George M! — Born on the Third of July
By Peter Filichia —
Ostriches do not hide their heads in the sand. Bulls are not enraged by the color red.
And George M. Cohan (1878-1942), despite what he wrote in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” was not “born on the 4th of July.”
Actually he came into the world some hours earlier.
Lord knows how many times the uber-patriotic Cohan must have wished that his mother could have held out one more day before delivering him. Failing that, Cohan must have harkened back to that October, 1877 night when he was conceived — and rued that one of his parents didn’t say, “Listen, I have a headache. Mind if we do it tomorrow night?”
This July 3, we mark the 134th birthday of Broadway’s first superstar – and not simply because he appeared in almost two dozen of his Broadway musicals, not to mention quite a few of his plays. Cohan wrote the book, music and lyrics for even more properties. That he directed, co-produced or produced many makes him the all-time champ with over 50 Broadway credits. He’ll never be surpassed.
True, Cohan accomplished most of this in an easier theatrical era – 1901 to 1931 — first when film didn’t exist, and later when Hollywood was just making true in-roads on the entertainment scene. Cohan continued to benefit from a public who’d become accustomed to theatergoing, so even after the talkies had hit, he still managed to stay on stage for ten more years.
And then he had a renaissance of sorts in 1968, when a musical called George M! opened at the Palace.
During in the early ‘60s, producer David Black had thought about doing a musical that forged a life story around Cohan’s own songs. Today we call that a jukebox musical, but that term hadn’t yet come into being.
Michael Stewart – whose previous three musicals had been Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival and Hello, Dolly! – would provide the book, with a little help from John and Fran Pascal, respectively his brother-in-law and sister. She, by the way, would wind up being extraordinarily successful 15 years after George M! opened – when the first of her many Sweet Valley High young adult novels began entrancing teens across America.
Stewart and the Pascals took a look at Cohan’s 250-plus song catalogue. That involved much more reading of sheet music than listening to recordings; after all, the original cast album wouldn’t even come into being until the year after Cohan’s death.
Eventually, they selected songs that had spanned Cohan’s salad days – from 1904’s “I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune” (from A Little Bit of Everything) to the title song of Billie in 1930. Needless to say, they included all the hits: “Harrigan,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” — not, incidentally, “You’re a Grand Old Rag,” as Cohan originally had written it before changing his mind. With its new title, it was the first song from a musical that sold over a million copies of sheet music.
And, oh, yes – Stewart and the Pascals had to include what had served as musical theater’s anthem for a good four decades. For long before “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” there was “Give My Regards to Broadway” – Cohan’s hit from Little Johnny Jones in 1904.
No one keeps statistics on how many Tony broadcasts have had singers, winners or nominees sing the song, but plenty of them have. More to the point, although a century has passed, there are arguably still millions of people who know every word of the song.
That even includes a word that few if any living Americans have ever used: “ere” – an antiquated word that means “before.” Cohan wrote of Broadway, “I’ll be there ere long.” We have to wonder if he agonized over using the word, for few who were alive even then were still employing “ere” for “before.”
This was around the same time that Dolly in her musical and Mother in Ragtime had big numbers that used the word “before.” But the former certainly didn’t sing “Ere the Parade Passes By” and the latter did not insist that we could never go “Back to Ere.”
Of course, lyrics were more florid then, and lyricists took far more poetic license than they do now. Thus, Cohan might have been deliriously happy with “ere.” And, if nothing else, it made for a good interior rhyme with “there.”
En route, Stewart and the Pascals found many good songs that they couldn’t fit into their biography. So, they decided, they’d include a medley of eight of their own favorites at the end of the show. The mega-mix, so to speak, is one of the great pleasures of this original cast album. You’ll see Cohan’s softer side (“All in the Wearing”) and his musically progressive “Hannah’s a Hummer.” Note, too, long before Irving Berlin wrote about the Easter Parade, Cohan got there first with “The Great Easter Sunday Day Parade.”
Fine; the show was coming along. But where was the actor to could play Cohan? David Black needed someone short and wiry as Cohan who had the showman’s personality and charisma.
And just around the time that Black despaired of finding anyone, the late ‘60s delivered Cabaret – and Joel Grey. Black saw the show, went backstage and said willkommen, bienvenue, welcome to his star.
Ethel Merman had a distinctive way of underlining a “u” sound. (If you don’t know what I mean, check out “Goodbye to blueberry pie” in “Some People” in Gypsy as well the first syllable of “Mutual Admiration Society” in Happy Hunting.) Grey has a similar take with “ow.” Listen to the little twist he gives such words as “how” and “now,” and you’ll wish he’d starred in How Now, Dow Jones.
Getting the financing wasn’t as easy as Black had anticipated. What had been planned as an early winter 1967 opening became a late spring event. So when George M! debuted on April 10, 1968, it was too late to qualify for that season’s Tonys. Clive Barnes, then the critic of The New York Times (when he was far more finicky than he would be years later at the Post), said, “George M! can have a personal Tony Award from me, and Joel Grey can have a couple.” To paraphrase a line in one of Cohan’s great hit songs, “Divil a man can say a word agin his performance.”
Someone from the show did get an award that year: the Theatre World Award, which cites outstanding debuts on or off-Broadway. Although Bernadette Peters had had a virtual walk-on earlier in the season in a play called Johnny No-Trump, Theatre World guru John Willis didn’t hold it against her. He was entranced by Peters’ portrayal of Cohan’s sister Josie, and gave her the prize. Hear Peters on the cast album doing her solo “Oh, You Wonderful Boy” as well as contributing to many of the other numbers. You’ll recognize her voice immediately and see that she’d already found her winsome style.
Whenever a songwriter’s catalogue is put on display, musical theater mavens always find a song they didn’t know that they now come to adore. Yours might well be mine: “Twentieth Century Love.”
Cohan wrote it in 1927 for The Merry Malones, the last of his own musicals in which he would star. But because the show took place at the turn of the century, Cohan was able to comment on the new modern age with references to that new-fangled telephone and “Edison’s light.”
We assume that life in the first years of the century must have been awfully poky. But to Cohan’s John Malone, it was as au courant as could be. “So kiss me and run, kid. It’s 1901, kid,” gave way to “No time to pitch to woo now. It’s 1902 now,” which succumbed to “So hurry to me, kid. It’s 1903 kid.” Don’t you love when a character crows about living in the most up-to-date era – especially when we now know that back then, the speed limit was 20 m.p.h.?
George M! stressed how much Cohan turned his back on his rural upbringing (“Birds? Bees? You can feed ‘em!”) and how he was a New York lad at heart (“Times Square, how I love it!”). The show ended with a little lagniappe: an actual recording of Cohan himself saying his most famous line.
You’re assuming it’s “My father thanks you; my mother thanks you; my sister thanks you and I thank you.”
Not quite; as we hear at the end of the original cast album, Cohan ended the quotation with “and, as for myself, that goes without saying.” Listening to George M! is the best “You’re welcome” we can give him on his birthday.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.