Post Number: 146
|Posted on Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 11:59 am: ||
GEORGE M. COHAN’S FORTY-FIVE MINUTES FROM BROADWAY (1906): THOSE AUDIBLE, VAUDEVILLE DAYS
I don’t know who I am and if I did I’d be the most miserable man on earth, for my greatest happiness lies in the fact that I occupy a most unique position—that of not having been cast for a part in the great world drama of life. (Slight pause) I am a lonely, single-handed spectator sitting back looking on and laughing at the monkey-shines of the great all-star company of several billions of men and women who are unknowingly playing the piece for me—they’re playing the piece for me. I am the audience, but a good audience, withal, for I laugh— I am the audience, and if I may say so, a highly intellectual audience, for in all the changing scenes of this ever-beginning, never-ending plotless plot, I recognize the spiritual hand of a great director, a master director, who has so skillfully staged this tightly woven, disconnected, tightly knitted spectacle of tragic nonsense, and so I am amused, and I laugh, and I applaud. (Applauds) And if I’m any critic, it’s a bully good show, and I hope some day to meet the author, and compliment him upon his marvelous entertainment. Alas, I have no one with whom I may discuss the merits of the play, for all the rest are on the stage. I’m sitting out in front, alone, all alone. (Backs up stage a few paces) Do you follow me, Your Excellency? I hope you do, because that’s the end of my speech.
—George M. Cohan (1878-1942), The Tavern (1920)
When, in the 1950s, I told a high school English teacher that I wanted to write about one of George M. Cohan’s plays, she answered: “Oh, all right, but so much of Cohan is just an excuse for a song and a production number.” I had expected the teacher, who was Irish American, to be sympathetic. I probably gave up the project when I discovered that it was practically impossible to find any of Cohan’s plays. Eventually, I located Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913) and The Tavern (1920). There was also a “digested” version of Pigeons and People (1932) in a collection of “best” Broadway plays. But I couldn’t find any evidence of the musicals—those excuses for songs and production numbers. A few of the songs from the musicals were available. (I purchased a George M. Cohan Song Album, published by the George M. Cohan Music Publishing Co., Inc., located appropriately at 1776 Broadway, New York.) But I had no way to get copies of the musicals themselves.
My father had worked as a tap dancer for George M. Cohan in four of his productions. Two of them—the Cohan and Harris Minstrels (1908, 1909) and Hello, Broadway! (1914)—were actually written by Cohan; the other two—The Little Whopper (1919) and Mary (1920)—were “Cohanized” plays. Cohan was an early example of a producer as a “brand name”—like Disney or Alfred Hitchcock—so that reviewers often dealt with plays he presented but hadn’t actually written as if they were entirely his work.
What I remember about my father’s recollections of George M. Cohan is not so much specific details. He didn’t offer that many, though I do recall his telling me that Cohan used to throw chairs around when he got angry and once nearly closed a show when he heard that there were rumors about his having an affair with the leading lady. (“I’m a married man and a Catholic and....”) What I remember most is the air of admiration, even awe, with which my father spoke about the man. It brought me into a kind of fantasy. Because George M. Cohan was my father’s mentor/hero, he was necessarily closer to the “real” (whatever the “real” might be) than my father. But Cohan was absent—not there—whereas my father was present. For my father, the thought of George M. Cohan was a recollection of his now long-gone days as a young tap dancer on Broadway and in vaudeville. The collapse of vaudeville and the arrival of the Depression put an end to his hopes for theatrical fame though—as he would have put it—he “did all right.”
As a child, I longed for Cohan’s presence all the more because there seemed to be so few evidences of him. I was ecstatic when I came upon an “Audio Rarities” long-playing album narrated rather clumsily by Cohan’s friend, the producer Chamberlain Brown: George M. Cohan, His Life, Times and Songs, 1905-1942. The record featured Enrico Caruso singing “Over There” at a bond rally—an unintentionally hilarious rendition; Billy Murray singing the original version of “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “You’re a Grand Old Rag”—Cohan changed the title when people complained that calling the flag a “rag” was an insult; and several of the recordings Cohan himself made on May 4, 1911. There’s a story that Cohan heard these recordings and decided, with considerable justification, that the new medium was not for him. Stung by a newspaper article in which he was described as an “egotist,” he did once assert in print that he sang his songs because he sang them better than anyone else sang them. But these recordings were strong evidence that this was not the case. These nasal, pitch-challenged renditions were a slight setback to my determination to admire Cohan, but I was not to be deterred. I loved the songs in the Songbook, and the LP also contained Cohan’s recitation of the wonderful speech from The Tavern, “I don’t know who I am and if I did I’d be the most miserable man on earth....”
