George M. Cohan: NYC's Song and Dance Man

By Morgen Stevens-Garmon

Jan Lukas. Broadway & Times Square, 1967. Museum of the City of New York.

Jan Lukas. Broadway & Times Square, 1967. Museum of the City of New York.

There is a statue in Times Square that stands on the north side of 46th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue; not the Father Duffy sculpture for which the intersection is named, but a slightly smaller work found to the south of the formidable World War I priest. This statue depicts the great American song and dance man George M. Cohan. Measuring a solid three feet taller than its subject did in life, the statue celebrates a man who composed, directed, produced, or starred in over 100 Broadway productions, making him the most prolific musical theater artist in history.

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.”[1]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.

H. C. Miner Litho. Co. [The four Cohans in Running for Office.] 1903. Museum of the City of New York.

H. C. Miner Litho. Co. [The four Cohans in Running for Office.] 1903. Museum of the City of New York.

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.”[2]

“The Yankee doodle boy” sheet music, 1904. Museum of the City of New York.

“The Yankee doodle boy” sheet music, 1904. Museum of the City of New York.

Cohan’s patriotism proved to be extremely lucrative. Little Johnny Jones featured the song “The Yankee Doodle Boy” – well known as “(I’m a) Yankee Doodle Dandy” - and the song “You’re a Grand Old Flag” from his 1906 hit George Washington, Jr. was the first song from a musical to sell over a million pieces of sheet music. Originally titled “The Grand Old Rag,” Cohan changed the lyric to the more respectful “flag” before the show’s Broadway opening.

White Studio (New York, N.Y.) [George M. Cohan as Hap Farrell in The Song and Dance Man.] 1923. Museum of the City of New York.

White Studio (New York, N.Y.) [George M. Cohan as Hap Farrell in The Song and Dance Man.] 1923. Museum of the City of New York.

Though known for his musicals, Cohan wrote and performed in over twenty-five straight plays. Most were comedies, but a few had serious notes. In his 1923 play The Song and Dance Man, he starred as a Broadway hopeful who consistently fails to make it big. Creating a character in love with the bright lights of the stage was not much of a stretch for the life-long performer. Making his hero a failure, however, gave him a space to contemplate that success. Reviewing the play’s revival in 1930, the New York Times praises Cohan’s performance, “There is in the creation, too, what seems to be a touch of nostalgia for an era almost gone from the theatre, for the halcyon days when the Four Cohans flourished.”[3] By 1930, Cohan was approaching a three-decade career on Broadway, long enough to have seen the death of vaudeville, his first love. While the New York Times praised Cohan’s performance, the reviewer blasted the writing calling the story “a desultory, rather rickety and frankly sentimental tale of theatre” and “hokum.” In the final decade of his career, Cohan’s greatest successes came from performing other people’s work including Eugene O’Neill’s only full-length comedy Ah, Wilderness!

Vandamm. [George M. Cohan as Nat Miller in Ah, Wilderness!.] 1934. Museum of the City of New York.

Vandamm. [George M. Cohan as Nat Miller in Ah, Wilderness!.] 1934. Museum of the City of New York.

Cohan’s final appearance in a musical was 1937’s I’d Rather Be Right by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, book by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. In Depression-era New York (on July 4th no less) Cohan played a singing and dancing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States. Set improbably in Central Park, the scant action of the musical revolves around FDR attempting to balance the budget so that a young couple can afford to get married. At one point, “Roosevelt decides to use a fireside chat to ask American women to voluntarily give up cosmetics and beauty products for one year and donate the money to the government.”[4] Despite portraying the President least likely to tap dance, Cohan, nevertheless made full use of his song and dance powers. The show was a hit, and none shone brighter than Cohan as its star. Though satirical representation of the President is by now a common place occurrence, in 1937, a musical comedy depicting the leader of the country was seen as “far beyond anything attempted in any theatrical event.”[5] Contemporary reviews of the show were full of congratulatory pride.

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.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Street Scenes Nov. 1900 – Broadway So. From 45th St., 1900. Museum of the City of New York.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Street Scenes Nov. 1900 – Broadway So. From 45th St., 1900. Museum of the City of New York.

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.

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[1] ‘George Cohan in ‘Little Johnny Jones’ at the Columbia.’ The Washington Post, October 31, 1905, pg. 5.

[2] Craft, Elizabeth Titrington. “Musical of the Month: Little Johnny Jones,” https://www.nypl.org/blog/2012/07/21/musical-month-little-johnny-jones

[3] “Cohan revives his ‘Song and Dance Man,’” New York Times, June 17, 1930, pg. 34.

[4] 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.

[5] Ibid., 53.