Each time I get to work on one of these neo musical comedies (like Cry-Baby, Bat Boy, Spelling Bee, Reefer Madness, Urinetown), I get to study this new form even better. And here I am again, with one of the coolest, most aggressive of the bunch, every bit as funny and as intense as Bat Boy and Urinetown. It's got the politics, the wackiness, the darkness, the thick, thick irony. It's a weird cross between George M. Cohan on the one hand, and Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar on the other.
The more I work on these shows, the more I have to re-examine my preconceptions about the history and evolution of our art form. I sort of unconsciously started that work when I wrote my history book, Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, and got even closer in my last book, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals. But after doing Cry-Baby last spring and now working on BBAJ, these ideas are really swimming around in my head a lot.
Rodgers and Hammerstein era wasn't really when the art form found its footing. That goes back further than we usually pay attention. I think the show that really starts the story of the modern American musical is Little Johnny Jones in 1904, writer-composer-director-choreographer-star George M. Cohan's first big hit. There were a few other shows that had used the label musical comedy before Cohan, but Little Johnny Jones was the first show that really was what we now know as musical comedy.
And for me, there is great freedom in realizing that our art form didn't take original root in the ponderous morality of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but instead in Cohan's musical comedy, rowdy, high-energy, streetwise, slyly satiric, both smart and smartass, and strangely enough, both romantic and cynical – in other, words, very American. It's freedom that comes from the knowledge that the only fundamental rule of musical theatre is that there are no fundamental rules – look at Lysistrata Jones, Cry-Baby, Bat Boy, and Spelling Bee. Today's neo musical comedy takes Cohan's model largely intact, but with the accumulations of its evolution, the political self-awareness of the 1960s, the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s, the New Irony of the 1990s, and the Culture Wars of the 2000s.
For years, musical theatre artists have studied Oklhaoma! and Carousel. But maybe they should be studying George M. Cohan and Little Johnny Jones. That's where we find the roots of Cry-Baby, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, High Fidelity, and many of the shows being written today. In a sense, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "American operettas" were a detour (though certainly one we learned a lot from), away from the artistically pure Americanism of Cohan. Rogers and Hammerstein musicals evolved (through Kern and Hammerstein's Show Boat) out of European operetta; but the musical comedy was a new American art form, one not based on European forms. Only since the mid-1990s have we returned decisively to this innately American form, but with the changes that allow it to speak to our new zeitgeist.
And really, Cohan's times were a lot like our own. As the last century began, America was a country in transition – exactly as it is now. In 1902, the United Mine Workers began a five-month strike that President Roosevelt ended by giving in to their demands, just as issues of collective bargaining are today being debated in Wisconsin, Ohio, Chicago, and elsewhere. That same year, Roosevelt instituted anti-trust proceedings against many giants of American industry, just as today President Obama and Congress have been trying to put some restraints on the financial industry that tanked our economy. And immigration to the United States reached record levels at the time, in parallel to the illegal immigrant issue in America today. In 1903, J.P. Morgan made $40 million in a single stock deal, mirroring the One Percenters today who literally make billions of dollars a year. That was just a year before Cohan's Little Johnny Jones debuted, elevating the Common Man to the leading role, rather than the counts and princes of operetta. Just as Andrew Jackson democratized our political process, Cohan democratized the musical theatre.
And just as America was ready in 1900 for the blossoming of the new populist art form of musical comedy – a genuinely, entirely American art form – so too today our cynical, crazy world demands the pointed irony of the neo musical comedy, to satirize and reveal the complicated, chaotic times in which we live.
Historian Cecil Smith described Cohan as “the apostle of breeziness, of up-to-dateness, of Broadway brashness and slang. Speed, directness, and ‘ginger’ were the chief ingredients of his musical plays.” You might say the same things about Keythe Farley, co-writer and original director of Bat Boy, or about Alex Timbers, writer and original director of BBAJ and director of Peter and the Starcatcher and the recent Pee Wee Herman On Broadway. One of Cohan's famous directions to his cast before the curtain of a Cohan musical was, “Speed! Speed! And lots of it! Above all, speed!” Sounds a lot like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, doesn't it? Cohan gave the musical comedy its tempo, its attitude, its fierceness, its sheer, aggressive American-ness. Years later, playwright Alert Innaurato said of these shows, “Theatre must be a paradox to succeed, and this was ferocious fluff, deadly uproarious political theatre that was also tons of fun.”
You could describe Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson exactly the same way.
