5th Avenue's new 'Yankee Doodle' shows George M. Cohan's life, warts and all
Seattle Times theater critic
Brash. Corny. Flag-waving. Dynamic. Sentimental.
Those adjectives often were applied to the early-20th-century Broadway superstar George M. Cohan and to the array of crowd-pleasing musicals and plays he wrote, composed and starred in.
The lights dimmed on Broadway when Cohan died in 1942, at age 64. Upon his death, President Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked, "A beloved figure in our national life is lost."
For succeeding generations, one flickering image of Cohan endures: film star Jimmy Cagney as the showman singing and hoofing his way through "Yankee Doodle Boy" with irrepressible bravado in the 1942 movie "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
That sunny film, with Cagney's unforgettable Oscar-winning turn, won't be the last word on the backstage life and blazing career of Cohan — if 5th Avenue Theatre artistic director David Armstrong has his way.
Armstrong's world-premiere stage musical, also titled "Yankee Doodle Dandy!" opens at the 5th Avenue next week and goes on to Dallas and Atlanta runs. The $1.7 million production, with a cast of 27 led by Broadway actor Seán Martin Hingston (as the younger Cohan) and Richard Sanders (as the elder Cohan), aims to evoke a gaudy, good-natured showbiz era, and a warts-and-all portrait of the man once unofficially crowned "The King of Broadway."
The 5th Avenue show packs 25 musical numbers, a few newly composed by Albert Evans, but most penned by Cohan — including such lilting, anthemic odes as "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Over There," "Harrigan" and "Give My Regards to Broadway."
And yet, despite the rampant familiarity of some Cohan melodies and nostalgia for the Cagney film, Armstrong knows his "Yankee Doodle Dandy!" is a gamble — both for his theatre and himself. Armstrong, respected for his leadership of the 5th Avenue since his hiring in 2000, wrote material for earlier shows produced elsewhere. But this marks his Seattle debut as an author — and as originator of a musical he hopes might hoof it to more cities, and maybe to Broadway. (Producers from around the country, in Seattle for the National Alliance for Musical Theatre conference, are expected to give "Yankee Doodle Dandy!" a look-see.)
"There's a lot of pressure, I'll be the first to admit that," agrees Armstrong, who is also co-directing and co-choreographing "Yankee Doodle Dandy!" with Jamie Rocco. "It's a big undertaking. But it's a title that seemed to resonate with our audience in surveys. And though it's very different from the movie of his life, people will still be getting the songs and essence of Cohan."
A prior bio-musical, the 1968 Broadway tuner "George M!" paid homage to Cohan and showcased the myriad talents of lead actor Joel Grey. But reviewers considered the book for "George M!" weak, and the show is infrequently revived.
By contrast, Armstrong insists the "Yankee Doodle Dandy!" storyline he spent six years crafting offers more insight into Cohan's generous, scrappy, sometimes ruthless temperament and the rough-and-tumble American epoch that bred him — an era of labor unrest, mass European immigration, flamboyant patriotism, and a theatrical style steeped in the hokey-jokey antics of vaudeville and broad emotionalism of melodrama. (A popular suspense drama by Cohan, "The Tavern," also will be performed locally this month, at Seattle Public Theater.)
"I think it's a wonderful idea for a show because not much is generally known about Cohan in that sense," says University of Washington theater history professor Barry Witham.
Armstrong's scenario begins "near the end of Cohan's life. I was inspired by an event alluded to in all the biographies. One night in 1942, Cohan apparently got out of his sick bed and had his male nurse take him out on the town.
"He revisited his old theater haunts, stood in the back of a cinema where 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' was playing, and went to Times Square, literally giving his regards to Broadway. Then he went home and died a few days later."
From there, "Yankee Doodle Dandy!" zips backward to the Providence, R.I.-born Cohan's early days on the variety circuit with his family's act, The Four Cohans, and on to the first of many Broadway hit musicals, the 1904 "Little Johnny Jones." ("Yankee Doodle Boy" and "Give My Regards to Broadway" were in the score).
Yet while the Cagney film left out some rough patches in Cohan's saga, the new musical does not. In the movie, Cohan had one long, happy marriage with a devoted wife, Mary. In reality, his first union (with a vaudeville performer, Ethel) ended in divorce; his second, to Agnes, yielded three children and endured.
More critically, Armstrong's show focuses on "one of the major events in Cohan's life," the fateful Actors Equity strike of 1919. Cohan sided against the powerful new union, drawing the enmity of many Broadway colleagues and destroying his long partnership with producer Sam Harris. Opposing the strike "was one of those irrational things," suggests Armstrong. "Cohan felt he was already doing everything Equity was asking for. Back then, working in Broadway shows was tantamount to toiling in sweatshops, but Cohan wasn't a slave driver. He was so insulted to be lumped together with more egregious producers, he became incensed."
Making Cohan an appealing protagonist but one "who was very driven and not always so easy to get along with" has been a challenge, Armstrong admits, "yet I'm very drawn to someone who gets things done in that American can-do, turn-of-the-century way. With no formal education of any kind, Cohan just creates himself as a theatrical genius."
After the Equity strike, Cohan's star began to wane. And as sophisticates like Cole Porter and the Gershwin brothers began turning out musicals, his shows seemed old-fashioned. "Some of that just had to do with changing times," Armstrong says. "Theater was becoming more modern. But no matter how we view him now, I want people to know Cohan was really a revolutionary in his heyday. At one time his shows were the hippest, the coolest, the newest thing."
What about conjuring up the flag-waving American chauvinism associated with Cohan? How does Armstrong think that will go over now, in a period of great social division over the war in Iraq and the United States' role on the world stage?
"Look, you have to consider Cohan in context," he replies. "This was a shanty Irish kid out of nowhere, when the Irish were treated like dirt in this country. So to wrap yourself in the flag and say, 'I'm as American as anyone else,' was truly subversive at the time. It goes back to the complicated roots of American musicals. They were mostly created by Jews, Irish and gay people, who at the turn of century were all from the margins of society and yet largely defined American popular culture."
Perhaps Cohan's greatest satisfaction in later life came when Actors Equity, which he refused to join, granted him a waiver to play President Roosevelt in a 1937 Rodgers and Hart show, "I'd Rather Be Right." And though he didn't live to see it, Cohan won a permanent place in Times Square; a statue of him was erected near there in 1959, and there it remains.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company