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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Grand Old Rag

Guest Blogger Dept.: Cecil Smith’s fascinating, intensely researched, and very witty book Musical Comedy in America was published in 1950, and thus takes a more comprehensive look at the genre’s origins than a more recent book might, what with the incredible innovations of the last half of the 20th century. Here’s an excerpt reminding us that opinions about George M. Cohan were not always kind – and that critics weren’t bashful back then.


George M. Cohan
WITH GEORGE WASHINGTON, JR. (1906) – subtitled “An American Musical Play” – Cohan began to wave the flag in earnest, with the aid of a song entitled “The Grand Old Flag.” The plot hinged upon the conflict between an Anglomaniac father and a son so intensely patriotic that he renounced his own name and took that of the Father of Out Country. Cohan’s conception of the ideal American youth was by no means universally admired. The dissenting view was strongly put by James S. Metcalfe, critic of the old Life:
 . . . . [He is] 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 be driven out as a public nuisance and a pernicious example to the youth of the community. The rounds of applause which greet the efforts of this offensive personality must convey to the minds of ignorant boys a depraving ideal for their inspiration and imitation.
The Dramatic Mirror, while baffled by the Cohan phenomenon, took a quieter view:
Precisely why these Cohan concoctions are so popular with the New York public is a mystery the critic has never succeeded in solving to his personal satisfaction. They are clean; they are spirited; they are inspired with a variety of slang patriotism which may not be the less serious because it is not of superior elevation. Yet, after the last argument has been summarized, they must be classed, so to speak, as high-grade second-grade productions. Perhaps the true secret of Mr. Cohan’s unprecedented success, too permanent for mere theatrical luck, consists of his admirable stagecraft. In the art of presenting musical comedy, Mr. Cohan is apparently without a peer.
Against which, almost as though in riposte, Life submitted an opposing judgment:
These combinations of music are curious things, consisting mainly of several bars of well-known patriotic or sentimental songs strung together with connecting links of lively and more or less original musical trash. The words fitted to these curious contraptions are the kind of unmetrical stuff that children compose and call poetry, and are for the most part mawkish appeals to the cheapest kind of patriotism.
Whatever the merits of their content, Cohan’s musical comedies introduced a wholly new conception of delivery, tempo, and subject matter into a form of entertainment that was rapidly dying for want of new ideas of any kind. Brushing aside the artificial elegances and the formal developments of the musical comedies based on English and German models, he reproduced successfully the hardness, the compensating sentimentality, the impulsive vulgarity, and the swift movement of New York life, which, except for surface sophistications, has not changed much between then and now. Though the plays might seem dreadful if they were revived today, it is impossible not to grant them validity as interpretations of the whole spirit and tone of life in and around the Broadway sector. “At times,” wrote a reviewer in 1907 of The Honeymooners (a revision of Running for Office), “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.”

If he had been able to match his ability as a stage director with fresh materials, Cohan need never have temporarily deserted the musical-comedy field. But his plays came more and more to be rehashes—sometimes, as with The Honeymooners and The Man Who Owns Broadway (1909), reprises of pieces whose initial success had not satisfied him, as with Fifty Miles from Boston (1906) and The American Idea (1908), applications of old recipes to different (yet always the same) characters and circumstances.

– Cecil Smith, Musical Comedy in America, Theatre Arts Books, NY, 1950.

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