George M Cohan Tonight!

George M Cohan Tonight!
The story of the man who owned Broadway, a one-man show by Chip Deffaa, with songs by George M. Cohan, with revisions and some lyrics by Chip Deffaa

George M Cohan – David Herzog
Christopher Ash – Musical Director & Piano

Bart Williams – Director

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 25 September, 2010
Venue: New Players’ Theatre, The Arches, Villiers Street, London WC2

George M. Cohan (1878-1942) is arguably the most famous name, legendary even, in American show-business. His life and career encompassed every aspect of the entertainment industry. He was an actor, dancer, singer, songwriter, playwright, director, producer and an all-American to boot. Allegedly born on the Fourth of July (it was the 3rd) he came from Irish stock and, as both his parents, Jerry and Nellie, worked in vaudeville, it was inevitable that George should join them as part of their act. Along with his sister Josephine they were known as The Four Cohans. He left school at age eight but by then knew more about show-business to enable him to write sketches for the family act. In 1894 he had his first song published and went on to write some five hundred more, most of which have since been forgotten except for ‘Over There’, ‘Give My Regards to Broadway’ and ‘The Yankee Doodle Boy’. He wrote nearly forty shows and starred in them too. His film roles, however, were restricted to a literal handful of mainly silent pictures. A musical, “The Phantom President” (1932), with songs by Rodgers & Hart, although not a good film, shows him in a performance typical of his stage style. He played two parts (opposite Claudette Colbert and Jimmy Durante), the US President and a man who has to impersonate the President. The story was remade some sixty years later as “Dave”, with Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver and Frank Langella.

Cohan’s first Broadway show was “The Governor’s Son” in 1899, although it was not a great success. However, five years later, when he joined forces with producer Sam H. Harris, staging eighteen shows over the next fifteen years. The first, “Little Johnny Jones”, in 1904, was not at first a hit, although it introduced two of Cohan’s most famous songs, ‘Give My Regards…’ and ‘Yankee Doodle’, but it has the merit of being the first American book-musical proper, really a play with music, combining acting, singing and dancing in a patriotic story that was all US of A and had no relation to the then current crop of operettas emanating from Europe. Although “Oklahoma!” (1943) is generally considered to be the watershed for the American musical (pace “Show Boat” in 1927), Cohan was there some forty years earlier, writing about real, everyday people who spouted contemporary dialogue. “Little Johnny Jones” was about an American jockey who goes to Britain to ride in the Derby and gets into trouble when he is asked to throw the race. Although it did not appeal to the critics, the public warmed to it and Cohan revived it twice in the same year.

Cohan made his career mostly on Broadway and he is the only actor to have a commemorative statue in his honour on the Great White Way in Times Square, instituted at the behest of Oscar Hammerstein II. He carried on working until 1940 in his own shows as well as Rodgers & Hart’s “I’d Rather Be Rich” and Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah! Wilderness”. His life was portrayed in the 1942 film “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with James Cagney as Cohan, a role that earned him an Academy Award. Cagney reproduced Cohan’s signature-style of dancing with stiff legs and body and arms bent forwards. The film is preserved in the Library of Congress for its being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” It was made the year Cohan died and he managed to see the film just before he passed away. Joel Grey played Cohan in the stage musical “George M!” in 1968, although the show never came to London.

In Chip Deffaa’s one-man play, David Herzog presents Cohan’s life in song, dance and anecdote. It cannot help but be tantalising as the subject was an enormous talent to be reckoned with, although he was also something of an enigma. A driven man, Cohan’s private life was not always great. His first wife, Ethel, sued him for divorce, although his second wife, Agnes, was with him until he died. He was fairly discreet about his extramarital affairs. Cohan had an overwhelming desire to be in charge and, when the new actors’ union went on strike in 1919, he left the company he had formed with Sam Harris and became the only actor to work without a union contract.

Herzog works his way tirelessly through over thirty of Cohan’s songs, and tap-dances too. The titles of the songs reveal a sentimental streak that was probably in-tune with the patriotic spirit of the times. Typical of Cohan’s oeuvre are ‘Musical Moon’, ‘Ireland: My Land of Dreams’, ‘I’m Saving Up to Buy a Home for Mother’, ‘You Won’t Do Any Business if You Haven’t Got a Band’, ‘The Fatal Curse of Drink’ and ‘Mary’s a Grand Old Name’, ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’ and ‘All-American Sweetheart’.

It’s a charming performance by Herzog accompanied by Christopher Ash at the piano in a show that reveals much about a performer who was such a product of the US entertainment industry. In some ways he was a philosopher for the man in the street, as the final lyric to his song ‘Life’s a Funny Proposition After All’ indicates: “Hurried and worried until we’re buried and there’s no curtain call, / Life’s a very funny proposition after all.”

  • George M Cohan Tonight! is at the New Players’ Theatre, Villiers Street, London WC2 until Saturday 16 October
  • Monday to Saturday at 8 p.m. with Saturday matinees at 3 p.m.
  • Tickets: 0844 477 1000

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