In every way, Cohan turned commercial theatre on its ear. But soon enough, his brand of muscular, brash, rough-and-tumble American musical caught on. Critic Brooks Atkinson has said that Cohan’s songs were “sublimations of the mood of their day. They said what millions of people would have said if they had Cohan’s talent.” Critic Alan Dale in The Telegraph described Cohan’s Little Nellie Kelly this way: “Everything and everybody jigged, and contorted, and twisted, and cavorted, and pirouetted, and tripped it, and trotted, and raced, and rushed, and rampaged, and rioted, and footed it, and embonpointed it, and made a general dancing rough-house.” Once again, sounds like BBAJ. Oscar Hammerstein II would later say, “Never was a plant more indigenous to a particular part of the earth than was George M. Cohan to the United States of his day. The whole nation was confident of its superiority, its moral virtue, its happy isolation from the intrigues of the old country, from which many of our fathers and grandfathers had migrated.” Musical theatre historian Gerald Bordman called Cohan “America’s first musical comedy genius.”
(A quick side note: In Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, Cohan made the unprecedented move of starting his show with a lone male voice singing offstage a cappella. Everybody thinks Rodgers and Hammerstein were the first to do that with Oklahoma! but Cohan actually did it first.)
Cohan wrote a total of twenty-one musicals and twenty plays during his career. His plots were sometimes slight but still coherent and dramatic. His life story (partly fictionalized) was told in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, which recreated the climactic song and dance from Little Johnny Jones. A revue of Cohan’s songs that also told his life story was created in 1968 called George M, which gave many of his songs new life, and introduced him to a whole new generation.
Little Johnny Jones (1904), Cohan’s first hit and one of his best shows, was inspired by the real life Tod Sloane, an American jockey in London for the English Derby. But in Cohan’s show, the jockey Johnny Jones is framed on bogus charges of fixing the race, by an unscrupulous American gambler. Strangely enough, this story occupied the first two acts, while Act III returned to San Francisco’s Chinatown where Jones’ fiancée is kidnapped. Of course, the kidnapper is the same guy who framed poor Johnny in London. The show ran only fifty-two performances in its initial New York run, but Cohan kept fiddling with the show as he took it on tour, learning from his audiences, and when he brought it back to Broadway, it clocked in an impressive two hundred additional performances. The score contained “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” later known as “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Of course, as coincidence would have it, both Johnny Jones and George M. Cohan were born on the Fourth of July. (For a long time, Cohan’s birth certificate dated July 3, 1878, appeared to expose a lie, but it’s generally agreed now that the certificate is in error.) And as if Cohan wasn’t all-American enough on his own, consider that his first monster hit song, “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” contained quotations from “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Dixie,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” and of course, “Yankee Doodle.” You can't get more American than that.
Here's the most famous number from Little Johnny Jones, as recreated at the Goodspeed Opera House in 1980, based on what we know of the original staging and choreography.
Imagine the impact of a rowdy, smartass show like this after decades of operetta. Probably a lot like the impact of Bat Boy and Urinetown in the late 1990s, after decades of Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musicals.
The Milwaukee Press said of Cohan's show Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, “All the forth, the humor, the fatalism, the philosophy, compounded of Epicureanism, cynicism, and opportunism, characteristic of the futile little rialto world are perfectly reflected by Mr. Cohan in his songs and slang dialogue.” One review of The Honeymooners said, “It goes so fast that it almost bewilders and gives the impression of a great machine shooting out characters, choruses, songs, dances with rapid-fire quickness and precision."
Once again, that quote could have just as easily been written about BBAJ.
An opposing view was expressed by James Metcalf in Life. He said Cohan was “a vulgar, cheap, blatant, ill-mannered, flashily-dressed, insolent, smart aleck, who for some reason unexplainable on any basis of common sense, good taste, or even ordinary decency, appeals to the imagination and apparent approval of large American audiences. As a living character in any American town or village, it is hardly to be conceived that he would not by driven out as a public nuisance and a pernicious example to the youth of the community. The round of applause which greets the efforts of this offensive personality must convey to the minds of ignorant boys a depraving ideal for their inspirations and imitation.” Now that sounds like they're talking about the character of Andrew Jackson in BBAJ.
How dare Cohan portray an ill-mannered character! And how dare Grease and Rocky Horror portray horny kids...
I've never felt more connected to my artistic roots. The more I let go of the weight and constraints of the Rodgers and Hammerstein model, the freer I feel to raise hell and break the rules as often as I follow them. Cohan is my artistic hero, along with his disciples, George Abbott, Hal Prince, Bob Fosse, and Tommy Tune. He did his best to get at the truth of America while also giving his audiences a hell of a good time. I can't imagine a more noble agenda.
And meanwhile, New Line's latest neo musical comedy, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, is in such great shape – hilarious, heart-wrenching, emotionally powerful, freakishly insightful – and we've still got two weeks before we open.
The adventure continues...
Long Live the Musical!