03 July 2014

Born on the 3rd of July - George M. Cohan

George M. Cohan overlooks Times Square
The first lines of the musical George M! are "George who?"
Indeed the George I write of today is no other than George M. Cohan
Though he liked to claim July 4th as his birth, George most probably was born on the 3rd in Providence, RI.
My first encounter with this song and dance man draped in red, white, and blue was my freshman year of high school. I was in the cast of the Park High's fall musical George M! The biographical musical from the 1967 Broadway season is a behemoth of Cohan story and musical material. It did a fair business on Broadway and starred Joel Grey as Cohan. In an odd turn of events, the Park edition of the show had a considerable amount of re-writes, clocked in at just over 3 hours. Not sure our audience was ready for that kind of time commitment. A guy named Mike played Cohan and I was the unofficial understudy- I did not know that until he was late to one of the performances.
I think I wrote more about the Park musical in another post.
1942's Yankee Doodle Dandy is a much swifter telling of the Cohan story with some details left out but still a load of Cohan tunes.
Cagney's performance was a grand slam. It was suggested that Jack Benny may have been asked to play the role but turned it down.
Back to Cohan.
He did it all- act, write, dance, direct, produce, compose. He was a rare breed of performer. George more than likely picked up those skills from being on the vaudeville circuit with his family since infancy. Vaudeville was something akin to YouTube these days- a smorgasbord of entertainment from juggling to tumbling to stand up comedy and music. All these acts would fill a bill at a local theater- often performing multiple times a day. Then after a day or so in one town they would travel to another destination and do it again. The goal for most acts to make it to the big time- to get a steady gig and a guaranteed number of dates with one of the larger theater circuits.
I think Cohan grew tired of the Vaudeville grind and being under the thumb of producers as he reached adulthood.
By 1901 Cohan wrote, scored, directed and starred in his first musical "The Governor's Son." 
It played at the Savoy Theater on Broadway for 32 performances and then did a national tour.
His family were also in the cast.
He went on to write, direct, act in or produce more than 100 shows. He also composed upwards of 500 songs- 2 of which were cited for his receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor : Grand Old Flag and Over There. Yankee Doodle Boy and Give My Regards to Broadway are also widely popular Cohan songs.
His musical theater creations pioneered the American musical play tradition by fusing the play with music and lyrics and action which propelled the story along. Most of his musicals are largely forgotten these days- Little Johnny Jones probably being the exception. But his style of show would soon dominate Broadway and continues to this day.
List of Cohan shows 
Lengthy Bio of Cohan for Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame

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