04 July 2017

Dandy Indeed: the American Musical, a Gift From George M.


George M. Cohan
Most people today only know the name of George M. Cohan through the beloved musical biography which starred James Cagney, in a brilliant, Oscar-winning performance as the then world-famous star. Yankee Doodle Dandy is eternally watchable, even when you know it by heart, so well constructed that it tells its story with clarity as well as joy. The intelligent, clever script makes every point, tells every anecdote, uncovers character through actions rather than speeches. Every single member of the Warner Brothers stock company -- George Tobias, Walter Catlett, S.Z. Sakal, lovely young Joan Leslie -- are all perfect. Cagney gives the performance of a lifetime -- even his lifetime, packed with accomplishment as it was.

In fact the movie is such fun that it's hard to pay attention to it as history -- even though it is in fact quite accurate about a lot of important points. When you watch Yankee Doodle Dandy today -- and I certainly hope you will! -- you might notice that as a biopic, or as a musical, it has a rather unusual structure. The whole middle of the film is taken up with a show-within-a-show, 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, a show business veteran who had spent his life on stage, just as the film depicts, created this show at the age of 26. It was more than a hit; it was a revolution. 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 up until this point musicals were presented as pseudo-operettas featuring lords and ladies and other aristocrats, with period or European settings, or simply a string of variety acts loosely strung together. Little Johnny Jones was about real people; it had quite a melodramatic plot that was actually ripped from the headlines -- a real American jockey had ridden in the English Derby, and had indeed been accused of throwing the race.

Give My Regards to Broadway -- waiting for the rocket
The songs and dance numbers were not just dropped into the plot willy-nilly, but were part of the 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. Perhaps even more importantly, 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.

George M., Josie, Jerry, Nellie

Everyone who saw the show -- and that added up to thousands of people after the long run and tours Cohan did -- always remembered one key scene, which was recreated in the movie. The hero waits alone on the dock for the rocket that will tell him proof of his innocence has been found. Slowly the ship pulls away in the distance. And when the rocket suddenly soars upward, 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.

DeCamp, Huston, Cagney, and Cagney
Somehow this very talented, very experienced, but very young man 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. This is actually true. 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."Without his knowing it, he was even more than that; he was one of the Founding Fathers of what is universally considered the uniquely American art form.
A characteristic pose