The title, Yankee Doodle Dandy!, may be familiar, but the story is not the Hollywoodization of the life and times of the famed producer, director, writer, songwriter. The show premiering April 24 (its first preview) at 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle is written and co-directed by 5th Avenue Theatre's producing artistic director, David Armstrong, who wanted to paint a more realistic offstage Cohan, who was grittier than his hit songs "Give My Regards to Broadway," "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Over There" might suggest.
To tell the story, Armstrong conjured a framing device for what is essentially a memory play in which and aging Cohan looks back on his life. The frame came out of research, the director said.
"Very near the end of his life, he got out of a sick bed that he hadn't been out of in months," Armstrong told Playbill On-Line. "He insisted that his nurse take him out on the town, and he went and visited his old haunts and the theatres that he used to own — the places he used to frequent. It was 1942. They go and sit in the back of a theatre that's playing the movie of 'Yankee Doodle Dandy.' They were there about 15 minutes, they went out and walked through Times Square and went home and died. So he literally gave his regards to Broadway on one of the last nights of his life. True story. I thought that was an amazingly theatrical device, and a way to reference the movie but state right up-front that we're not doing the movie."
Does Yankee Doodle Dandy! explore the aggressive, less flattering side of Cohan?
"Yeah, that's part of what the framing device is about — to make it clear that was the Hollywood version of the story, but not Cohan's life," Armstrong said. "One of the challenges of writing the show is that George M. Cohan was a sonofabitch. A lovable one, who certainly was beloved by his friends and the public, but he had a difficult side, like anybody that driven and that creative. He's really a theatrical genius: The writer, producer, director and the star of all his shows." Yankee Doodle Dandy! uses some of the best known and beloved American songs of the past 100 years: "Give My Regards to Broadway," "Over There," "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy, among many more. Additional new music and lyrics are by Albert Evans.
"Albert Evans has done an amazing job of sleuthing out a lot of Cohan songs that people have never heard before," Armstrong said. "We use those in a variety of ways: Some of them are recreations of scenes and numbers of [Broadway] shows within the show, and some we use to reflect the action of what's happening in his life...as book songs. We've had to create material to tell George M. Cohan's life story: Some of which are existing tunes we didn't know the lyrics to, so Albert wrote new lyrics. In a couple of cases, we've created entirely new songs. I think it will be very difficult for the audience to know who created what. We joke that Albert has a Ouija board with notes on it and he sits at home and channels George M. Cohan."
There are about 25 songs in the score, most of them written entirely by Cohan, with 5-6 songs having some element of new material or adaptations, the director said.
Audiences will also see recreations of actual numbers such as "Give My Regards to Broadway," from Little Johnny Jones. The song and performance were immortalized in the film, "Yankee Doodle Dandy," complete with Cohan's stiff, muscular tap-dancing style recreated by James Cagney, who played Cohan in the picture. Sean Hartin Hingston, who plays Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy!, will offer a recreation, as well.
Jamie Rocco is co-director and co-choreographer of Yankee Doodle Dandy!, with Armstrong.
Australian-born Hingston (Broadway's Contact) plays the young Cohan and Richard Sanders (famous as Les Nessman on the hit TV show "WKRP in Cincinnati") plays the elder Cohan.
Previews play April 24-28, with an opening April 29 in Seattle. The run continues to May 16, followed by engagements in Atlanta and Dallas. The show is a co production with Dallas Summer Musicals.
Also in the cast are Judy Blazer (Broadway's Titanic and a 5th Avenue favorite) in dual roles: Ethel, Cohan's first wife, and Georgette, Cohan's daughter; Seán Griffin as Old Lou the Doorman; Jason Schuchman as George's best friend and business partner, Sam Harris; Dirk Lumbard and Cynthia Ferrer as Cohan's parents Jerry and Nellie; and Danette Holden as Cohan's sister, Josie. Rounding out the ensemble are Greg Michael Allen, Kathryn Arnett, Alan Boswell, Adam Brozowski, Kari Lee Cartwright, Tony Curry, Taryn Darr, Marc dela Cruz, David Drummond, Brigitte Graf, Brittany Jamieson, Joey Matta, Jayme McDaniel, Amanda Paulson, John Scott, Jesse Stoddard, Pamela Turpen and Kathryn Van Meter.
Blazer was last seen as Eliza Doolittle in The 5th Avenue's recent production of My Fair Lady. Griffin was Col. Pickering in My Fair Lady. Lumbard and Ferrer last played 5th Avenue as Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden in the 1996 production of Singin' in the Rain.
Richard Gray is the musical director. Ian Eisendrath is the associate musical director and Bruce Monroe is the conductor.
Tom Sturge is the lighting designer, Kurt Fischer is the sound designer, James Wolk is the set designer, Greg Poplyk is the costume designer, and Mary Pyanowski is the hair/make-up designer.
Tickets range $18-$64. Tickets are available over the phone through Ticketmaster at (206) 292-ARTS, online at ticketmaster.com or The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle.
George M. Cohan was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on July 3, 1878. His parents, Jeremiah and Helen (Nellie), were vaudeville actors. Cohan and his sister, Josephine eventually became full partners in the family vaudeville act known as "The Four Cohans." As a teenager, he began writing songs and vaudeville skits, by age 20 he was performing, writing, and managing the family's business. Throughout his life Cohan wrote more than 40 Broadway plays and musicals, collaborated with other authors on 14 plays to which his name was never attached, wrote and composed over 500 songs and musical numbers, produced 128 theatrical attractions and personally appeared in five films and over 3400 live performances. In 1941, Cohan won a Congressional Medal of Honor for the song, "Over There." Cohan died of cancer Nov. 5, 1942.
What attracted director Armstrong to do a show about Cohan?
"First, the music and the fact that there were these great songs that didn't really have an effective vehicle to live in," he said. "You couldn't really revive Cohan's shows, although large parts of them are highly entertaining."
Would we identify his shows, such as Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway (1906) and Little Johnny Jones (1904), as story-driven musicals like we have today?
Armstrong observed, "I would say they are thoroughly rocognizable as musicals, and they bring so many of the elements together that are still with us. He invented the Broadway musical, which is one of the themes of the show. Nothing before him, I think, would be recognizable to us as a Broadway musical. Like so many shows, including shows in the '20s and '30s, there are only one or two titles that has remained viable [to revive as written with original book and lyrics]. Most of his major hit songs and shows were written before the first world war, but he had hit shows up until the 1920s."