Musical Theatre in America: Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on the Musical Theatre in America

By Glenn Loney | Go to book overview

George M. Cohan's Little Johnny Jones

STEPHEN M. VALLILLO

By 1900, George M. Cohan and the rest of his family had reached the pinnacle of American vaudeville. Their act, the Four Cohans, played all over the country and was one of the highest paid acts of the time. But the ambitious Cohan had his sights set on other arenas. He wanted to conquer Broadway.

Cohan's first two New York musicals, The Governor's Son and Running for Office, were basically expanded vaudeville sketches and were not even presented in the newly developing Times Square theatre district. But his third show, Little Johnny Jones, was written expressly for the Broadway stage. The production also marked the first collaboration by the production team of Cohan and Sam H. Harris.

Little Johnny Jones, which opened in New York on 7 November 1904 at the Liberty Theatre on Forty-Second Street, was a breakthrough for its time. Cohan, coming from the world of vaudeville and popular entertainment, was not greatly influenced by the musical theatre of the day, which consisted mainly of European operettas and fairly plotless extravaganzas. His material was freer and more American in flavor. 1

After hearing of the success of American jockey Tod Sloan in England, Cohan decided that he had found his own vehicle for Broadway stardom. Little Johnny Jones tells the story of an American jockey who is accused of cheating when he loses the English Derby. Although he is cleared by the end of the second act, his girlfriend from San Francisco is believed missing. The third act, incongruously enough, is a frantic chase through Chinatown.

The nature of the plot upset several critics, who complained that the play was a musical melodrama, not a musical comedy. Some observers told Cohan that he would have to make the play either a straight melodrama or a regular musical comedy. According to Cohan, no one believed that a love interest would blend with popular music, that a major character (the Unknown) could go through a musical without a song, and that the dra-

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