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This ‘Yankee Doodle’ tells Cohan story, warts and all

An 1890 photo of George M. Cohan and his sister, Josie.
An 1890 photo of George M. Cohan and his sister, Josie.

In the fall of 1942, George M. Cohan — dubbed the “man who owned Broadway” — was dying of cancer. Strong-willed as ever, Cohan ordered his private nurse to help him out of bed and take him from his Fifth Avenue apartment to a Times Square movie theater where “Yankee Doodle Dandy” had just opened.

Cohan didn’t see much of the movie. But he stayed long enough to size up James Cagney‘s portrayal — a highlight of that actor’s career — and to listen to a few of the lively and beloved songs he had written in the decades before World War I. They surely included “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway,” both major numbers from “Little Johnny Jones,” the smash hit that had launched Cohan from vaudeville into the big time in 1904.

If Cohan stayed long enough to hear “Over There,” his rousing, jingoistic war song, it might have triggered bitter memories of the 1919 strike by members of the newly formed Actors Equity union. Cohan’s raging opposition to the union ended with his reputation tarnished and a shattered relationship with his lifelong business partner, Sam Harris. During the strike, Equity members appropriated “Over There” and altered the lyrics to turn it into a union rallying song — changing words like “there” to “fair.”

According to some accounts, Cohan left the movie house on that day in 1942 and asked to be driven past some of his old haunts: the Broadway theaters he had owned and leased; the watering holes where he had celebrated so many opening nights. It was to be a last tour of his theater estate.

A back-to-the-future twist
That last-day-of-his-life story provides the framing device for “Yankee Doodle,” which opens Tuesday (Aug. 5) for a short, 16-performance run at St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. It’s a durable frame: The old hoofer in his last hours sits in a darkened theater, and as he remembers his past triumphs, struggles and defeats, we are transported back into those colorful memories.

This time, however, the show also involves a back-to-the-future sort of twist. At least, that’s how the show was explained to me by James Rocco, who is directing the “drama with music” that he and others have been tinkering on for nearly a decade.

“The show doesn’t end with George M. Cohan’s death in 1942,” Rocco explained. “It is projected into the future, past 1942. What we’re really doing is showing that this man influenced Broadway not only in his own day, but all the way to today. He invented the Broadway book musical and that structure is still being used.”

Sean Martin Hingston as George Cohan leads a rousing rendition of "You're a Grand Old Flag."
Courtesy of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Sean Martin Hingston as George Cohan leads a rousing rendition of “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

Rocco has been vice president of programming at the Ordway since 2006. But his association with “Yankee Doodle” goes back to a workshop version that was staged in a theater on Long Island back in 2000. Also involved in the project was the author of the book for the show: David Armstrong, the producing artistic director of Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre.

In 2004, a fuller version of the show was staged at Armstrong’s Seattle theater and subsequently toured to Dallas and Atlanta. The Ordway version — substantially reworked with a new “trajectory,” according to Rocco — also is markedly bigger, involving at least 100 people. Big production numbers, elaborate costumes, the whole extravaganza. (You can see a video preview here.)

“We’re finally doing the show the way it was intended,” Rocco said, adding that despite its historical hook, “it has that jagged, new-musical kind of look.”

Armstrong says “Yankee Doodle” is different from the many tributes to Cohan (such as 1968’s “George M!” that launched the Broadway stardom of Joel Grey) because it shows the great entertainer “warts and all.”

“He was not fun to be around, at least part of the time,” Armstrong said. “He was driven, uncompromising and very demanding of those around him. But on the other hand, he was very loyal and generous to his people — to the people who were giving their lives to the theater.”

And he was astonishingly gifted by the standards of any age. As a Tin Pan Alley composer, Cohan wrote more than 1,000 songs — many so familiar that the lyrics seem implanted in our genes, even when we can’t place the composer. Think of songs like “Harrigan,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Mary’s a Grand Old Name” — it’s a long, long list.

The hip-hopster of his time
As a dancer, Cohan was the hip-hopster of his time, blending Irish clogging and African-American stomping into a street-savvy style. He danced with a lightness that seemed to defy gravity while still looking masculine — and it’s said he was a major influence on athletic dancers like Gene Kelly.

Most significant, according to Armstrong, are the innovations Cohan brought to musical comedy. “He took elements of vaudeville, which was the form he was born into, and operetta and combined it with melodrama to create musicals that told the stories of ordinary Americans,” Armstrong said. “The theater he created was a quintessentially American invention, like the light bulb and the telephone.”

Sean Martin Hingston as the jockey in "Yankee Doodle."
Courtesy of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Sean Martin Hingston as the jockey in “Yankee Doodle.”

He also wrote plays, including one of the first comedy mysteries, “Seven Keys to Baldpate,” (1913) and reportedly worked as an unnamed script “fixer” for countless other shows. Producers sometimes referred to a show being “Cohanized” — a euphemism for “saved.” In his later years, his acting turns included acclaim in the first production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” and a long run portraying a dancing Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Moss Hart/George S. Kaufman satire, “I’d Rather Be Right.”

In order to tell the celebrated entertainer’s story, Armstrong, Rocco and composer Albert Evans scoured Cohan archives, including the Museum of the City of New York, and turned up hundreds of songs, sketches and other documents that have been long forgotten. Composer Evans did some arranging, extended sketches to complete songs and wrote some new lyrics in some cases, according to Armstrong.

One particular challenge was finding a love song, Armstrong said. Cohan wrote lots of upbeat, march-like songs and plenty of waltzes, but his sentimentality seldom pierced the heart with any kind of reflection. But Evans found an obscure, yet noteworthy waltz, slowed the tempo and created some new lyrics. Voila — a love song.

Needless to say, “Yankee Doodle” is filled with references and snippets from Cohan shows.

“What we’ve discovered in the other incarnations is that it’s such a crowd-pleaser,” Armstrong said. “Audiences come out with a big high, and I think that has something to do with the blend of familiarity and discovery. A lot of it is so familiar that it seems we have known the songs from birth. And then there are things people forgot they knew — and things they’ve never heard before.”

What: “Yankee Doodle,” a play with music about George M. Cohan.
Where: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, St. Paul
When: Aug. 5-17. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays.
Ticket info: online or 651-224-4222

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