George M! – Original Broadway Cast 1968
ACT I (“Overture”) Jerry Cohan (Jerry Dodge), is finishing a number onstage in Providence, Rhode Island, July 3, 1878, when news comes that his wife has given birth. On learning that it’s a boy, Cohan senior immediately makes plans to include him in the act, and we watch as the child’s first steps rapidly work into a tap routine. By the time we get to Cedar Rapids, George is a full-fledged member of the act with his father, his mother Nellie (Betty Ann Grove) and his sister Josie (Bernadette Peters) – the Four Cohans of vaudeville fame. By age fifteen, George is also writing material for the family, and by the sheer force of his eloquent Irish-American showbiz personality, pretty much calling the turns. The act comes to the attention of the famous E.F. Albee, vaudeville impresario and VIP. George stage-manages their audition for him, stripping off Albee’s coat, pushing him in a chair and propelling the family into a little demonstration of their (and his) talent. First comes “Musical Moon” by Jerry and Nellie Cohan, then “Oh, You Wonderful Boy” by Josie and finally the Four Cohans with “All Aboard for Broadway.” George is not shy about revealing that all this material has been written by him. “I’ll take the girl,” says the laconic Albee when they pause. George is outraged. When Albee relents and offers to send the act to Poughkeepsie for a tryout, George all but boots him from the theatre. George’s ambition clearly will stand for no detours. Papa Cohan admires his assurance but wonders if he isn’t “using up too many people along the way.” It’s to his sister Josie that George explains his utter impatience with any delay in getting where he has to go. It’s as if there were a train he’s running after, and he knows if he can just get his hands on that brass rail at the end of the rear car he can swing on board and go all the way. Josie reminds him that trains start and stop and you need people when it’s time to get off. And that nothing is forever. “I am,” says George. Well, what can you do with conviction like that? Nothing but admit that he is indeed the “Musical Comedy Man” (The Four Cohans and Company). He can even fast-talk his way out of paying the rent at Mme Grimaldi’s boardinghouse by bragging about a non-existent future New York booking and then fulfill his own brag. We see the booking – at the Adams Street Theatre in New York where their fellow players were an assortment of fire-twirlers, acrobats, living statues, violin virtuosos, tap dancers, sharp-shooters and ventriloquists, the whole beautiful pastrami-flavored world of vaudeville. By comparison, the Four Cohans are class. So is Ethel Levey (Jamie Donnelly), solo vocalist on the bill with them. Before long George and Ethel are engaged and their whirlwind onstage courtship is mocked beautifully in “Twentieth Century Love” (The Four Cohans and Ethel). But success in variety is not what George is aiming for. Instead of fifteen minutes a night he wants the whole two-and-a-half hours from 8:30 to 11 – which spells musical comedy. Warned to go slow, he shakes it off. It’s his town, isn’t it? (“My Town”). But his first attempt is a flop. Called “The Governor’s Son,” it closes after a month. Nothing daunted, George opens “Little Johnny Jones” at the Liberty Theatre in 1904. We watch him building it from the first auditions on. And here a little girl named Agnes Nolan (Jill O’Hara) comes on and does Cohan’s “Billie” as an audition number. Something about her tells us that she will be important to us later. During the rehearsals of “Push Me Along in My Push Cart” (Company), “Ring to the Name of Rose” (Josie and Bell Ringers) and during the fabulously danced “Popularity,” the sets fall into place, the lights are set, costumes appear, and when everything else is ready – for the first time in his life George is scared. How will he know if it’s a hit, he asks his father. Before the end of “Give My Regards to Broadway” (George and Full Company) we all know. ACT II When we see him again, George M. Cohan is a big success – which has hardly made him more modest. He’s picked up a partner, Sam Harris (Harvey Evans), and together they pursue reigning Broadway queen Fay Templeton (Jacqueline Alloway) to appear in their new musical. To get her to sign her contract they use a variety of bamboozling techniques that surround and wear her down. First they announce to press and public that she will star in their show and its title tune is sent to her. Her own maid, Rose (Loni Ackerman), keeps singing it at her. It’s called “Forty-five Minutes from Broadway”. She resists. But the music keeps coming at her, and this time her own manager and mother can’t resist trying out the song – “So Long, Mary” (George, Sam Harris, then Rose, Freddie and Ma Templeton). She still holds out. But by this time George’s coterie of politicians and office-holders is in on the game, and even little girls in poke bonnets – “Down by the Erie” (Secretary, Politicians, Little Girl, then Full Company). The inevitable result, of course, is that Fay Templeton is on stage at the New Amsterdam when the show opens, doing the renowned “Mary” on an elaborate staircase. Now it’s New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1906, and all’s right with George and Broadway. But all is not right with wife Ethel. They were going to have some time for each other “right after the new show opened.” But that was some years ago. There has always been another show to open. Her happiness has always been postponed. At a grand New Year’s Eve party, George receives, along with a crowd of telegrams from the great and famous, a terse message from Ethel that the papers are on the way to her lawyer. That’s all right, says George. That’s the way to do it, play the sad news against a happy scene. And he romps into “All Our Friends” with his cronies (Sam Harris, George and Company). As the party breaks up he wanders out onto the street in front of Rector’s Restaurant and bumps into Miss Worcester, Mass., little Agnes Nolan. He’s in a mood to confide. “What’s wrong with people?” he asks. “They walk out on you.” She tries to tell him, but he doesn’t really want to hear. He invites her to lunch next day. She demurs, warning him that she is “people” and wouldn’t want to let him down. He won’t take “no.” And it’s clear that before too long Agnes Nolan is to be the second Mrs. George M. Cohan. Now the shows come pell-mell, and the great songs. During the years up to 1919 we hear, with George and the Full Company: “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Nellie Kelly I Love You,” “Harrigan,” “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” But George is finding something out. People don’t last forever. His father has died. And Josie has married and left the act – the Four Cohans are no more. And now comes big “people” trouble. The Actor’s Equity strike of 1919 finds George strongly on the side of the managers. With typical abruptness and dogmatism he vows that he will leave the stage rather than admit the new union. Well, he loses. Time-goes by. George, in self-imposed exile from Broadway, watches while other, greats come along and obscure his title to “the man who owns Broadway.” Finally he hears a kid on the corner shout to his buddy: “Hey, Frankie, there goes … what’s his name?” But George is not wholly without friends. Sam Harris sends Agnes a script for a new show called “I’d Rather Be Right.” There’s a part for George. He’d be playing the President of the United States. Eventually, George retrieves the script from the ash can into which he has made Agnes throw it. He’s back on Broadway. But it isn’t that easy. Times have changed. The hat and cane routine that is his hallmark is wrong for this show. It takes a brash young stage manager to straighten him out about this, dressing him down for inserting his own dated material into a scene and ruining its cohesiveness. Does he want to make a fool of himself? A somewhat shaken George M. Cohan has a long moment on the darkened stage when he recalls the glories of the past. Agnes, who has been waiting for him, comes to find him. She sees the untypical self-doubt in his manner and, gently, bucks him up and buttresses him. Slowly her comforting words do the trick. His confidence returns, perhaps not quite as brashly as before. There is even a moment there when he almost seems to be telling her that he knows how much he needs her. They go off together, and they go off strong. Finale: “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (George and Company). But just in case anybody should forget how many and how marvelous were the tunes he wrote, here comes Joel Grey back with an Epilogue. Just a few of the many hundreds of hugely spirited, witty, superbly rhythmic, patriotic, loving, generous and human expressions that flowed from the pen – and the heart – of this man Cohan. “Dancing Our Worries Away,” “The Great Easter Sunday Parade,” “Hannah’s a Hummer,” “Barnum and Bailey Rag,” “The Belle of the Barber’s Ball,” “The American Ragtime,” “All in the Wearing,” “I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune,” “Give My Regards to Broadway” (George and Company).
George M. Cohan: Joel Grey Jerry Cohan: Jerry Dodge Nellie Cohan: Betty Ann Grove Josie Cohan: Bernadette Peters Ethel Levey: Jamie Donnelly Agnes Nolan: Jill O’Hara Sam Harris: Harvey Evans Fay Templeton: Jacqueline Alloway Rose: Loni Ackerman