than any living playwright." And again: "As a composer I could never find use for over four or five notes in any musical number . . . and as a playwright most of my plays have been presented in two acts for the simple reason I couldn't think of an idea for the third act." But for all his limitations--and they were many--he was a cyclone that helped fell old ideas, foreign approaches, decadent procedures. A showman to the tips of his fingers and his nimble toes, he carried into the theater a gust of fresh wind and a quickened heartbeat. He helped to lift musical productions out of the doldrums into which they were rapidly succombing through such dying forms as the operetta, burlesque, and the extravaganze; he carried our musical theater to the threshold of modernity.

He was literally born into the theater, in Providence, Rhode Island, on July 3, 1878. (Later on in his life he liked to tell people he was a Yankee Doodle boy born on the Fourth of July; but his birth certificate refuses to co-operate with him.) His parents--Jeremiah and Helen Cohan--were veteran vaudevillians. When children arrived (George Michael was the youngest of three) they were dragged by their parents around the country to live in broken-down boardinghouses, and wait in musty, drafty dressing rooms of decrepit theaters. Under such conditions, a formal education of any kind was out of the question for George. His training came not from the three R's but from the grease paint, the buck and wing, and meticulous, split-second timing in delivering a joke or a song.

Even as an infant he made stage appearances, used as a prop in a vaudeville skit. He spoke his first lines on the stage when he was nine, and at ten he joined his sister Josephine as regular members of an act henceforth billed on the vaudeville circuit as "The Four Cohans." Little George did a specialty number as a bootblack, performed buck and wing steps, recited sentimental poems. But this did not satisfy him. By the time he was eleven he started writing material for the act, and two years after that he contributed some of its songs for which he wrote melody and lyrics. Before the end of the 19th century veteran vaudevillians like the dynamic May Irwin were singing his songs, one or two of which were numbered among Tin Pan Alley's leading hits ("I Guess I'll Have to Telegraph My Baby," for example).

By 1900, the Four Cohans was a vaudeville headline act earning $1000 a week, and was appearing in the country's foremost theaters including the Tony Pastor Music Hall in Union Square. Young George M. Cohan was the act's star performer now, as well as its writer, composer, lyricist, and business manager. And yet he needed more worlds to conquer! He was now thinking of the Broadway stage. With a caution that did not usually characterize him he first penetrated the legitimate Broadway theater by expanding his vaudeville sketches into full-length musicals. But this did not work out. The Governor's Son (1901) and Running For Office (1903) were failures. It was then that he decided to write an original full-length Broadway musical with new material.

One of the most famous American jockeys of that period was Tod Sloan, who had gone to England in 1903 to ride in the Derby for the King of England. Sloan provided Cohan with the main character for his new musical, Little Johnny Jones. A visit to England where Cohan had been impressed by the dock at Southampton and the courtyard of one of London's hotels, contributed two settings. With these as his start, Cohan dashed off libretto and songs within the space of a few weeks. Then he himself staged the show, and when it came to the Liberty Theater on November 7, 1904, he played the title role. The plot was a mixture of unbelievable episodes and developments. Johnny Jones, an American jockey come to London to ride in the Derby, is falsely accused of being in league with big-time gamblers and of having thrown the race. A detective, who throughout the play poses as a drunkard, is hot on the trail of evidence to clear Johnny. The Jockey first learns that his innocence can be proved at Southampton, where he has come to bid bon voyage to some American friends sailing for home. "Give My Regards to Broadway" he sings to them nostalgically, in what has since become one of Cohan's most frequently heard numbers. A prearranged signal of fireworks, leaping from shipboard, is to inform Johnny if the detective has come upon the evidence necessary to clear him. As the boat glides off in the distance, the shooting flames leap skyward from the boat. The villain in the play is an American gambler who runs a Chinese gambling establishment in San Francisco. The heroine is Goldie Gates, with whom Johnny is in love and to whom he can now propose marriage, having been cleared of guilt.

"Give My Regards to Broadway" is one of two songs made famous and introduced by Cohan in Little Johnny Jones; the other was the first of his celebrated chauvinistic hymns, "Yankee Doodle Boy". Cohan also assumed in this musical some of the stage tricks and mannerisms henceforth to identify him: that kangaroo dance step, for example, and the rendition of homespun philosophy in a recitation entitled "Life's a Funny Proposition After All."

