Cohan’s Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

George M. Cohan’s musical show Little Johnny Jones, along with its follow-up, Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, helped to establish musical theater as a distinctive American art form.

Summary of Event

George M. Cohan’s family act, the Four Cohans, was a nationally prominent vaudeville act when, in 1900, Cohan began to focus his ambitions as a playwright, songwriter, and performer on the New York theater. At the time, three strains of musical theater were predominant: the world of musical vaudeville (Cohan’s background), European-style operettas, and musical farce. Cohan drew on expanded vaudeville sketches in writing The Governor’s Son (pr. 1901) and Running for Office (pr. 1903), the latter of which was a musical farce that introduced the heavy use of contemporary slang in lyrics and dialogue and that incorporated colloquialisms adapted from vaudeville. Little Johnny Jones (Cohan) Theater;musical Musical theater [kw]Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones Premieres (Nov. 7, 1904)[Cohans Little Johnny Jones Premieres (Nov. 7, 1904)] [kw]Little Johnny Jones Premieres, Cohan’s (Nov. 7, 1904) Little Johnny Jones (Cohan) Theater;musical Musical theater [g]United States;Nov. 7, 1904: Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones Premieres[01090] [c]Theater;Nov. 7, 1904: Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones Premieres[01090] [c]Music;Nov. 7, 1904: Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones Premieres[01090] [c]Entertainment;Nov. 7, 1904: Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones Premieres[01090] Cohan, George M. Harris, Samuel

These shows played at small downtown theaters. Cohan desired a starring vehicle for himself on Broadway, Broadway theaters however, and the show he next designed—and produced with his new partner, Samuel Harris, who was to remain his partner for many years afterward—signaled a coalescence of the Broadway musical as a twentieth century art form. With Little Johnny Jones in 1904 and then again with Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway in 1906, Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway (Cohan)[Forty Five Minutes from Broadway] Cohan merged elements of the existing three strains of musical theater while also introducing innovations in structure, style, and focus. In doing so, he infused the work with his ambitious, democratic, self-aggrandizing, energetic, and flippant personality, nicely meeting the needs of an American society appreciatively reflecting on itself at a time when the nation was solidifying its position as a world power.

Rather than developing a story around currently popular songs, as was a common practice in the writing of musicals, Cohan sketched out the plot of Little Johnny Jones first. The story combined melodrama with comedy: An American jockey in the British Isles is accused of cheating after losing the English Derby. Cleared of the charges in the second act, he returns to San Francisco’s Chinatown to search for his missing girlfriend, whom he believes has been kidnapped by a notorious gangster. Cohan included complicated subplots—disguises, machinations, intrigues—but the play moved rapidly, with grand musical spectacles providing crescendos in each act.

With Cohan starring as Johnny Jones, the first act’s exposition built in anticipation of the jockey’s entrance. When he appeared, Johnny Jones counseled the assembled guests at the Hotel Cecil in London to bet on his horse, Yankee Doodle Dandy, a recommendation celebrated in a song-and-dance number. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (Cohan)[Yankee Doodle Dandy] drew on the patriotic impulses of American theatergoers and gave Cohan an opportunity to display both his nasal singing and the dancing style he had perfected in vaudeville. The number was an instant success; during the New York opening at the Liberty Theatre, audience calls of “Encore!” necessitated the song’s repetition several times.

The second act included a similarly wonderful production number that became the dramatic climax of the entire show. Johnny stood at a Southampton pier, bidding a ship bound for New York adieu. An undercover policeman had instructed the hero to wait for a flare from the ship as a signal that his nemesis (aboard the ship) had been exposed. Cohan, as Johnny, sang a sad, slow chorus of “Give My Regards to Broadway” "Give My Regards to Broadway" (Cohan)[Give My Regards] as the vessel departed. The lights went down, and a miniature ship crossed at the back of the stage. When a rocket shot up from the ship, Cohan launched into a joyous, lively reprise of the memorable tune before the curtain fell to close the act. The scene, a watershed in American musical theater (the song became a staple in musical tributes to New York), was depicted in a mural in the theater Cohan himself built in 1911.