No doubt my interest in Cohan had a slightly—perhaps more than slightly—religious aspect to it. (Like Cohan, I was Catholic—and Irish.) I think he was in a way the “dead god,” Jesus in tap shoes, the father behind the father. He had “news” that I felt I needed. And there was something beyond even this. Cohan was a figure from my father’s past, not from mine. My longing for his presence seemed to be nostalgia, and had my father felt it, it would have been. But for me the feeling indicated not so much nostalgia as a desire for greater life, for something larger and deeper than what surrounded me. “George M. Cohan” was my barely articulated myth of the future, my hope for ecstasy.
One of the songs on the Audio Rarities LP was “Life’s A Funny Proposition After All” from Little Johnny Jones (1904), Cohan’s first hit show. The song is not famous, but it was included in the Songbook, so it must have been a favorite. I was somewhat surprised by its “serious” tone:
Did you ever sit and ponder, sit and wonder, sit and think
Why we’re here and what this life is all about?
It’s a problem that has driven many brainy men to drink,
It’s the weirdest thing they’ve tried to figure out;
About a thousand diff’rent theories, all the scientists can show,
But never yet have proved a reason why.
With all we’ve thought, and all we’re taught, why all we seem to know
Is, we’re born and live a while and then we die.
Life’s a very funny proposition, after all....
David Collins—whose web site, “George M. Cohan in America’s Theater” (www.georgemcohan.net/) is an excellent source of information about Cohan—suggests that such “philosophical” songs arise directly out of Cohan’s experience of vaudeville, a medium in which popular poems such as Kipling’s “Gunga Din” were often heard in recitation. Collins is no doubt right, but I think there may be something more to it as well. I suspect that there is a manic-depressive aspect to George M. Cohan. One can see both the manic and the depressive in his brilliant song, “Give My Regards to Broadway,” from Little Johnny Jones. Played uptempo, the song is infectious and catchy—a hymn to joy. Played slowly, it is nostalgic and heartbreaking. Note the word “whisper”—especially telling in the context of the supposedly loud and brash young Cohan:
Whisper of how I’m yearning
To mingle with that old-time throng
Give my regards to old Broadway
That I’ll be there
I think these “philosophical” songs (another, also recorded by the author, is “I’m Mighty Glad I’m Living, That’s All”) allow Cohan to express his mournful, “depressive” side—some would say his “Irish” side—and that the sentiments they contain eventually become the very interesting speeches in The Tavern and Pigeons and People which address the utter unreality of life. “Life’s A Very Funny Proposition After All” concludes,
Hurried and worried, until we’re buried
And there’s no curtain call
Life’s a very funny proposition, after all—
this in the context of a show which is primarily remembered for the ebullient, self-assertive, manic “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy...born on the fourth of July.”
In fact, Cohan’s positive, upbeat songs are often deepened by the presence of a persistent underlying negative element—minor chords, for example. Certain songs involve what I have called the “threat of the minor key.” A song like “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” (a Cohan like song but written and performed by Maude Nugent) is in an upbeat major key until suddenly, momentarily—at the very point when the words are saying, “How happy we’ll be”—the song switches to the relative minor. But it’s only a moment: the threat of the minor key is averted and the song returns to its upbeat major mode. Exactly the same thing happens in the chorus of Cohan’s “Nellie Kelly I Love You” from Little Nellie Kelly (1922). The song opens in a minor key: “Up in the Bronx, up in the Bronx, There lives the Nell of all Nellies....” But by the time the chorus begins, it is triumphantly major:
It’s the same old song they sing,
“I love you,”
The boys are all mad about Nellie,
The daughter of Officer Kelly;
And it’s all day long they bring
Flowers all dripping with dew....
At that point—just as the words say, “And they join in the chorus of Nellie Kelly”—the song suddenly shifts back to its minor mode. It ends triumphantly in the major, however, with “I love you.”
