The decade from 1910 to 1920 was the period when America grew up. World War I ended America's smug isolationism but an intellectual growth took place too. Foreshadowed by Ibsen, Shaw, and Chekov, a group of American writers brought a new life and new conscience to Broadway stages.
In 1915, a small group of writers and artists gathered on Cape Cod to enjoy their summer holiday. To amuse themselves, they wrote during the day and produced their compositions on the porch of their cottage in the evenings. Several participants in this little group changed the face of Broadway drama forever. George Cram Cook and his wife, Susan Glaspell, identified a new voice in modern drama and carried it into commercial production. That voice was Eugene O'Niell.
In 1916, the group transformed a small fishing shanty into a theater at Provincetown in which they presented their works. Robert Edmond Jones cleverly and inexpensively designed the presentations. Sometime during that early summer, they were introduced to the young Eugene O'Neill, who had arrived with several manuscripts that he had written as a student at Harvard.
On returning to New York, the Cooks founded a theater in a converted stable in Greenwich Village devoted to experimental drama. The Playwright's Theater on Macdougal Street opened with a stock company of actors drawn from Village residents. Though there were many authors represented in the group's repertoire, it was O'Neill's plays that were the most popular and well attended.
In the fall of 1915, another group of Village residents, led by Lawrence Langner, Philip Moeller and Edward Goodman, founded The Washington Square Players, also dedicated to plays of "artistic merit". They produced over fifty plays in two years before the conditions of World War I caused them to stop their activities. Though by design, the group was supportive of American playwrights, the group also presented plays by "that Norwegian", Ibsen, "that Englishman", Shaw, and Chekhov, Andreyev, and Maeterlinck. During this period they discovered and presented the acting talents of Katherine Cornell and Roland Young.
After the War, this same group of men and women re- organized to form a new group dedicated to "expert theater". They chose the name, "Theater Guild" for this new institution. We will see this group as an ardent force in theater in the next few decades, but we're getting much too far ahead of ourselves, so let's retire to 1911.
In 1911, after a string of hits which began with Little Johnny Jones, George M. Cohan opened another of his "All American" shows, this time in his own theater at Broadway and 43rd Street. He inaugurated his theater with Get Rich Quick Wallingford, which he transferred from the Gaiety Theater a few blocks up-town. The Gaiety was a Klaw and Erlanger theater in which Cohan had an interest, but The George M. Cohan Theater was strictly his own.
Cohan followed this hit with The Little Millionaire. The most memorable feature of this show is that it was to include the last stage performances of Jerry and Nellie Cohan, George M.'s parents, who had been his inspiration and support through the first part his career. Indeed, when The Yankee Prince had opened in 1908, Cohan wrote the billing as, "George M. Cohan and his Royal Family". The billing and the play were Cohan's public snipe at the growing custom of America's money barons marrying off their daughters into European titled families.
Not only was Cohan adept at writing promotional vehicles for himself, he wrote a number of shows for other talent. Once asked by A. L. Erlanger if he could write a show without a flag, Cohan quipped that he could write a show without anything but a pencil. The result of that request was Forty-five Minutes from Broadway in 1906. That production starred Faye Templeton and Victor Moore. When the show was revived in 1912, George M. assumed Moore's role.
This decade from 1910 to 1920 saw both the high and the low of Cohan's career. He created a partnership with Sam H. Harris to produce other shows, and while continuing to act, also turned out several scripts for straight comedy. These comedies, fast paced and tightly written, provided the form for all that were written for the stage for the next several decades.
Having been schooled in vaudeville, where each act was given only a few minutes to present it's material and win it's audience, Cohan was a master of "ginger", an aggressive, fast set-up with a hard punch-line. The new responsibilities of writer, owner-manager cum producer, drew Cohan away from the stage, and he acted in fewer and fewer productions. The low of his career probably came in 1919.
Described as a charitable but not a generous man, Cohan sided with the producers in the actors' Equity challenge. When a contract was finally signed in 1919, Cohan felt betrayed and refused to sign with Equity. He never did, and though he was to appear on the stage again later in his career, it was always by special permission of the union, a permission that was never denied.
There was never a question about Cohan's loyalties. One piece of music he wrote became the touchstone, call, and symbol of the American war effort, and it wasn't written for the stage. "Over There", published in 1917, was based on a simple three note bugle call. It was a simple song, catchy, and easily memorable. The entire country was soon humming or whistling, "Over There". In 1940, on the eve of yet another World War, Franklin D. Roosevelt petitioned Congress and awarded Cohan a special Medal of Honor for his contribution in W.W.I.
There are two musical traditions competing on Broadway during this decade, (perhaps three if we include Vaudeville). Cohan represents the first, light comedy interspersed with musical numbers, and the second is the operetta presenting their tales with a solid melodic flow.
Adding to the repertoire of Victor Herbert, Franz Lehar, and Oscar Strauss, Rudolf Friml struck an American chord with Firefly in 1912, and Sigmund Romberg presented his first hit in 1917, with Maytime.
The common link between all these composers is the fact that they were all classically trained in Europe. Strauss's The Chocolate Soldier was an import, but Victor Herbert came to the States as a musician and conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. After he had his first hit with Babes in Toyland in 1903, he produced a manuscript for Broadway almost every year until his death in 1924. While prolific in these popular productions, he never gave up his role in New York's classical music venue.
While the music of the operettas was rich in melody, the books were still as contrived as any of the fare that Broadway had to offer. The change to realism in musical theater was still a few years off. In 1914, another newcomer, Irving Berlin composed a Broadway score entirely in jazz rhythms. Watch Your Step had a distinctly American flavor. The following year, 1915, Jerome Kern (who was also classically trained in Europe, though born in New York) and Guy Bolton collaborated on the play, Very Good Eddie. For the first time, the songs of a play were part of the action, and the farsighted got a glimpse of the future of the Broadway musical.