'Give My Regards to Broadway' Max Morath, who has been researching and performing vaudeville for more than 50 years, talks about the significance of the song.

'Give My Regards to Broadway'

'Give My Regards to Broadway'

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American actor, dramatist and producer George Michael Cohan. Three Lions/Getty Images hide caption

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Three Lions/Getty Images

American actor, dramatist and producer George Michael Cohan.

Three Lions/Getty Images

"Give My Regards to Broadway" was first heard in George M. Cohan's Broadway musical "Little Johnny Jones," opened at the Liberty Theater, New York, November 7th, 1904. Cohan directed it, wrote the book, music and lyrics and played the title role. Now the show was not a hit, but the song certainly became one, a ragtime rouser, a march, a sing-along, a peon to Broadway and New York, and the new 20th century coming on. But it started out in life as a simple plot song with nothing of the happy up-tempo nature we've heard ever since.

NPR 100 Fact Sheet

Title: Give My Regards to Broadway

Artist: Words/music George M. Cohan

Reporter: Max Morath

Length: 8:00

Interviewees: none

Recordings Used: Give My Regards to Broadway, James Cagney

Give My Regards to Broadway, Barry Manilow

We're in the second act. George M. Cohan, as little Johnny Jones, is standing on the Southampton pier in England. In the show, he's an American jockey. He's over there to race in the derby. His horse is named Yankee Doodle, and, of course, they call him the Yankee Doodle dandy. Johnny gets involved, innocently, with some gamblers, loses the race. He's accused of throwing it for his crooked pals. Now the reason he's on that pier is that a friend of his from New York is sailing home, and we learn that evidence to clear Johnny's name just might be hidden on board. But at the moment, he's still a suspect. He's worried. So the first time we hear this song, it's a homesick lament, slow and wistful, maybe something like this.

"Give my regards to Broadway. Remember me to Herald Square. Tell all the gang at 42nd Street that I will soon be there. Whisper of how I'm yearning to mingle with the old-time throng. Give my regards to old Broadway, and tell them I'll be there ere long."

Well, not to worry, little Johnny Jones, the Yankee Doodle boy as played by George M. Cohan, didn't stay wistful for him. The bad guys are rounded up. Johnny gets the girl, and the final curtain comes down with that Broadway song in the tempo and mood that we've expected of it ever since.

You can hear this song in Hollywood's life of George M. Cohan. The film is called "Yankee Doodle Dandy." It's on TV every 4th of July. James Cagney plays Cohan--won the Academy Award, best actor, in 1942. And the movie itself was chosen as one of the best 100 of the century by the American Film Institute. Cagney's portrayal of Cohan in that movie is just remarkable. He didn't know Cohan, had never worked with him, but both describe themselves the same way all their lives. `Once a song and dance man,' they said, `always a song and dance man.' Cagney always said the happiest moment in his performing life was that scene when he sings and dances, "Give My Regards to Broadway," in a style that was pure Cagney and Cohan bonded, doing, as he said, `what I like best in a part that I love. You can't do better than that.'

Our celebrated song today found its place in the American music canon partly because of its association with two leading performers of the century, James Cagney and George M. Cohan. But as a performer, Cohan's been forgotten. His work as a composer and playwright and producer lives on, because he's the one who put the word `American' in front of musical comity. Cohan's parents were show people, and he was a child of vaudeville. That's where he mastered the English language, American style. He had no formal schooling, but he was as sharp as they come. He couldn't wait to bring into our musical theater the impudent slang, the street language of his world, full of topical stuff. Now vaudeville was already up to the minute, but the legit musicals and operettas of the time were still dealing with flirtations in German beer gardens and the intrigues of Oriental tea rooms. Cohan had no use for that stuff. It was America he loved. And the America he knew went into his songs and his shows.

"Give My Regards to Broadway" has lived the century. Eddie Bazell sang it in the first film version of "Little Johnny Jones," 1929. In 1948, Hollywood grabbed it again and starred Dan Dailey in a musical bearing the song's title. Al Jolson dubbed it in for Keith Brazell(ph) on the soundtrack of "Jolson Sings Again," 1949. It's been recorded since by everybody from Mantovani to Andre Previn, from trumpet master Ruby Braff to ballad man Jimmy Roselli.