George M. Cohan, 'The Man Who Created Broadway,' Was An Anthem Machine Cohan was a myth builder: Songs like "Yankee Doodle Dandy, "Over There" and "Give My Regards to Broadway" celebrated both life in early 20th-century America and the glowing allure of the stage.
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George M. Cohan, 'The Man Who Created Broadway,' Was An Anthem Machine

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George M. Cohan, 'The Man Who Created Broadway,' Was An Anthem Machine

George M. Cohan, 'The Man Who Created Broadway,' Was An Anthem Machine

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

George M. Cohan was 64 and had just a few weeks to live when producers showed him the movie they had made about his astonishingly productive life, a movie named after his signature song...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE YANKEE DOODLE BOY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I'm a Yankee Doodle dandy.

CHANG: ...And crammed with others that he had made popular.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE A GRAND OLD FLAG")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) You're a grand, old flag. You're a high-flying flag.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROADWAY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) Give your regards to Broadway.

CHANG: Broadway was Cohan's home base in the early years of the 20th century. He's considered the father of American musical comedy with more than 50 shows to his credit. Today he's the subject of our American Anthem series not for writing one song but for being what critic Bob Mondello calls an anthem machine.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Three hundred songs and a lot of flag waving - Cohan was mocked in some circles for writing so many foot-stomping marches. But Larry Maslon, author of "Broadway To Main Street: How Show Tunes Enchanted America," says that having spent his childhood traipsing all over the country in his family's vaudeville act, he knew it worked.

LARRY MASLON: Because if you're knocking about from, you know, the East Coast to the West Coast in tiny towns, you have to figure what's going to get the widest bandwidth. And he realized particularly at the dawn of the 20th century that being an American was more exciting for many people than being Swedish or Jewish or Italian or Irish or African-American. And he was very canny about that.

MONDELLO: Also canny about capturing the moment. With World War I raging in Europe in 1917, he wrote a song he said was inspired by a bugle call. It proved pretty popular, as he later told a radio audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE M COHAN: I've been asked to sing a verse and chorus of a little marching song of mine the boys adopted more or less during the war. I don't have to tell you I'm not much of a vocalist, but I'll do the best I can with it.

MONDELLO: This speech packs in a lot of understatement. Back when people still gathered around pianos in their parlors, that little marching song sold millions of copies of sheet music as it boosted morale during World War I. And though Cohan couldn't have known this on that radio broadcast, American doughboys would have it ringing in their ears as they headed back to Europe for World War II. Oh, and he can sing it just fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER THERE")

COHAN: (Singing) Over there, over there - send the word. Send the word over there that the yanks are coming. The yanks are coming, the drums rum-tumming everywhere.

MONDELLO: Cohan said he penned that song on a train to New Rochelle, modest origins for one of his bigger hits and one of the relatively few that weren't penned specifically for Broadway. He was a creature of the theater, writing, producing and starring in vehicles that were all about a yearning...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROADWAY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) Yearning...

MONDELLO: ...For a kind of success that Maslon says he turned into a whole new allegory.

MASLON: He is the man who created Broadway - not the street, not the pavement, but he created the myth and the legend of Broadway.

MONDELLO: The appealing legend of overnight success, one that's still common even in shows that opened this season.

MASLON: I had the misfortune of sitting through "King Kong" the other night, and it begins with this girl who shows up with a suitcase in 1933, saying, I want to be the queen of Broadway. The girl who comes off the train in "Annie" - right? - or the bus, wherever she comes from - that mythology we have of seeing your name in lights. And nobody summed that up better than George M. Cohan.

MONDELLO: Still, even though he was perhaps the great musical comedy performer before 1925, there aren't many recordings of Cohan.

MASLON: Rumor was he didn't like the way he sang. He thought that electronic equipment didn't capture his pizzazz and his personality, so he avoided it. He only recorded about seven or eight songs, so we don't really have that kind of memory. We know Cohan mostly through Jimmy Cagney in "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YANKEE DOODLE DANDY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) To what do you contribute your continued success, Mr. Cohan?

JAMES CAGNEY: (As George M. Cohan) Oh, I'm an ordinary guy who knows what ordinary guys like to see.

JOEL GREY: James Cagney and that movie, "Yankee Doodle Dandy," had a tremendous effect on me.

MONDELLO: Joel Grey, a brand new Broadway star after singing "Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome" in "Cabaret," picked the title role in "George M!" as his next project. The musical's appeal was obvious. Who could resist those songs, even the ones that weren't instantly familiar?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "GEORGE M!")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) See if you like it.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #3: (As characters, singing) So long, Mary. Mary, we will miss you so.

GREY: They're easy to sing because he himself was a performer, so he would write good things for himself - very musical, very singable, very early American kinds of songs.

MONDELLO: But "George M!" opened in 1968, an era of protest, not of smiles across white picket fences. The times - they had a-changed, and Grey discovered the brassy patriotic tunes Cohan was best known for weren't landing the way they had for James Cagney.

GREY: The Vietnam War and all of the political things that were going on since did not allow those songs to be pure and unattached to dark visions.

MONDELLO: "Over There," for instance, had originally marched troops into what was supposed to be a war to end all wars. But it didn't, something you can sense in the almost mournful way Grey begins the song in "George M!"

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "GEORGE M!")

GREY: (As George M. Cohan, singing) Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun. Take it on the run, on the run, on the run. Hoist the...

Knowing that there's blood in that song and there's blood on the floor and blood on the soldiers and loss - and it wants to be something very positive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "GEORGE M!")

GREY: (As George M. Cohan, singing) Make your mother proud of you, and to liberty be true. Over there, over there...

MONDELLO: Grey notes that there was a darkness in Cohan who indeed could be fierce when crossed. Notoriously antiunion, Cohan refused to join Actors Equity even when it meant he had trouble performing in his own shows. And he refused for years to pick up a Congressional Gold Medal because he just didn't want to meet President Franklin Roosevelt.

GREY: But when he was talking about America and writing about Broadway, I think all the darkness just sort of melted away.

MONDELLO: Which is why his work appealed to so many, including, during "George M!'s" run, President Richard Nixon.

GREY: He came to see the show with his wife and daughter and came backstage. And I was not a fan of his presidency. But, you know, when a president comes to see a show, you welcome him. And it also usually adds about a year to the run. May I tell you we closed about a month later?

MONDELLO: By that time, though, the public may simply have moved on. Just one block from "George M!" the rock musical "Hair" had begun letting the sun shine in, a notion George M. Cohan might barely have recognized as showbiz. Joel Grey.

GREY: He was a kind of guy that I probably would not have hung out with, kind of reactionary and Richard Nixon-ish. But I so admired his passion for the theater. And he was writing and directing and acting. And he's a force.

MONDELLO: Actor Joel Grey recalling George M. Cohan, whose statue stands at the center of Times Square, forever giving Broadway his regards. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "GEORGE M!")

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