Before Little Johnny Jones came on the Broadway scene several productions had been labeled musical comedies. Some of them suggested a few of the approaches or techniques of a later-day musical comedy. But it is with Little Johnny Jones that American musical comedy appears with most of its recognized physical features and stereotypes. Later on, musical comedy would become slicker, smarter, more sophisticated; but its basic style, format, spirit, and aesthetics were those crystallized by George M. Cohan in 1904.

Little Johnny Jones was not received favorably by the critics. At first it looked as if its life on Broadway would be seriously curtailed by public apathy. Cohan closed it down after only 52 performances and took it on tour where he rewrote some of the scenes and tightened the structure. Out of town the musical was received most enthusiastically, encouraging Cohan to bring it back to Broadway where it now had an eminently successful engagement.

Cohan's second full-length musical comedy proved even more successful, Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway (1906). It's setting is the prosperous suburb of New York, New Rochelle, and its complicated story had to do with a lost will which, when finally found in an old suit of clothes, brings an inheritance to a lovable housemaid, Mary Jane. But Mary Jane is in love with Kid Burns, a man of principle who refuses to marry a girl for her money. Since love means more to Mary Jane than wealth, she destroys the will.

Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway created a disturbance among the citizens of New Rochelle who felt that their community was being slandered by some of Cohan's wry comments about suburban life and its people. Even before the play opened, the Chamber of Commerce voted to boycott the play and denounce it as libel. This, of course, did not keep the play from opening, nor, for that matter, from being successful from the first night on. When the Chamber of Commerce came to the realization that Cohan was rapidly making New Rochelle famous, rather than the reverse, it quietly dropped all charges.

The best Cohan songs were the title number and two tunes inspired by the heroine, "Mary's a Grand Old Name" and "So Long, Mary". Beyond these songs, the musical boasted performances by two eminent artists. One was Fay Templeton as Mary Jane in her first performance in what was described at the time as "a clean play" after two decades in burlesque and at the Weber and Fields Music Hall. (Indeed, it was for her that this musical was written.) The other was Victor Moore as Kid Burns, a charming no-good who likes playing the horses, loafing, and getting into trouble--a character inspired by a one-time pugilist, also named Kid Burns, whom Cohan had known personally. Victor Moore had come to the Broadway stage after rich experience in vaudeville and stock companies, and it was here that he introduced the first of many characterizations as a sad-faced, broken-voiced comic.

Later the same year of 1906 a second outstanding George M. Cohan musical appeared on Broadway, George Washington, Jr. Cohan here starred himself as a super-patriot who assumes the name of the first President of the United States and who succeeds in arousing an equally ardent patriotic fire in his father, an Anglophile. The flag routine that was a Cohan invention and specialty was a notable attraction in this show, for which Cohan wrote "You're a Grand Old Flag". Strange to say, a considerable stir of opposition was at first created among patriotic circles against this song before the musical comedy opened. Cohan was inspired to write it when a G.A.R. veteran, colorbearer during Pickett's charge on Gettysburg, told him about his war experiences and remarked "she's a grand old rag" while pointing to a nearby flag. In Cohan's first version of his song he used the word "rag" for "flag", much to the chagrin of numerous patriots who felt that "rag" was a slur. When Cohan revised his lyric to replace "flag" for "rag" all was forgiven and forgotten.

Hardly a season passed between 1906 and the end of World War I without at least one, and sometimes several, Cohan musicals on Broadway. The best were The Talk of the Town (1907), The Yankee Prince (1908), The Man Who Owns Broadway (1909), The Little Millionaire (1911), and Hello Broadway (1914). He also wrote all the material for the Cohan Review in 1916 and 1918, besides being the author of some outstandingly successful nonmusical plays including Get Rich-Quick Wallingford and Seven Keys to Baldpate. In addition to all this, during the period of World War I, he wrote a popular song with which that conflict will always be associated and which must always be included among the most famous American war songs of all time--"Over There". A quarter of a century after it was written, this song earned Cohan a special gold medal at the hands of President Roosevelt.

Cohan, then, soared as high as anybody could on Broadway in the era preceding and during the First World War. He was Mr. Broadway--by virtue of his plays, musical comedies, songs, performances as actor, owner of theaters, and producer. Then came the first of several incidents to change him into a bitter man.

In 1919, the Actors Equity Association called a strike in an effort to gain recognition from theater managers as a bargaining agent for its members, and also to remedy some abuses. Cohan joined the producers and managers in an all-out fight against Equity, and, before long, became the spearhead in the attack. The fact that many of his friends, and others who had been recipients of his benefactions, were on Equity's side seemed to Cohan like an act of treachery. In his eyes this struggle was no longer one between employer and employee, management and labor, but one between Cohan and ungrateful friends. He was intransigent in his position that there was no place for unionism in the theater. He refused to compromise. When Equity won out, and other producers rushed to make peace, Cohan looked on this development as personal defeat. He turned away from his former friends and business associates. He dropped his membership in actors' clubs and closed down his producing firm. He insisted for a while that he was through with Broadway theater for good.

