Today marks the 75th anniversary of George M. Cohan's death
Designed by Georg John Lober the statue was unveiled on September 11, 1959, the culmination of the efforts of a memorial committee dedicated to enshrining Cohan’s contributions. Now more than ever, statues stand out in our mental landscape reminding us of what we once thought important and why. Our current moment is such that consideration of those depicted in public sculpture can be seen as a divisive act. The intention here is not division, but rather to submit a modest proposal on why Cohan and his work are still worth our attention. While recognizing that a career as long as Cohan’s deserves larger investigation, this small offering attempts the briefest peaks into the man’s life and career.
George Michael Cohan was born in Providence, Rhode Island on July 8, 1878. There is some debate about the date; Cohan claimed July 4th as his birthday, and scholars sometimes record it as July 3rd. Born to second generation Irish performers, Cohan was incorporated into his parents’ vaudeville act while still a baby, and grew to be the principal composer and sketch writer for the family troupe. Known as the Four Cohans, the act also included George’s younger sister Josephine, and later, his first wife Ethel Levey. The family’s Broadway debut came in 1901 when young George adapted his own popular sketch, The Governor’s Son, into a full-length work. The musical farce retained vaudeville’s fast-paced comedy adding in “catchy” tunes. A critic who saw the show in Washington D.C. described the main character, played by Cohan, as “thoroughly American, there is just nothing like this young fellow to be found in other lands.” In his earliest work, Cohan created his ideal American, a patriotic optimist who isn’t afraid to speak or sing about his love of country.
Though successful on tour, The Governor’s Son and his follow-up, Running for Office both closed after fewer than 50 Broadway performances. Cohan’s third full-length production, Little Johnny Jones, proved to have more staying power. Cohan plays the role of the titular character Johnny, inspired by real-life American jockey Tod Sloane, who travels abroad to compete in the English derby. When Johnny loses and is accused of throwing the race, he insists on clearing his name before returning to America. After the real villain is revealed, Johnny comes home only to discover his girlfriend, Goldie Gates, has been kidnapped by the same culprit who framed him for the race. In traditional melodramatic form, the villain is apprehended, and Johnny and Goldie are reunited by the end. Cohan highlights the patriotic qualities of his American by surrounding him with exaggerated absurdities of English culture thus elevating his hero in the eyes of the audience. Writing for New York Public Library’s Musical of the Month blog, musicologist Elizabeth Titrington Craft takes a closer look at the “overt and more insidious ways” the show portrays “what and who qualified as true-blue American.”
George M. Cohan died on November 5, 1942. His funeral service at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral was attended by thousands. Friends and mentees served as honorary pallbearers and included composer Irving Berlin, theater critic Brooks Atkinson, producer Lee Shubert, and Eugene O’Neill. No other theatrical artist of his time composed, wrote, performed, staged, and produced to Cohan’s extent, often all within the same production. After his death, production of his work fell off sharply. Though the 1968 biographical musical George M! enjoyed some Broadway success, a 1982 revival of Little Johnny Jones starring Donny Osmond was a total flop and closed after a single performance. His statue in Times Square is seen but likely given little regard by the thousands who pass it each day, a part of the fixed architecture of New York. Yet, his talent, his prolific output, and his deceptively simple explorations of what makes an American are very much worthy of our consideration. Perhaps now more than ever.
Morgen Stevens-Garmon is the Associate Curator for the Theater Collection at the Museum of the City of New York. The Museum is currently engaged in digitizing over 900 scripts, scores, and sheet music by George M. Cohan. Digitization of the Edward B. Marks Music Co. Collection on George M. Cohan is made possible through a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Once cataloged, materials will be publicly available through the Museum’s online Collections Portal at http://collections.mcny.org.
 ‘George Cohan in ‘Little Johnny Jones’ at the Columbia.’ The Washington Post, October 31, 1905, pg. 5.
 Craft, Elizabeth Titrington. “Musical of the Month: Little Johnny Jones,” https://www.nypl.org/blog/2012/07/21/musical-month-little-johnny-jones
 “Cohan revives his ‘Song and Dance Man,’” New York Times, June 17, 1930, pg. 34.
 Patrick Julian, "Let the Orchestra Go, but Carry the Gallery: The mythic portrayal of FDR in I’d Rather Be Right,” New England Theatre Journal 9 (1998), 56.
 Ibid., 53.
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