CHIP DEFFAA HAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED FIVE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT SHOWS ABOUT GEORGE M. COHAN. HOW DID THIS EVER-GROWING COHAN PROJECT COME TO BE? HE RELATES:
When I was nine years old, I watched James Cagney in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Cohan, Yankee DoodleDandy. The film was shown eight times in one week on Channel Nine's Million Dollar Movie. I watched it all week, enthralled. It became my favorite movie; it remains so today. The stirring Cohan songs--"I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Give My Regards to Broadway," "You're a Grand Old Flag"--simply got to me. I went to the encyclopedia to learn more about Cohan, wrote a 10-page report for school. The first report I ever wrote in my life! (My parents still have it.) I acted in shows in New York in those days. But I used to have vivid, recurring color dreams of playing Cohan.
As I got older, my brother got me books about Cohan, starting with his autobiography and Ward Morehouse's biography. As a student at Princeton, I got to read Cohan's plays--they had typescript copies in the theater library, where I worked for a while--and check out recordings and film footage of him. I began collecting Cohan memorabilia. And seeking out people who'd seen Cohan, known him, worked with him. Cohan did it all. Starring in musicals he wrote, directed, and choreographed, he set Broadway's course. I kept a photo of him on my wall for inspiration; he seemed to say, "You can do anything you set your mind on. Don't let anyone ever limit you."
Cohan was the first important American songwriter of the 20th century--Irving Berlin's earliest, most important influence. As I explored hundreds of Cohan songs, I was fascinated to see there was far more to him than was captured in either the 1942 film "Yankee Doodle Dandy" of the 1968 Broadway musical, "George M!," which I saw a couple of times. There were poignant Cohan songs (like "I'm Mighty Glad I'm Living") and breezily cynical Cohan songs (like "Under Any Old Flag at All). One reason I've created my Cohan shows is to help expose wonderful music that has been all but lost.
I gathered materials on Cohan, thinking at first that I might write a book about him. But his life was so colorful, so vivid. And because--as one veteran actor told me--his life was essentially lived on stage, I decided instead to create a show about him. (And nine-time Tony-winner Tommy Tune--one of my heroes in this business--told me at a party we need more people writing shows; there aren't enough people aiming to write shows.) Well, I held auditions, seeking an actor who could play Cohan. I saw some 60 actors--many of whom were good, in a cookie-cutter kind of way, but lacked the flair needed to portray this master showman. I was about ready to give up, when Jon Peterson auditioned. He sang one number, and I said, "That's it, you're my Cohan." He asked what we would do now; this was a Friday afternoon. I said, "Well, now I go home and start writing the script. We start rehearsals on Monday, and open in three weeks." He thought I was joking. But on Monday, I began passing out pages of my far-from-finished script, and we began rehearsals. Cohan always liked to start rehearsals before scripts were finished--he felt the pressure of the process added energy--and we were honoring the tradition. I wrote the rest of the script as we rehearsed.
Three weeks later we opened. The show, titled "George M. Cohan: In His Own Words," was the unexpected hit of a theatrer festival I was producing (mounting 25 different productions in six weeks--143 performances in all.) Jonny was a fantastic Cohan--not only winning great hands for the famous Cohan numbers, but moving people to tears with a touching rarity I'd dug up for him, "Life's a Funny Proposition After All." That song, which has languished in obscurity for decades, touched people as deeply as any of the famous songs. And we had some audience members crying every night, at show's end.
Everyone came to see the show--even Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick (in photo below, with Chip Deffaa). Samuel French heard the buzz, came to see the show, and published the script.
Everyone came to see the show--even Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, as busy as they are.
The folks at Samuel French Inc. heard the buzz about the show, came to see it, and published the script.
Meanwhile, Carol Channing, my favorite musical comedy star, has always advised, "Create something new every day." I have that motto of hers on my shelf. And Cohan just wouldn't let me go. I had 26 Cohan songs in "George M. Cohan: In His Own Words." And there were so many other songs I loved that did not fit in that show. George M. Cohan: In His Own Words is written for a cast of 16. Playwright Deborah Grace Winer encouraged me to also try writing a smaller-cast revue; composer/lyricist Larry O'Keefe suggested I consider writing a Cohan show aimed at younger audiences; producer Mike Ross suggested I write a one-man or two-man show . I said "Yes" to all of those good people's suggestions
Playwright Deborah Grace Winer, Chip Deffaa
So now there are different Cohan scripts for every size cast, age of audience, or budget. I loved "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and I loved "George M!" James Cagney and Joel Grey, who played Cohan in those shows, are two of my favorite performers. (It meant a lot to me to get their autographs when I was young--and to get a phone call of encouragement from Joel Grey as I got into this project.) But Cohan was big. He did so much in his 64 years, there's room for more than one show about him. Or even two, three, or five shows. Cohan has been such a wonderfully inspiring part of my life--and his muic is simply so vital--I'm happy to be able to share some of his work with others.
It's been fun having so many wonderful show-business people in our audiences. Like Frances Sternhagen (shown at right with Chip Deffaa at the opening night of George M. Cohan Tonight!); she's done many Broadway shows; TV viewers will recognize her as Cliff Clavin's mother from Cheers, and as Bunny on Sex and the City.
Chip Deffaa, Donna McKechnie, Jon Peterson, Teri Ralston
Such Broadway pros as Elaine Stritch, Donna McKechnie, Teri Ralston, Milo O'Shea, John McMartin, Christiane Noll, Thommie Walsh, Michael Rupert, Mercedes Ellington, and Barrett Foa have all come to see our Cohan shows. (The photo at left was taken the night Donna McKechnie and Teri Ralston came to see George M. Cohan Tonight!)
For further information, contact Chip Deffaa Productions LLC, 50 Quartz Lane, Paterson, NJ 07501-3345; telephone: (973) 684-3340; Email: OriginalCast1@aol.com.