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Cohan, George M(ichael)

hit broadway song musical

Cohan, George M(ichael), unabashedly patriotic and theatrical American composer, playwright, and actor; b. Providence, R.I., probably July 4, 1878 (his birth certificate lists July 3, but biographer John McCabe makes a reasonable case that he was actually born on July 4, as he claimed); d. N.Y., Nov. 5, 1942. Among the 87 Broadway shows in which Cohan participated between 1901 and 1940, 23 were musicals that he composed and that in many cases he also produced, directed, and starred in. They featured such standards as “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag/’ while his best-known song, “Over There,” was written in response to the U.S. entry into World War I. His contribution to popular music and to theater was a brash, vernacular style that broke show music free from European- influenced operetta and forged a new theatrical form: the musical comedy.

Cohan was born into the theater. He was a second-generation descendant of Irish immigrants whose original family name was O’Caomhan, simplified to Keo-hane and then to Cohan when his grandparents arrived in the U.S. His father, Jeremiah Joseph (Jerry) Cohan, became a minstrel-show entertainer, dancing, playing harp and violin, and writing his own music. His mother, Helen Frances (Nellie) Costigan, joined his father in a vaudeville act after their marriage in 1874. He was brought out onstage for the first time when he was four months old. He showed early musical talent and took violin lessons briefly when he was seven. At that same age he and his eight-year-old sister Josephine (Josie) joined the family act, eventually dubbed “the Four Cohans.”

Cohan had no formal education. At the age of ten he began writing songs. In 1891 he made his N.Y. debut with his family in the title role of Peck’s Bad Boy and His Pa . His first published song was “Why Did Nellie Leave Her Home?” (1893); another early effort, “Hot Tamale Alley” (1894), was introduced by vaudeville star May Irwin.

By 1896 the Four Cohans had become one of the top acts in vaudeville, and he began to write sketches as well as songs for them and for other performers. Ethel Levey (whose real name was Ethelia Fowler, 1881-1955) first popularized his song “I Guess I’ll Have to Telegraph My Baby” (1898), which was then successfully recorded by Arthur Collins, Len Spencer, George J. Gaskin, and Silas Leachman. He married Levey in July 1899, and she appeared in several of his early shows. (Her performance of his song “I Was Born in Virginia” in George Washington Jr., became so closely identified with her that it was popularly known as “Ethel Levey’s Virginia Song.”) Their daughter, Georgette, was born in 1900. They were divorced in February 1907, and he married dancer and singer Agnes Mary Nolan on June 29, 1907. They had three children: Mary, Helen, and George M. Jr.

Cohan’s first full-length theatrical work, the “musical farce” The Governor’s Son, was an expanded version of a Four Cohans vaudeville sketch that ran for only 32 performances in N.Y., although, like many Cohan shows, its relatively brief stay on Broadway was augmented by an extensive national tour. Running for Office was another vaudeville sketch padded out to full length. Cohan contributed several songs to Mother Goose (N.Y., Dec. 2, 1903), among them “Always Leave Them Laughing When You Say Goodbye,” which became a hit recording for Billy Murray four years later. By then, Murray, whose chipper style matched the composer’s, had become the preeminent interpreter of Cohan’s songs on record. (The composer himself made only a handful of recordings.)

Cohan’s breakthrough musical, and the show that helped to establish the musical comedy form in the theater, was Little Johnny Jones, in which he played the part of an American jockey in England. Although it had an initial run of only 52 performances in N.Y., he toured it around the country and brought it back to Broadway twice during 1905. From the score, Murray had his first major hit with a Cohan song early in that year with “Yankee Doodle Boy,” a characteristic Cohan march song that drew upon “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Dixie,” and even “The Star-Spangled Banner” in its patriotic fervor. Murray also scored a major hit from the show with “Give My Regards to Broadway,” which has become an anthem of the entertainment business. Cohan himself recorded a third song from the show, “Life’s a Funny Proposition, After All,” when he finally took up recording in 1911, and had one of his only record hits with it. Little Johnny Jones was made into film twice in the 1920s.

With Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, Cohan proved he could write and direct a hit show without appearing in it. The musical, set in New Rochelle, N.Y., starred Fay Templeton and Victor Moore. Murray found another hit in its title song, and both Corrine Morgan and Ada Jones made a hit out of “So Long, Mary.” Cohan returned to the stage with George Washington, Jr . Seven months before it opened in N.Y., Murray had a major hit (reportedly the biggest selling disc Victor Records issued in the decade) with a song written for the show that was then called “The Grand Old Rag.” Cohan had found inspiration for the patriotic march from an encounter with a Civil War veteran who used the phrase affectionately to describe the American flag. When the term “rag” was criticized, Cohan changed the lyric and the title to “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” It was the first song to sell a million copies of sheet music.

Following the massive success of three consecutive musicals in 15 months, Cohan expanded into other areas, forming a producing partnership with Sam H. Harris and starting to write straight plays. His first nonmusical effort, Popularity, was a failure. (He revised it successfully as a musical, The Man Who Owns Broadway.) But he could still do well with musicals: The Talk of New York, starring Moore, was a sequel to Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway and featured the songs “When We Are M-A-Double-R-I-E-D,” a hit for the duo of Jones and Murray; “I Want You,” a hit for Henry Burr; and “When a Fellow’s on the Level with a Girl That’s on the Square,” which Murray scored with alone. Although he was clearly repeating himself, Cohan also succeeded with Fifty Miles from Boston, which featured the jaunty, Irish-flavored “Harrigan,” another song in which a word with two r’s is spelled out in the chorus. It was a tribute to the vaudeville comedian Ned Harrigan and became another big record seller for Murray, who recorded it well before the N.Y. opening. Cohan later had a hit record with “A Small Time Girl” (released as “The Small-Time Gal”) from the show.