The undercover policeman, a character named “the Unknown,” was played by Tom Lewis, half of a popular comedy team. Sam J. Ryan, the other half of the team, played an amiable Irish pal of Johnny. Using the Unknown for comic relief, Cohan gave him many of the best punch lines but no songs, a first in musical comedy. He rounded out the cast with burlesque singer Truly Shattuck and with members of his own vaudeville family: his parents, Jerry and Nellie Cohan, and his wife, singer and comedienne Ethel Levey.

Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway followed in 1906. Although it lacked the trademark flag-waving element that appeared in Cohan’s simultaneously running George Washington, Jr. (the show that introduced the song “You’re a Grand Old Flag”), Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway still demonstrated Cohan’s emerging quintessential formula for the musical: fast, flashy, funny language spoken in a slangy vernacular combined with several upbeat, exuberant songs and some sentimental ballads. Cohan wrote the musical as a vehicle for Fay Templeton, a popular light-opera star; the production was financed by Abraham Erlanger, Erlanger, Abraham the dominant member of the Theatrical Syndicate, which virtually controlled booking rates at almost all U.S. theaters—both on Broadway and in the provinces—from 1896 to 1910. Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway became the biggest musical comedy hit in New York in forty years.

Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway starred Victor Moore as the sentimental, wisecracking hero. Again, Cohan molded a hero on his own personality traits. An important factor in the musical’s success was its celebration of the rural—or at least suburban—virtues of New Rochelle, New York (later to be trumpeted in another medium on The Dick Van Dyke Show) in juxtaposition with the glamour and glitter of New York City. The show had two memorable tunes: “So Long, Mary” and “Mary’s a Grand Old Name.” The production used simple sets and included only six songs, which, like those in Little Johnny Jones, showed the influence of the fin de siècle musical farce playwright Edward “Ned” Harrigan. Cohan later clarified his appreciation of this Irish American in the tributary song “Harrigan” in Fifty Miles from Boston (pr. 1908).

Significance

Little Johnny Jones and Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway established Cohan as a force to be reckoned with in American musical theater. The title of one of his shows, The Man Who Owns Broadway (pr. 1909), soon came to be a nickname for Cohan himself, who was not only writing, producing, directing, and starring in plays but also building and buying theater buildings. By the second decade of the twentieth century, responses to his forceful personality varied, especially between the general public and those engaged in the acting profession. Cohan’s composition “Over There” "Over There" (Cohan)[Over There (Cohan)] caught the optimistic spirit many Americans shared as the United States entered World War I; it quickly became the unofficial anthem of American involvement. Cohan was unpopular with many actors, however, because he took an outspoken stand against unionism and was a leader in the ultimately unsuccessful fight of the producers against the Actors’ Equity Association’s summer strike in 1919.

All agreed, however, that Cohan’s impact on the style of the American musical was remarkable. Oscar Hammerstein II, himself a powerful voice in the evolution of the musical as an art form, wrote: “Never was a plant more indigenous to a particular part of the earth than was George M. Cohan to the United States of his day. The whole nation was confident of its superiority, its moral virtue, its happy isolation from the intrigues of the old country, from which many of our fathers and grandfathers had migrated.” In 1958, Hammerstein led a successful movement to erect a statue in tribute to Cohan in New York’s Times Square.

Critics tend to agree that Cohan’s lasting legacy was the bringing of a distinctly American quality to musical comedy. Important elements of Cohan’s work that helped to capture his cultural moment and to create an “American” style were his use of dialogue, his creation of archetypal heroes based on his own persona, and his unabashed patriotism—which, some argue, crossed the bounds of ethnocentrism in its celebration of perceived American superiority.

The true heyday of Cohan’s success in the theater coincided with the expansion of film as recreational entertainment from 1906 through 1910. Early silent films could not adequately convey song-and-dance entertainment; as films began to draw crowds away from live melodrama and comedies, sometimes displacing the very theaters where such works had been performed previously, Cohan solidified the formula of using both strains in his musical productions.

