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All Aboard for Broadway
In 1900, most Americans sincerely believed there was no problem that a little "Yankee know-how" and a dash of common "American" decency couldn't fix. George M. Cohan's writing reflected this jingoistic exuberance, expressing it as no other playwright or songwriter had. At first, New York critics did not know what to make of his shows, but the American public swiftly embraced him as one of their own.
Cohan's first Broadway musical, The Governor's Son (1901), was a near miss. It was an expanded version of one his vaudeville sketches, involving the comic misadventures of several guests at a country resort a woman (Josie) in search of her runaway husband, two older battling newlyweds (Jerry and Nellie), and a vivacious girl (Ethel) competing with a widow for the attentions of a Governor's son (George -- of course).
From this show onwards, George invariably cast himself as an impertinent quipster with a heart of gold his idea of the perfect American for the new century. Cohan's dialogue relied heavily on vaudeville-style wisecracks
Poor Broadway reviews sent The Governor's Son packing after an unimpressive 32 performances. However, provincial audiences delighted in this show's simple, wholesome humor. The Cohans trouped it around the country for two profitable years. Running for Office (1903) also failed in New York before turning a profit on the road -- again starring the Cohans. Then George was introduced to Sam Harris, a gambler and boxing promoter who combined a solid business sense with a passion for the theater. Cohan and Harris formed a partnership that became something of a Broadway legend in its own right.
Little Johnny Jones
With its patriotic yet sentimental story of an American jockey who is falsely accused of throwing the English Darby, Little Johnny Jones (1904) was the breakout hit George had long hoped for. Yankee honesty eventually wins out as the jockey wins vindication as well as the heart of the all-American girl he loves. George wrote the script and the songs, produced, directed, and starred in the title role. There were tailor-made roles for all of the Cohans, with Ethel cast as George's love interest. The score was Cohan's best to date, including several memorable hits. In "Yankee Doodle Boy," jockey Cohan celebrated a few things that he and the fictional Jones supposedly had in common
In "Give My Regards to Broadway," the disgraced Johnny, forced to remain in England and defend his reputation, asks his friends boarding an ocean liner bound for home to
After the liner pulled away, it reappeared on the distant horizon, an electrified miniature passing across the stage backdrop. When a flare from the ship (an innovative stage effect in 1904) proclaims that documents proving the jockey's innocence had been secured, Cohan broke into a joyous victory dance.
Cohan changed the definition of a Broadway leading man. Tap dancing with a lightness that seemed to resist gravity while still looking manly, he broke out of the invisible box that had long restricted male dancers in the theatre. Cohan's dance routines covered the whole stage, even sending him up the side of the proscenium for back flips.
There was no other performer, songwriter or playwright like Cohan at the time, and some critics were not sure how to react to his openhearted combination of catchy melody and patriotic sentiment. Audiences loved him. Little Johnny Jones made two return trips to New York during its triumphant year-long tour. George M. Cohan was finally recognized as one of Broadway's top stars, a distinction he relished (despite occasional denials) for the rest of his life. With his dream of stardom fulfilled, he set his sights even higher. As he reputedly told a friend
Theatre owner E.L. Erlanger asked Cohan to write a show for musical comedy star Fay Templeton. The result was 45 Minutes From Broadway (1906), in which a suburban housemaid gives up an inheritance so she won't lose the big city smart-aleck she loves. Templeton co-starred with newcomer Victor Moore, who began his long reign as one of Broadway's favorite comic actors. Cohan's wisecrack-rich dialogue still echoed his years in vaudeville
But the overall story line had genuine charm, and the score included "So Long Mary," a catchy title tune, and the perennial favorite "Mary's a Grand Old Name"
While that show was en route to Broadway, Cohan was already working on a new vehicle for his family minus Josie, who was pursuing her solo dance career. George Washington Jr. (1906) featured George as the son of a U.S. senator (Jerry), refusing his father's efforts to marry him off to a titled English woman because he loves a simple Southern girl (Ethel). Aside from some political pot shots ("The senate is the finest body of men that money can buy."), the show boasted the wildly popular "You're a Grand Old Flag." Cohan claimed he got the idea for this song when he overheard a Civil War veteran lovingly say of his battalion's tattered banner, "She's a grand old rag." When a critic complained about referring to the Stars and Stripes as a rag, Cohan changed the word to "flag."
Cohan had clearly hoped his marriage would be like that his parents enjoyed, but Ethel Levey was too talented to stay in George's shadow for long. Tensions rose between them, no doubt fueled by suggestions in the newspapers that Josie Cohan resented Ethel. When George's occasional overnight "writing" sessions at various hotels became more frequent and prolonged, Ethel suspected the worst -- as it turns out, with good reason. In 1907, she obtained a divorce on grounds of adultery. Ethel remained one of vaudeville's most popular headliners and raised daughter Georgette on her own.
Within months, George married Agnes Nolan, a chorus girl who was refreshingly unimpressed with his fame. Sam Harris soon married Agnes' sister -- and the longtime partners became in-laws.
George and Agnes Cohan had three children, Mary, Helen and George, Jr. The last birth was difficult, and the use of morphine as a prescribed pain killer left Agnes with chronic health problems that were never publicly discussed. She became a homebound recluse and some sources suggest that George eventually found extramarital distractions -- resulting in at least one illegitimate son. But the marriage endured, and George's peccadilloes remained well-kept secrets until long after everyone involved was dead.
Cohan's professional habits became the stuff of legend --
While most sources refer to Cohan's "flag waving," patriotic fervor was only one of the noteworthy elements in his work. Many of his songs and plays also reflected his ethnic roots. Theatre historian John Bush Jones writes
Cohan had always known how extraordinary his talents were. Some considered him an egotist he just saw himself as being invariably right. Cohan biographer John McCabe offers this view --
Cohan was also noted for his professionalism and private generosity. His abrasive, demanding style covered a tremendous empathy for anyone else who shared the theatrical profession. No one cared more about theater people, and no one was as willing as Cohan to help out a performer or stage hand suffering from hard times or poor health. Unlike most Broadway producers, Cohan and Harris were unfailingly fair to actors and authors. Such qualities made it hard to hate Cohan. He was so popular with his fellow actors that they made him the "abbot" of the Friar's Club for two terms -- a unique honor.
On to: Part III
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