The sad part of this situation--and its crowning paradox--was the fact that it was not Cohan who was through with Broadway theater but Broadway theater that was through with him. When this truth dawned on him, it became the second blow to destroy his spirit. He did not stay long in retirement; the blood of the theater was still warm and restless within him. He soon started writing again--musicals as well as nonmusicals--and producing them on Broadway. Most were miserable failures, while only one or two were moderately successful. "I guess people don't understand me anymore," he confided sadly to a friend, "and I don't understand them. It's got so that an evening's entertainment just won't do. Give an audience an evening of what they call realism and you've got a hit. It's getting too much for me, kid."

What he could not realize was that the theater had grown, whereas he had stood still. Librettists, composers, lyricists with sharper and more original gifts than his--with greater imagination, inventiveness, and technical skill--were beginning to teach Broadway how naive were Cohan's simple homilies, how ingenuous were his sentimental lyrics and melodies, how absurd his manufactured plots and synthetic characters. The product Cohan was trying to dispense in the 1920's was just too old-fashioned for a knowledgeable and sophisticated audience because it was exactly the same kind of product he had sold in the early 1900's.

He was administered an additional bitter dose of medicine in Hollywood in 1932, where he had gone to star in The Phantom President. He expected the red-carpet treatment befitting one who had been a lord and master in the theater for a quarter of a century. What he found instead were producers and directors trying to teach him how to act and sing. When an attempt was even made to show him how best to perform a flag routine--which he regarded as his personal property--he exploded. He finished the picture under duress and vowed never again to make another. "If I had a choice between Hollywood and Atlanta, I'd take Leavenworth," was the way he put it.

Nevertheless there were still some triumphs left for him to enjoy. In 1933 he starred on Broadway in Eugene O'Neill's comedy of American life at the turn of the century, Ah, Wilderness! His performance completely won the hearts of critics and audiences. In 1937 he again received accolades for his acting ability when he impersonated President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Rodgers and Hart musical comedy, I'd Rather Be Right. And in 1942 his life story was dramatized in a magnificent motion picture called Yankee Doodle Dandy in which James Cagney's impersonation of Cohan won an Academy Award. The day on which this motion picture opened in New York was proclaimed by Mayor La Guardia as "George M. Cohan Day" and (since this was during World War II) a capacity audience had purchased about 6 million dollars of war bonds to gain admission to the première performance. And 2 years before this, in 1940, President Roosevelt had conferred on him a gold medal.

To anybody else, all this would have represented a personal victory of the first magnitude; for Cohan it all had a hollow ring. In Ah, Wilderness! he was appearing in somebody else's play and speaking somebody else's lines. In I'd Rather Be Right he was singing somebody else's songs. When he did manage to appear on Broadway with something of his own he was vigorously rejected. His last musical, Billie (1928) stayed on less than 4 months and lost money, and his last nonmusical play, The Return of the Vagabond (1940) had only 7 performances. "They don't want me no more," he remarked when the latter play closed. And he never again was seen on the Broadway stage.

He died a little over 2 years after that--in New York on November 5, 1942--with all the honors a grateful theater could bestow on one who had been a giant. It is not hard to attack the Cohan musicals from the critical standards of today. It was not even difficult to attack Cohan while he was still popular and successful, and many did. James S. Metcalf, for example, wrote in Life in the early 1900's that Cohan was a "vulgar, cheap, blatant, ill-mannered, flashily-dressed, insolent smart Alec who, for some reasons unexplainable on any basis of common sense, good taste, or ordinary decency, appeals to the imagination and approval of large American audiences." Yes!--Cohan was flashy, obvious, trite, naive, cocksure, and sentimental. But no historian of the American musical theater can underestimate his achievement in creating the musical comedy. "He put the symbols of American life into American music," said Mayor La Guardia when Cohan died; he might have gone further and added that Cohan put the same symbols on our stage. "He was the greatest single figure the American theater ever produced," said Gene Buck. Cohan had been on the stage 58 years. In that time he wrote about 40 plays, collaborated on 40 others, helped to produce another 150, and published over 500 songs. But, most important of all, he was the first important creator of musical comedy--and for this reason, if for no other, his immortality is assured.

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