In George M. Cohan: Prince of the American Theater (1943)—the first biography of Cohan—Ward Morehouse remarks that “[Cohan’s] career as a showman, as a man of the theater, was one of enormous success, but there were few periods in his life when he was without personal problems which always seemed, at the moment, overpowering.” 1/ Such “personal problems”—the down side of his ebullience—were often reflected in the texture of his songs.
After the success of Little Johnny Jones, with its patriotic themes, producer Abe Erlanger asked Cohan whether he could “write a play without a flag.” Cohan replied that he could write a play without anything but a pencil. T. Harold Forbes, an actor friend of Cohan’s, bragged that the town of New Rochelle had all the delights of the rural but by train was only “forty-five minutes from Broadway.” Cohan immediately set to work. If the most striking moment in Little Johnny Jones (1904) was the appearance of an ocean liner and the singing of a farewell song—“Give My Regards to Broadway”—the most striking moment of the new show would be the appearance of a railroad train and the singing of another farewell song, “So Long, Mary.” Forty-five Minutes from Broadway opened on January 1, 1906. It starred Fay Templeton and Victor Moore. Cohan initially wished to call the show Mary—and did succeed in calling a later show Mary—but Erlanger insisted that “Forty-five Minutes from Broadway,” the title of one of the songs, would be better. Cohan’s biographer John McCabe calls Forty-five Minutes from Broadway “the greatest musical comedy success since The Black Crook in 1866” and goes on to comment that the show “still exudes the life that captivated its first audiences.” In American Musical Theater: A Chronicle Gerald Bordman describes the show as “Cohan at his peak”:
Cohan, moreover, was brazen enough to put all his songs in the first and third acts, leaving the second act for pure melodrama...Some papers objected to a comedienne making an audience cry or to mixing melodrama and musical comedy. The Times saw it as “a case of oil and water”—
forgetting what Cohan probably knew very well: that such “mixtures” were characteristic not only of vaudeville but of the plays of William Shakespeare, about whom Cohan remarked in a song, “‘Life’s a play,’ said Shakespeare...Mr. Shakespeare is a man I wish I’d met” (“I’m Mighty Glad I’m Living, That’s All”).
In 1959, the television series Omnibus put on a marvelous and quite faithful (though necessarily shortened) production of Forty-five Minutes from Broadway. It starred Tammy Grimes, Russell Nype, and (in a stunning performance as Kid Burns, Broadway wise guy with a heart o’ gold) the late Larry Blyden. Blyden not only delivers the dialogue and songs beautifully; he delivers them, as Cohan did, out of the side of his mouth. Featured players, all excellent, were David Burns, Howard St. John, Polly Rowles and Diana Millay. The audio portion of the Omnibus show was released by AEI records in 1986 and is available as a CD. A short excerpt from the production can be seen in the documentary video, Omnibus: Television’s Golden Age. The Omnibus production added a song, “Always Leave Them Laughing When You Say Goodby,” to the “pure melodrama” of the second act, but the dialogue and ambiance remain entirely Cohan’s. It is about as close to an actual George M. Cohan production as one can get.
What is particularly striking about the Omnibus piece—apart from the wonderful songs—is the extraordinary linguistic energy of the play. If, like Cohan, you are not an “educated” person, you probably cannot hope to compete with educated people in the area of “fineness” or “delicacy” of language. But in the area of slang, it’s every citizen for himself. Realizing this, Cohan placed slang, current speech, at the very center of his now over one-hundred-year-old musical. The hero of Cohan’s play is Kid Burns, ex prize fighter. This is his entrance:
I’m the real noise around this man’s residence, understand? I’m the real noise! I’ll make these rubes around here pay a little attention to me yet. Forty-five minutes from Broadway! Gee, it’s got some of those towns in Texas tied to a lamp post. Come here, Cutey. Slip around to the stable and tell that geek that minds the fillies to hitch up that sea-going affair and meet that one o’clock rattler when she blows into this man’s burg. Understand?
The response from the man addressed (who, significantly, speaks with a British accent) is of course No. Burns tries again:
Well, can you beat that? He don’t get me. No matter what I say he don’t get me. He’s an awful laugh with me forty ways. On the level, he’s an outburst.
Finally, Burns is driven to utter simplification of language and hand gestures in order to deliver his message. He comments, “You can’t talk to these guys. You’ve got to do pantomime.”
