The Tavern

By George M. Cohan
Illustration by Kate O'Leary

February 7 - 9 at 8 PM
February 10 at 2 PM
Mendelssohn Theatre

newsletter | press release | program | photographs

From Our Newsletter
Realizing the Genius of America's Greatest Showman
Yankee Doodle Boy George M. Cohan was born on July 3, 1878, in Providence, Rhode Island, to vaudevillians Jeremiah and Helen Cohan. When wunderkind George was nine years old he became a member of his parents' act, and by age 13 he was writing songs and lyrics for the show. In 1894, at the ripe age of 16, Cohan sold his first song to Witmark Music Publishing, and by age 20 he was the starring actor in his family's act. A true opportunist, he was also selling original songs and sketches to other acts, as well as managing his familyÕs business affairs.

In 1901, Cohan turned his attention to the Broadway musical stage, and in 1904 Cohan paired up with Sam Harris to form what would become one of Broadway's most successful producing firms. That same year, Cohan's musical Little Johnny Jones opened on Broadway and became a huge hit. Among the most famous songs were "The Yankee Doodle Boy" and "Give My Regards to Broadway." Artistically, Cohan was trying desperately to speed up the world of musical theatre and break away from the more refined operatic roots. Pride for his country swelled in his chest, and his characters were care-free, debonair, and confident people; his audiences were happy to identify themselves with his characters. Cohan, himself, was an unstoppable success. He was the star, composer, lyricist, librettist, director, and producer of most of his works.

Cohan's patriotic spirit oozed throughout his work as a writer. He believed that the essential ingredient of a musical was "Speed! Speed! And lots of it! That's the idea of the thing," he cried, "Perpetual motion!" He used the patriotic note whenever the opportunity arose. In addition to composing the song "You're a Grand Old Flag," Cohan's greatest hit, "Over There," was composed just as America entered World War I. "Over There" became a national wartime hit, and 25 years later Congress authorized President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to present Cohan with the Congressional Medal of Honor for the song. Cohan was also adept at taking old-fashioned melodramas and transforming them into hilarious comedies, as he did with "The Tavern."

Despite Cohan's prolific success as a writer and producer, he enjoyed most of his fame as an actor, blowing his audiences away with such roles as Nat Miller in Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" and President Roosevelt in "I'd Rather Be Right." Ironically, he had to get special permission from Actors' Equity, the professional actors' union, every time he performed. Cohan refused to join the union after the 1919 strike of Actors' Equity (dramatized in the 1999 movie "Cradle Will Rock"). Cohan sided wholeheartedly with management and did everything in his power to crush the eventually victorious union.

George M. Cohan died shortly after the filming of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," a movie based on his life. His influence on musical theatre, however, will never be forgotten, and his work has held up through the test of time - perhaps because of his energy... his need for perpetual motion.

Press Release

ANN ARBOR - The University of Michigan's Department of Theatre and Drama presents "The Tavern," a melodrama written by one of the country's greatest showmen, George M. Cohan. A burlesque mystery set on a "dark and stormy night," "The Tavern" is a show for the whole family. It will run for four performances, February 7-9, 8:00, and February 10, 2:00 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre in Ann Arbor. Theatre Department faculty member Philip Kerr directs.

Mr. Kerr describes "The Tavern" as "a brilliant piece of slightly off-center Americana." Premiering on Broadway in 1920, the play is about a vagabond who takes shelter from a howling storm only to become a suspect in a mystery that eventually unfolds to involve all of the hotel's guests and staff. The show is "whimsical and silly," adds the director, "written by a showman who never let his audiences forget that the theatre is supposed to be entertaining."

This is, in fact, a rare non-musical from the "man who owned Broadway." It's likely that many people are unaware that Cohan also wrote plays. But the career of the acclaimed composer of such songs as "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Give My Regards to Broadway," "Yankee Doodle Boy," and the World War I Anthem "Over There" spanned all aspects of theatre. He wrote 40 shows himself, collaborated on another 40, and shared in the production of still another 150. He made over 1000 appearances as an actor and wrote more than 500 songs.

Through his production company, which he started in 1904 with partner Sam Harris, Cohan bought the rights to a number of scripts, producing them with the caveat that he could rewrite them as he saw fit. This arrangement led to the production of "The Tavern." After purchasing the script "The Choice of a Super-Man" from Cora Dick Gantt for a sizeable $25,000 fee, Cohan made some edits to the play then tested the show on the road. Unsatisfied with the production, but attached to some ideas in the basic plot, Cohan rewrote the work from scratch and brought it to Broadway. The play was a success. Cohan eventually joined the cast of the original Broadway production, and revived the show two more times before writing a sequel, "The Return of the Vagabond," in 1940.

"The Tavern" also owes a part of its unique history to the U-M. In 1962, a playwright in residence at the U-M unearthed the show and brought it to the attention of Ellis Rabb, the director of the University-sponsored Association of Producing Artists. Their production sparked a renewed interest in the play that led to its being produced in theatres across the country.

Mr. Kerr, who U-M audiences will remember from last season's remount of "The Tempest," is joined in staging this production by a talented team of artists and designers. Included are faculty members Sarah-Jane Gwillim, the show's assistant director, and costume designer Jessica Hahn, whose designs were seen in this season's "The Secret Rapture." Scenic designs were done by Theatre Department lecturer and U-Prod properties master Arthur Ridley. His scenic work has been seen in several shows including "Side Show" and "Sweeney Todd." Two U-M students, lighting designer Rebecca Hibbs and stage manager Blair Preiser, who both worked on this seasonÕs The Good Person of Szechwan, round out the production team.

Ticket prices are $20 and $15 reserved seating with students only $7 with ID. Tickets are available at the League Ticket Office, located within the Michigan League on UM Central Campus. The Ticket Office is open from 10am-6pm, Monday through Friday and 10am-1pm on Saturday. Order by phone at (734) 764-2538. All major credit cards are accepted.

The Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, located within the Michigan League at 911 North University, is wheelchair accessible and equipped with an infrared listening system for hearing enhancement.

Click here to view the The tavern program as a PDF file

Production Photographs

Kelly Leaman, Jennifer Alexander and Anathea Alberda

David Jones as Zach and Christina Reynolds as Sally Steve Best as Willum and David Jones

Joshua Lefkowitz as the Vagabond Leigh Fedpausch as Violet, Aaron Micahel Sherry as Freeman and David Jones

Joseph A. Hendrix as Tom, Lauren Spodarek as Virginia, Elizabeth Hoyt as Mrs. Lamson and Dan Granke as Lamson By the fire

Lighting designer Rebecca A. Hibbs Dan Granke, Joseph A. Hendrix and Joshua Lefkowitz

Lauren Spodarek and Joshua Lefkowitz Joshua Lefkowitz

Lauren Spodarek and Joseph A. Hendrix Dan Granke and Aaron Michael Sherry

Aubrey Levy, Alex Mendiola and Zahary Dorff Brian Luskey