Profile of a Composer: George M. Cohan

George M. Cohan wrote some of the greatest standards we still sing today including  “Over There”, “Give My Regards to Broadway”, “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag”.

George M. Cohan

Cohan published over 300 songs and was a founding member of ASCAP {American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers}.

Known in the decade before World War I as “the man who owned Broadway”, he is considered the father of American musical comedy

George M. Cohan was born in Providence, Rhode Island on July 3, 1878.  He and his family always insisted he was born “on the Fourth of July!” He was the son of Jeremiah and Helen “Nellie” Costigan Cohan, who were vaudeville performers.  He had a sister, Josie, who was two years older.

He and his sister made their Broadway debut in 1893 in a sketch called The Lively Bootblack. Temperamental in his early years, Cohan later learned to control his frustrations. During these years, Cohan originated his famous curtain speech: “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”

Cohan began writing original skits (over 150 of them) and songs for the family act in both vaudeville and minstrel shows while in his teens. Soon he was writing professionally, selling his first songs to a national publisher in 1893. In 1901 he wrote, directed and produced his first Broadway musical, The Governor’s Son, for The Four Cohans. His first big Broadway hit in 1904 was the show Little Johnny Jones, which introduced

The 4 Cohans: George M. Cohan with his mother, father and sister

his tunes “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy”.

In 1899, he married Ethel Levey.  The couple had a daughter, but were divorced in 1907.  The following year he married Agnes Mary Nolan.  They had two daughters and a son and remained married until his death.

He became a leading Tin Pan Alley songwriter and published over 300 songs. From 1904 to 1920, Cohan created and produced over 50 musicals, plays and revues on Broadway together with his friend Sam H. Harris.

Although Cohan is mostly remembered for his songs, he became an early pioneer in the development of the “book musical”, using his engaging libretti to bridge the gaps between drama and music. More than three decades before Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, Cohan used dance not merely as razzle-dazzle, but to advance the plot. Cohan’s main characters were “average Joes and Janes” that appealed to a wide American audience.

In 1914, Cohan became one of the founding members of ASCAP.  He was very generous to his fellow actors in need.

In 1925, he published his autobiography, Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took To Get There.

George M. Cohan

Cohan earned acclaim as a serious actor in Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, Ah, Wilderness! (1933), and in the role of a song-and-dance President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Rodgers and Hart’s musical I’d Rather Be Right (1937). The same year, he reunited with Harris to produce a play called Fulton of Oak Falls, starring Cohan. His final play, The Return of the Vagabond (1940), featured a young Celeste Holm in the cast.

Cohan was a devoted baseball fan, regularly attending games of the former New York Giants.

On November 5, 1942, he died of cancer in his Manhattan home.

His life and music were depicted in the Academy Award-winning film Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and the 1968 musical George M!. A statue of Cohan in Times Square in New York City commemorates his contributions to American musical theatre.

He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and into the American Folklore Hall of Fame in 2003.  He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.