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04 July 2016

How George M. Cohan Shaped Our World

George M. Cohan
When you watch Yankee Doodle Dandy today -- and I certainly hope you will! -- you might notice that as a bioipic, or as a musical, it has a rather unusual structure. The whole middle of the film is taken up with a show-within-a-ahow, as Cohan produces his first big hit, Little Johnny Jones. And instead of just showing a couple of numbers, like most musical bios would, the movie presents a whole mini-musical. Well, there's a reason for that -- Little Johnny Jones was not just a smash hit, it was probably the biggiest smash hit in Broadway history. Not only that, it was the show that totally re-shaped musical theater not just in turn-of-the-century America, but everywhere, always.

Cohan actually invented the book musical. Think about that for a minute. To us, today, the idea is so familiar that it seems that it must have just generated spontaneously. But it didn't. Before Cohan's production, musical theater would be pseudo-operetta, with period or European settings, or a string of variety acts loosely strung together. Little Johnny Jones had quite a melodramatic plot that was actually ripped from the headlines -- a real American jockey had ridden in the English Derby, and had been accused of throwing the race.

Give My Regards to Broadway -- waiting for the rocket
The songs and dance numbers were not just dropped in willy-nilly, but were part of he story, moving the characters forward by expressing what they had on their minds. This is so much a part of our idea of what a musical is that it's hard to grasp the fact that no one had ever done this before. Besides that, the songs and dialog were colloquial and slangy, in the everyday language (and with the everyday puns and wisecracks) of the man in the street.

The key scene in the show -- recreated in the movie -- has the hero waiting alone on the dock for the rocket that will tell him proof of his innocence has been found. And when the rocket is seen in the distancee, Cohan bursts into a dance of joy. He was a great dancer; even critics who disdained his songwriting and "low" vaudevillian roots appreciated his dancing. And using dance this way -- to express the character's joy that is beyond words -- had never been done before.
George M.

Somehow this very talented, very experienced, but very young man -- he was 26 when the show opened -- was inspired to weave the threads of music, drama, dance, humor, and social awareness into a new and very welcome art form -- welcome to audiences, that is. As in the movie, Cohan's innovation did not meet with critical acclaim or support. Critics called his voice-of-the-people shows vulgar, cheap, and tasteless. Some writers worried that insead of looking to "high culture" from Europe, shows like Little Johnny Jones lowered the tone of Broadway to the "lowest type of taste." Such thinking is so distant from out attitudes now that it's very difficult to realize that these criticisms were entirely serious.

Audiences, however, quite understandably did not see their enthusiasm for Cohan's creation as a sign of the downfall of Western Civilization -- they saw an engaging story, hummable and danceable songs, funny jokes, and exciting sceneery, choreography, and effects. They loved it.
With Lila Rhodes in The Little Millionaire

And we love it today. It's possible that without George M. Cohan, we would have never thrilled to the artistry of Fred Astaire or even the great songs of Berlin, Porter, or Rodgers and Hart. Can anyone who loves the "American Songbook", movie musicals, or great Broadway shows from South Pacific to Les Miserables, from Rent to Hamilton, imagine what it would be like without them?

At his height, they called George M. Cohan "the man who owned Broadway." Now, of course, there's a new holder of that title -- Lin-Manual Miranda, the creator of he amazing Broadway smash Hamilton. For those -- if there are any -- who don't know, Hamilton is a musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton, performed with brilliantly innovative choreography, costuming, performances, and a hip-hop score. And again, it's a wholly original inspiration to use unexpected subject matter, and to speak in the people's voice, that revolutionized the art form.

And I wonder -- in 100 years, will anyone remember that Lin-Manual Miranda was the innovator, or will this new musical form seem so natural that everyone will just assume it was always that way? Maybe there will be a musical biopic of him to teach them -- if they still have movies at all.
A characteristic pose

Here's some more about theater history

And Cohan's music 

George M. Cohan in American Theater

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