After 1908, Cohan began to spend most of his time producing and writing straight plays. He and Harris produced Winchell Smith’s The Fortune Hunter (N.Y., Sept. 4, 1909), starring John Barrymore, which ran for 345 performances. Cohan’s first significant success with a play from his own pen came with an adaptation of George Randolph Chester’s Wallingford stories, Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford, starring Hale Hamilton and Edward Ellis, which ran for 424 performances. He returned to writing and starring in his own musicals with The Little Millionaire, which enjoyed a healthy run, but his biggest song hit of the period came with “That Haunting Melody,” an interpolation into Vera Violetta (N.Y., Nov. 20, 1911), in which it was sung by emerging star Al Jolson. Jolson recorded the song at his first recording session for Victor on Dec. 22, 1911, and it became his first hit record.

Cohan’s next big success came with his mystery play Seven Keys to Baláyate, which ran 320 performances in N.Y. In 1917 it was made into a silent film in which he starred (he also made silent versions of his plays Broadway Jones and Hit-the-Trail Holliday at the same time), and it was remade four times: in 1925, 1929,1935, and 1947. He turned from book musicals to musical revues with Hello, Broadway! and The Cohan Revues of 1916 and 1918. His greatest musical success of the 1910s came with the one-off song “Over There,” which he wrote the day after the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917. The stirring song was popularized by vaudeville star Nora Bayes, who recorded a popular version.

Cohan’s biggest hit recording was performed by the American Quartet, and there were also hit versions by Murray, who was the quartet’s leader, and by the Peerless Quartet in the fall of 1917. Prince’s Orch. released successful records of both “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There.” Enrico Caruso’s version of “Over There,” sung partly in French, was a major hit just before the end of the war in November 1918. By then the song had sold over a million records and two million copies of sheet music. Cohan was awarded a medal of honor by Congress in 1936 for writing “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There.” His sequel to “Over There,” “When You Come Back (and You Will Come Back),” was a hit for John McCormack and for the Orpheus Quartet in early 1919.

Cohan and Harris broke up their production company in the wake of the Actors Equity strike of 1919, which Cohan had opposed. (They later reconciled and returned to producing together in 1936.) On his own, Cohan produced such musical hits as Otto Harbach, Frank Mandel, and Louis Hirsch’s Mary (N.Y., Oct. 18, 1920) and The O’Brien Girl (N.Y., Oct. 3, 1921). Little Nellie Kelly, the first musical Cohan had written in nearly four years, was another hit, featuring “Nellie Kelly, I Love You,” successfully recorded by the American Quartet and by Prince’s Orch., and “You Remind Me of My Mother,” a hit for Burr. The show was made into a 1940 movie starring Judy Garland, with a score largely written by Roger Edens.

Cohan’s greatest successes of the 1920s were his plays, most prominent among them the farce The Tavern and The Song and Dance Man . His last musical was Billie, a musicalized version of Broadway Jones . In the 1930s he began to work more frequently as an actor in other people’s projects. He appeared in the film The Phantom President (1932), which had a score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, although he got to sing “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and in a movie version of his play Gambling (1934), in which he sang his song “My Little Girl.” Onstage he starred in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! (N.Y., Oct. 2, 1933), and he portrayed Près. Franklin Roosevelt in Rodgers and Hart’s musical Yd Rather Be Right (N.Y Nov. 2, 1937). His final Broadway appearance came with the brief run of his sequel to The Tavern, The Return of the Vagabond . At the time of his death he was working on a new musical, The Musical Comedy Man .

Shortly before he died, Cohan saw and approved his film biography, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), which starred James Cagney, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor. (Cagney reprised his Cohan portrayal in the Eddie Foy film biography The Seven Little Foys in 1955.) The success of the movie and the onset of World War II brought Cohan’s music back into fashion, and in 1943 Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians had a hit version of “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” while Bing Crosby revived “Mary’s a Grand Old Name” from Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway . During the next several years, “Over There” and “Give My Regards to Broadway” turned up in half a dozen films.

Cohan’s songs formed the basis for Mr. Broadway, a TV musical directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Mickey Rooney, which was broadcast May 11, 1957. Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway was revived on TV in 1959, the year that a statue of Cohan was erected in Duffy Square in the middle of the Broadway theater district. George Ml (N.Y., April 10, 1968), a musical biography of Cohan starring Joel Grey, was a Broadway hit, running more than a year. Cohan’s songs were also used in the Broadway revues A Musical Jubilee (N.Y., Nov. 13, 1975), Dancin’ (N.Y., March 27, 1978), and Tintypes (N.Y., Oct. 23, 1980). A revival of Little Johnny Jones was mounted by the Goodspeed Opera House in 1980 with Tom Hulee in the title role. A touring version of the production featuring David Cassidy and then Donny Osmond arrived on Broadway on March 21, 1982, but played only one night.

Cohan’s enormous importance to 20th-century American theater as an actor, director, and producer is beyond the scope of this consideration. In musical terms, he was critically important as a theater composer steeped in vaudeville who caught the exuberant mood of turn-of-the-century America and brought a powerful sense of entertainment to show music. His tunes were simple, catchy, and irresistible, and they influenced the course of Broadway musicals and popular music in general.

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