The citizens of New Rochelle are often referred to by Kid Burns as “reubens” or “jays”—undoubtedly part of Cohan’s vaudeville inheritance—but the obvious irony of the play is that Burns is as ignorant and limited in his way as they are in theirs. 2/ Meaning to ask the Butler to “announce” him, Burns (who is just slightly reminiscent of Jimmy Durante) says, “Just open the gate and denounce me.” As he exits, the Butler comments, “So illiterate! So vulgar!” Kid Burns is illiterate and vulgar—and Irish—but he is also the linguistic life of the play, and his vivid speech, particularly as delivered by Larry Blyden, is a pipeline straight back to 1906. As Burns remarks, noting that someone is beginning to understand him, “Pipe the old lady, she’s doping it out.”
Another extraordinary aspect of Forty-five Minutes from Broadway is that it is a musical without a love song. In a sense, both “Mary’s A Grand Old Name” and “So Long, Mary” are love songs—but they are so only in the most indirect fashion. For this play Cohan produced no genuine love song—no song which tells someone directly, “I love you.” (The entire play may be in love with Mary and there are specific characters who are in love with her—but there is no song.)
I think both “Mary” songs embody a kind of innocence and simplicity which Cohan, despite his Broadway “knowing,” honored and longed for. His entire childhood was spent primarily in the protected environment of his family and the theater. His song, “Small Town Gal,” from Fifty Miles from Boston (1908), asserts, “I’ve seen them all, / I’m going to fall / For a small / Town gal.” Perhaps the innocence (and ignorance) of New Rochelle suggests the small-town childhood Cohan never had (but saw passing by in a series of bookings) and which he replaced with his early “know it all / can do it all / everybody else is a hayseed” attitude. The small town is made fun of in the title song—“Oh, what a fine bunch of reubens,” “They have whiskers like hay”—but the main characters eventually settle there: despite its provincialism, the town also has an idyllic quality. (After all, it contains Mary, though she was born in an equally provincial place: Schenectady.) I'm aware of no other American songs which express so clearly that oddly, deeply American quality: a knowing innocence. Mary is aware of the world she lives in, she is perfectly clear about her situation—she knows it—but at the same time her sweetness and openness keep her at a distance from any potential “darkness.” Though Cohan’s play is totally secular, Mary is in some way protected by providence. She is the virgin who can walk to the edge of the abyss and never fall. (That she is Irish is indicated by the fact that her name is Mary and that she is a maid.)
Kid Burns is described by the British Butler as “the strangest man I ever met”; he “speaks a language all his own.” A character who is “the strangest man I ever met” is one of the staples of Cohan plays. The Vagabond in The Tavern is such a character, as is “Parker” in Pigeons and People. He is a deliberate insertion of the chaotic—the new—into the midst of an ordered world which has no clear idea of how to handle his perceptions. If in one sense Kid Burns is an embodiment of Cohan’s own frontal attack on the theatrical world of his day (“I’m the real noise around this man’s residence, understand? I’m the real noise!”), he is also in a way an emblem of the deep and violent changes American society was undergoing during that period of its history. What constituted the “city”? What constituted the “country”? What constituted “patriotism”? The United States, like Cohan’s plays, was in a state of perpetual motion, constant change. (“Speed,” said Cohan, was the basic element of his musicals: “Speed! And lots of it...Perpetual motion!”) Look at how quickly people were able to move from the “city” to the “country”: a mere forty-five minutes! In the midst of all this change, the Irish—who had a great deal to do with railways, with trains—were reconstituting their identity and becoming “Irish Americans.” Here it is interesting to note that Cohan believed that an Irishman was as easy to identify as a Black man:
I can sing “Yankee Doodle” as much as I please
But everyone seems to be wise
As to who I am what I am everyone sees
So perfectly plain in me eyes
You can tell that me father and mother
They were either from Dublin or Cork
That my name is Mac something or other
There are hundreds like me in New York!
(“You Can Tell That I’m Irish”)
When Cohan announced, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” it was in effect like an African American announcing that he was a Yankee Doodle Dandy. At this point in history, an American can look like this; an American can look like me:
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam
Born on the fourth of July.
