George M-as-in-Michael Cohan has spent the last hour proving himself, from the corny/catchy tunes he wrote for his family's act to actually starting to get both a favorable and unfavorable reputation. Now it's time to prove himself...and for the Act One closer.
My friends and I (all gay, all with serious Broadway genes) went to Philadelphia frequently in the mid-'60s. We were going to Lebanon Valley College, which was then a small Christian college for small Christians. The distance between Annville and Philly was quite manageable. Philadelphia was the important try-out town for musicals getting ready for Broadway. For well under $5 each, we saw a works in progress; afterward, we dined at a bar that served the young (underage) theater sophisticates we truly were. (My favorite was the Pub Tiki on Rittenhouse Square...the food was different and they propped little umbrellas in some of their drinks. Plus, the waiters were cute.)
George was ready to start production on Little Johnny Jones. He knew it would be a smash -- after all, he wrote the script, wrote the lyrics, wrote the music, starred in it and directed it. What could go wrong?
We'd seen Joel Grey play the MC in Cabaret when it tried out a season or so before. The show was amazing and he was wonderfully creepy. There was no question that we'd see him in George M! It was fun. The show was nonstop balls to the walls energy from the first notes of the overture to the finale. The pace was so frantic that when it came time for "Mary's a Grand Old Name," it seemed totally out of place because it was so slow. It was also the first show I'd ever seen that continued after the bows. Joel Grey looked at his watch and said it was still early. "We've had our say, but Georgie still hasn't." The cast proceeded to do Cohan songs they "found at the bottom of the trunk."
The sequence starts with auditions for Little Johnny Jones. Except for the ghost light, the stage is bare. Georgie's voice booms at the next auditioner. She does a Cohan song interestingly tentatively. (She was hired, of course, and becomes the second Mrs. Cohan in the second act.) That's the only audition we hear. Georgie's voice announces, "This is a rehearsal" and two women in rehearsal clothes run through a comedy number. (Georgie's voice is recorded; one assumes Joel is catching his breath backstage -- this is about the only time he hasn't been onstage for the whole show so far.) After the comedy song, there's a song-and-dance number featuring the men singing to (and dancing for) Rosie. During all of this, stagehands have brought out crates and a few odd pieces. By the end of the Rosie song, it's apparent they're putting things together for a set and chorus women and men lean against some of the boxes watching. After Georgie barks some more orders ("We got a show to put on!"), they get in formation and "Popularity" begins. They do a routine, but then the women exit left, returning almost immediately downstage, one by one, in skirts and carrying parasols. Were these women waiting backstage? They strut upstage right and re-emerge, again almost immediately and one by one, from downstage right in frilly tops and huge hats. The men, too, have changed -- I couldn't tell you how or when because the women were such diversions. And now everyone dances to the final strain of "Popularity" as the stagehands put the finishing touches on a pier, the aft of an ocean liner becomes clearly assembled, and smoking smoke stacks fly in for the crowning touch.
The chorus has taken its place on the ocean liner or on the pier, lights change, everyone freezes, and Georgie and his father appear in costume onstage. Georgie confesses he's kind of scared. Father answers with a roar, "Thank God!" Lights change. They go through their dialogue. Bernadette Peters says, "Don't worry, Johnny. We still believe you." And Johnny/Georgie/Joel launches into "Give My Regards to Broadway." The song itself has always been a favorite. I always believed it and regarded it as an anthem. I'd seen James Cagney do it in the movie, but here it was...live. I sensed spinal shivers. I felt sure this number would be a big one.
"Did you ever see two Yankees part upon a foreign shore?" We had gone from auditions through rehearsals to opening night, and now the payoff. The chorus sings "Give my regards to Broadway" and the whole fucking ship sails off stage left, including the smoking smoke stacks. I have no idea what happened right after that; the ship's exit utterly blew me away. It was probably the single most spectacular thing I'd ever seen live onstage. Not only had this ship been assembled right before my eyes, it sailed off into the wings. How did they do that? How'd the people get off? How did it fit in the wing?
Johnny/Georgie/Joel does the wonderful tap while waiting for the skyrocket. The music modulates, a ship crosses left to right and midway a skyrocket goes off. Nice effect, but I was still back backstage. It was, I think, my introduction to the possibilities of stage spectacle and completely cemented my love for live theater. A movie special effect can take days, months to create. I watched the rear of an ocean liner be constructed, complete with smoking smoke stacks, as part of a couple of numbers, and then watched it float off to the port of New York, all in real time.
I've seen a couple of productions of George M! since. The various Georgies and other characters have, for the most part, been good. I've memorized the the original cast album and trot it out from time to time. Perhaps I've mentally augmented what actually happened on the stage of the Shubert in Philly that Saturday afternoon more than 40 years ago. It wouldn't surprise me. But when I listen to the sequence on the CD, it plays back in my mind so perfectly, so magically. It was a touchstone. It became an example of what theater does best.