Blog Archive

06 July 2015

About Yankee Doodle Dandy and George M. Cohan

George M. Cohan at the height of his fame

Watching the great George M. Cohan biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy yesterday, I was struck by the unconventional structure -- there's a whole mini-musical within the movie as Cohan's enormous hit, Little Johnny Jones, is very clearly summarized and the main musical set pieces are re-created. (I should say, some of the set pieces, because another feature of the show was the amazing sets -- including a replica of the facade of the Criterion Hotel in London.) First is Yankee Doodle Boy, then Give My Regards to Broadway, and with the staging and choreography they tell the story of the musical. The story in fact was ripped from the headlines; an American jockey, Todd Sloane, had gone to England to ride in the Derby, had been accused of cheating, and had been exonerated -- it was a great idea for a musical, combining sports, class issues, criminal conspiracy, great tunes, great dancing, and showgirls!
The original Give My Regards to Broadway

Or at least it seems so today. But one reason this particular work of Cohan's holds the central place in this film is that Cohan was instrumental in creating the "book" musical; that is, a real plot with real characters doing the singing and dancing. The show opened in 1904, when musicals were spectacles, revues or operettas. Cohan not only used a real story, but one of crime and suspense; his tunes were not psuedo-European, but American popular songs, and his clever lyrics were not self-consciously poetic, but conversational and slangy. And although audiences adored it -- it has been described as the biggest smash hit in Broadway history -- critics weren't too sure about the whole concept. Several major theatrical columnists described it as "a play with singing and dancing," which was, they felt, not an idea whose time had come.

Obviously, the film didn't have room to examine Broadway history, and I think screenwriters Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph (who were assisted by Julius J.  and Philip G. Epstein) also did a brilliant job tying the story to current events, namely World  War 2. But Cohan's importance rests on more than patriotism -- he was an immensely influential talent as performer and as a playwright and composer.
The statue of George M. Cohan in Times Square

Here's some more about theater history

And Cohan's music