Monday, July 4, 2011

Born on the 4th of July

"I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy... Born on the Fourth of July..." So sings George M. Cohan, so legendary a Broadway showman that his statue resides in Duffy Square (left), at the point of the triangle directly opposite the TKTS booth.  You have probably walked by it or around it many times, busily trying to decide which show you want to see on discount.  And, yes, the Yankee Doodle Dandy was actually born on July 4, 1878.

In his day, he was the quintessential Broadway showman, performing with his family as a small boy and for decades after.  He also wrote and produced (and frequently starred in) dozens of Broadway shows.  Yes, dozens, making his debut 110 years ago this past February with The Governor's Son.  He last appeared on Broadway in 1940, and passed away two years later at the age of 64.  His 40 years plus on Broadway included the hit songs "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "You're a Grand Old Flag", and, as his statue is inscribed, "Give My Regards to Broadway."  Since his death, only one of his shows has been revived - the 1982 one performance flop, Little Johnny Jones, starring Donny Osmond.  His music has lived on in three other shows, Tintypes, The American Dance Machine and Bob Fosse's Dancin'.  And he will forever be immortalized in the musical about his life, George M!, which features a score made up entirely of his songs.  Joel Grey had the privilege of playing Cohan, and a young lady named Bernadette Peters, played Cohan's younger sister.

While there are and have been several Broadway performers also born on the 4th of July, couple really stand out: Neil Simon, who today celebrates his 84th birthday, and the late Gertrude Lawrence, star of the original The King and I.

Neil Simon and Gertrude Lawrence (with Yul Brenner)

Whole books (including 2 autobiographies) have been written about Simon's contribution to Broadway and the American Theatre, so it would seem silly to try to list everything he has done, but it is safe to say that he changed the way Broadway (and eventually television) comedies were written.  His style - the pinpoint accuracy of witty barbs and frank observations of people are legendary in characters like Oscar Madison, Felix Unger, Grandma Kurnitz, Elliot Grant, and Eugene Morris Jerome.  It is hard to imagine a world without The Odd Couple, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound, Lost in Yonkers and Sweet Charity.

An accomplished actress on both sides of the Atlantic, it is arguably her final role that made Gertrude Lawrence a true Broadway legend.  She played Anna in the original Broadway production of The King and I at the St. James Theatre.  It was a role that was actually her idea, though everyone concerned - including both Rodgers and Hammerstein - felt she was incapable of doing; her singing voice uneven and prone to going flat.  But she convinced them, wowed the critics and won over delighted audiences.  Sadly, her triumph would be relatively short-lived.  She began feeling ill and exhausted shortly after opening the show and recording the cast album.  For months she valiantly went on, but began missing performances.  That year, she won the Tony Award, and kept plugging along - the star simply did not miss the show.  But she collapsed and had to be rushed into a doctor's care. Hospitalized, and ultimately misdiagnosed, Lawrence spent her last days assuming she would get well and return to the stage and her show.  In fact, literally hours before her death, she renegotiated her King and I contract such that it forced producers to include her co-star, Yul Brenner, on the marquee, show logo and all advertisements.  She was a true class act.  She died of complications from what turned out to be liver cancer, and was buried in the gown she wore in "Shall We Dance?"

Other Broadway folk born today include actress Eva Marie Saint, former Yankees owner and Broadway producer of Applause, Seesaw and Legs Diamond, the late George M. Steinbrenner III, and the youngest on the list, Broadway gypsy extraordinaire, Mary Ann Lamb (left) whose credits include Chicago, Fosse, Seussical and Curtains.

And, believe it or not, 3 Broadway productions were "born" on the 4th of July: Maritana (1864), a revival of Charley's Aunt (1970), and the most apropos of all, 1942's This is the Army.  The latter was written by Irving Berlin and featured a cast of over 60 people, many of whom are listed as Corporal, Sergeant or Private, including most of the creative staff.  The revue included a minstrel show and an extravaganza of military formations, perfect for a country fresh into World War II, with many of its audience members seeing the show before shipping out overseas.  And the producer?  Uncle Sam.  Yes, the producer is listed as Uncle Sam.

Happy 4th of July!

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