Cohan’s heavy use of slang and idiomatic expressions dated his works within twenty years; still, at the time of their origin, these shows conveyed a sense of currency and realism, a spirit of democracy and the common man. The ambitious optimism of his heroes and heroines, their nostalgic appreciation of a home in the countryside, their enjoyment of the entertainment possibilities afforded by urban life, their resolute commitment to Americanism—these were values that theatergoers identified with readily, and they would resurface again and again in American musicals of the twentieth century. The male lead in The Music Man (pr. 1957), for example, displayed many of the qualities of a Cohanesque hero. Oklahoma! (pr. 1943) espoused a love of the land. Guys and Dolls (pr. 1950) affirmed that love triumphs even amid the glitter and temptations of an urban environment and also demonstrated the continuing importance of slang and dialect in American musicals. Candide (pr. 1956) included a pivotal use of scenery—a sheep swimming in the ocean—in the dramatic tradition of the flare in Little Johnny Jones. A popular 1953 song by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, “That’s Entertainment,” paid tribute to Cohan’s penchant for incorporating patriotic pitches into musical production numbers.

James Cagney received an Academy Award for his portrayal of Cohan in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, and more than half a century later that film is still widely viewed through television presentations. The day the motion picture opened in New York City was declared “George M. Cohan Day” by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Eulogizing Cohan, who died in November of 1942, La Guardia noted, “He put the symbols of American life into American music.”

All in all, Cohan’s contributions were prodigious. During his career he wrote dozens of plays, of which twenty-eight were musicals. He collaborated on at least forty others and participated in the production of many more. More than five hundred songs are credited to him. More important than his quantity, however, was the quality of his work, as he merged nineteenth century styles, innovating and overseeing the genesis of the modern musical.

In recognition of Cohan’s important contributions, the American Guild of Variety Artists decided in 1970 to name its honorary awards Georgies. Perhaps the most appropriate tribute, however, occurred on Broadway itself. George M! (pr. 1968), a flag-waving hit produced by David Black, Konrad Matthaei, and Lorin E. Price, although fairly critical of the old master, employed the very form he helped to create more than sixty years earlier. Little Johnny Jones (Cohan) Theater;musical Musical theater

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bordman, Gerald. American Musical Comedy: From “Adonis” to “Dreamgirls.” 1982. Reprint. Charlotte, N.C.: Replica Books, 2001. Chapter 5, “American Musical Comedy Flexes Its Muscles,” historically contrasts the work of George M. Cohan with imports such as the Gaiety shows from London and operettas such as The Merry Widow from Vienna. Cohan’s success is credited to his dynamic personality and his flag-waving, which coincided with a rise in American nationalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohan, George M. Twenty Years on Broadway. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971. Robust, self-congratulatory, romanticized autobiography. Not the best source for all the details of Cohan’s life, this volume nevertheless nicely conveys the vigor, optimism, ambition, and self-reliance that motivated Cohan and with which he imbued many of his male leads. Heavy use of slang and colloquialisms—as in his plays—establishes him as a true “common man.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ewen, David. The Story of America’s Musical Theater. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1961. Chapter 4, “Musical Comedy,” credits Cohan with the creation of the American musical.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kantor, Michael, and Laurence Maslon. Broadway: The American Musical. New York: Bulfinch, 2004. Comprehensive, lavishly illustrated volume on the history of the Broadway musical. Includes year-by-year list of significant shows, selected bibliography, and maps of the theater district at different periods. Companion book to a six-part PBS series.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCabe, John. George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973. Accessible, standard biography on Cohan that conveys his style and substance as an entertainer. Includes well-chosen snippets from a range of his works and useful chronological appendixes of all his New York productions, stage appearances, and plays. Excellent collection of photographs. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morehouse, Ward. George M. Cohan: Prince of the American Theater. 1943. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972. Early biography originally published soon after Cohan’s death. Morehouse’s personal admiration of the artist comes through; he draws on many personal interviews and has a fine command of both language and details. Eighteen photographs. Appendix with chronology of important dates in Cohan’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riddle, Peter H. The American Musical: History and Development. New York: Mosaic Press, 2004. A detailed exploration of the evolution and development of musical theater in North America. Traces American musical theater from its eighteenth century roots in Europe through its growth in the nineteenth century alongside other popular forms of entertainment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vallillo, Stephen M. “George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones.” In Musical Theatre in America, edited by Glenn Loney. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984. Eloquent and detailed overview of the musical’s innovative debut on Broadway in 1904, with systematic and clear explanation of how the subplots connect to the larger structure of the work. Includes four photographs from the 1904 run.

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