In 1922 Henry Ford wrote in his autobiography, My Life and Work,
A great many things are going to change. We shall learn to be masters rather than servants of Nature. With all our fancied skill we still depend largely on natural resources and think that they cannot be displaced...We shall some day harness the heat that is all about us and no longer depend on coal—we may now create heat through electricity generated by water power. We shall improve on that method...Better wood can be made than is grown...Everything is possible.
In 1924—two years after the appearance of Ford’s book—George M. Cohan produced his autobiography, Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took to Get There. It is part of the sadness of Cohan’s later life that he was unable to transcend the solutions he found in the early years of the century and that, as he grew older, nostalgia took precedence over energy—though a brilliant play like Pigeons and People shows that there was certainly considerable life in the man in 1932.
But in 1906 he was twenty-eight years old, and the various aspects of the energy field that constituted him remained in an enormously creative tension. Everything seemed possible there, too. The new, the old, the theatrical, the illusory, the real, the melodramatic, the serious, the comic, stability, instability, chaos, the experience of the immigrant, patriotism, pugnaciousness, tenderness, the sentimental, song, drama, nostalgia, sadness, joy—all were dancing in a state of precarious, self-illuminating balance.
Once there was a man my father knew
in the old times
when the old century was new
as this new century is new
and the power of him stands
shining in a changed time
amid the immense
bustle of New York City life—
all that grieving joyous murderous life that circumambulates
his poised and elegant presence
as he holds but does not lean upon
He was my father’s mentor and his friend
He lived, and now, lives here…
I need a fix
I’ll be comatose
unless I get a dose
of the era and aura
of sweet Florodora
I love the banter
of Eddie the Cantor
I bow to no man
except Georgie Cohan,
and Marilyn Miller
for me is a thriller
There isn’t a proxy
for old Harry Fox-y
I’d give a posy
to Yansci or Rosie
Ah, bring back the days
of dear Nora Bayes
and bring back the tunes
that rhymed Junes with moons
Bring back the spinets from
“Forty-Five Minutes from...”
Oh bring back those audible vaudeville days
Bring back those vaudeville days
1. Ward Morehouse is the source of the now prevalent belief that George M. Cohan was born on July 3rd, despite Cohan’s famous, lifelong assertion that he was “born on the fourth of July.” Cohan’s birth date was never in dispute until Morehouse’s book, George M. Cohan: Prince of the American Theater appeared in 1943—shortly after Cohan’s death on November 5, 1942. Morehouse’s book reproduced Cohan’s baptismal certificate, which shows him to have been born on the third of July. But neither birth certificates nor baptismal certificates are necessarily unimpeachably accurate documents. My father was born in 1895; his birth certificate shows him to have been born a week earlier than the day he was in fact born. In George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (1973), another biographer, John McCabe writes,
The baptismal certificate hardly settles the matter. As was not unusual at the time, the birth was not recorded in the civic registry of Providence. There is, however, circumstantial evidence writ large that the July 3 on the baptismal certificate is a clerical error. Cohan’s birthday was always celebrated on the Fourth of July by his parents, Jeremiah (“Jere” or “Jerry”) and Helen (“Nellie”) Cohan, and this many years before that date began to have profitable connotations for the Yankee Doodle Dandy. The utter probity of these two remarkable people who early taught their son that a man’s word was his impregnable bond is the strongest proof that Cohan was indeed born on the Fourth.
2. George M. Cohan’s great success in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness was partly the result of his ability to convey the feeling of actually being a small town man. J.D. Salinger saw Ah, Wilderness and described Cohan’s performance as “the first unstagey acting I think I ever saw on the stage.” Cohan’s performance is an indication that the very people he could at times dismiss as “jays” were people he felt a considerable longing to be. The biographies strongly suggest that Cohan was a man of various contradictory aspects, and his best work is able to play among those aspects rather than forcing us to choose a single one of them. Drama, theater was an area in which all his “selves” might safely manifest. One might say that Cohan was a “multiplicity” rather than an “individual” (a word which by etymology means “undivided,” “not divisible”). People speak of him as having been “talented” in various areas (songwriter, dancer, actor, playwright, etc.) and, while that point is obviously true, it perhaps needs to be amplified. I think Cohan was variously “talented” because his psyche was various, multiple. It was perfectly natural to him to function in various contexts rather than in a single context. He was in this respect closer to being a twenty-first-century man rather than the nineteenth- / early twentieth-century man he also was.
for Dave Collins and Esther Valentine