Tenth in a series: Gentiles, religion and the American song book
*He was called “King of Broadway” by a prominent New York critic.
*Another New York critic wrote that he was easily the equal of Euripides and Calderon in play construction.
*In his early 30s he was one of the most powerful and wealthiest men in the American theater, and he is considered by many to be the father of the American musical theater.
*He has a life-size (5 ft. 6 in.) statue in Times Square (erected in l959) near where you can buy discounted theater tickets.
*He dominated the American musical theater for the first 25 years of the 20th century. Yet his songs are considered so American, nationalistic, patriotic and sentimental that lefty American music authorities like Alex Wilder and William Zinsser don’t even mention Cohan in their books.
*Fred Astaire once said that he was his sartorial model: his walk, his talk, his tailor all made an impression on the young Astaire.
*He was one of a handful of honorary pallbearers at George Gershwin’s Jewish funeral in l937.
*In 1942, Hollywood chose Cohan as the subject of the first bio-flick of an American composer when it made the blockbuster, Yankee Doodle Dandy, garnering for its star James Cagney, his only “Best Actor” Oscar.
*Before Bing, Bob, Fred, Mickey and Gene, he was the ultimate song and dance man who was also an excellent actor. J. D. Salinger wrote that he had done the “first unstagey acting I think I ever saw on the stage.” The actor Pat O’Brien once said, “Cohan was the only actor I have ever seen who could act with his back. Just from the way he held himself and cocked his head, you could tell everything he was thinking.”
*In 1936 he was awarded the first Congressional Medal of Honor given to a composer for his World War 1 hit songs, “It’s a Grand Old Flag,” and “Over There.”
The lyrics of Cohan’s life
The early years of Cohan
George Michael Cohan was born in 1878 into a first generation Irish-American family which had emigrated from County Cork, Ireland. His was a traveling vaudeville show business family so he went to school for only six weeks.
He published his first song before 1900 and his 1904 musical, Little Johnny Jones, is considered the first genuine American musical and gave us the Broadway anthem, “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
By l911 he had six hits simultaneously on Broadway and had ownership in seven different theaters. The Broadway League lists 102 separate Broadway productions that were written by, produced by, and/or starred Cohan between 1901 and l940. This is an amazing two and one-half shows per year during this period.
The middle years of Cohan
In l913 he wrote a non-musical Broadway adaptation to Earl Derr Biggers mystery novel Seven Keys to Baldpate. It was a success and later turned into seven different motion pictures, the last being in l986 with Gene Wilder (Haunted Honeymoon). Astonishing.
He was a union buster who thought that the disastrous Actors’ Equity strike of l919 was a back-stabbing affair by actors whom he had made famous and rich in the preceding two decades. He was open-handed and generous to many actors during his life and he never forgot the strike, nor did they.
During World War I, Cohan was doing a wartime charity rally with Irvin Berlin, who idolized Cohan. While on the stage performing “Over There” Cohan forgot the words to his own song! Berlin, sitting in the front row waiting to go on, prompted him with the words.
His first Broadway musical was in 1901, years before Richard Rogers or Larry Hart were born, and he outlived Hart and insulted Rogers for the music in their 1937 musical, I’d Rather be Right. To add insult to injury, Cohan’s name on the marquee was still the drawing card for that play.