Let Freedom Sing
TUTS marks 45th anniversary of summer musicals with a tribute to George M. Cohan
by Donalevan Maines
Without George M. Cohan, there would be no Sally Bowles, no Teyve, no Broadway babies cooing in their cradles to cast albums.
“The man gave me a career!” says James A. Rocco, director/choreographer and co-writer of Yankee Doodle Dandy: A Broadway Celebration of the Words & Music of the Man Who Owned Broadway, George M. Cohan which plays in Houston in July.
As “The Host,” Rocco also narrates the production, which marks the 45th summer of free musicals presented by Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS). “It’s knock-’em-dead entertainment,” says Rocco, describing scenes of tap-dancing, flag-waving, and rousing anthems performed by a cast of 26.
“Y’know, when I first encountered George M. Cohan, I thought he was kinda corny. Just corny,” explains Rocco. “But as I delved into his life story, I discovered that he was an iconoclast and a rebel. In the early part of the 20th century, musical theater was all operettas or high-toned European-based shows. George M. Cohan took the verbiage of America’s melting pot and told American stories. Performers danced with flags. There was a lot of American tap-dancing, which is a mix of an Irish jig and African dancing.
“I realized that he really had to fight for that,” adds Rocco. “He almost single-handedly created the world of Broadway and the myth of Broadway as we know it.”
In the script, Cohan tells off a producer, “We don’t need vaudeville and we don’t need you. My family has been trouping for you since I was in diapers—and made you a lot of money, too! Right out that door are dozens of theaters we could play. This town’s ready for something new. People are tired of Victor Herbert and those sissy operettas with their cardboard princes and dewy-eyed milkmaids. That was the old world. What Broadway needs is some good old American get-up-and-go!”
Did you read that with the rapid rat-a-tat-tat of a fired-up James Cagney? Well, try this, the way Cagney spit speeches in his Oscar-winning portrayal of George M. Cohan in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy: “I know some people call me a ‘flag waver.’ They say my patriotic songs are just cheap tricks to get applause. Maybe they’re right. But then again, maybe I know something they don’t know. Maybe I know that this is the only country in the world where you can start out as nothin’ but a shanty Irish kid from the streets, without a pot to [pause] make tea in. And with a little bit of luck—and a whole lotta elbow grease—you can end up doing all right for yourself and your family. And I definitely know that that’s worth fighting for.”
Cue “Over There.” (President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented Cohan with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for that wartime hit.)
Rocco says he was on a beach in Cancún in 2000 with friends David Armstrong and Albert Evans when they decided to write their toast to the showbiz giant, featuring tunes such as the high-stepping “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” which ends Act I with a flourish.
Like Cohan, Rocco was a toddler when he started in showbiz. The Astoria, New York, native explains, “My cousin was taking dance lessons and I was there and started dancing. Believe it or not, a talent scout was there and saw me.” Rocco was plucked to be a “Totten Tot” in the group of young performers associated with showman Art Linkletter and his partnership with Totten Dance Studios.
Rocco moved to New York City and added TV commercials and a national tour of Oliver! to his accomplishments.
At 16, Rocco directed a revival of the musical Henry Sweet Henry that landed on Broadway.
However, Rocco says, “I got interested in the recording industry. I always followed whatever art I was interested in at the time.” He leapt into records by singing a few lines on Frank Sinatra’s Watertown album, which was produced by Bob Guadio of The Four Seasons. The fan magazine Modern Screen chronicled Rocco’s debut in an article entitled “How to Be a Teen Recording Star.”
Rocco portrayed Rum Tum Tugger in Cats on Broadway and choreographed both Roseanne Barr and Eartha Kitt when they appeared on the Great White Way in The Wizard of Oz. In Houston, he’s played Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, directed it twice, and also directed the first White Christmas for TUTS in addition to Guys and Dolls.
Rocco maintains a home in New York City’s Upper West side, but has worked for the past six-and-a-half years as vice president of programming and producing artistic director at the Ordway theatrical complex in St. Paul, Minnesota.
At 55, says Rocco, “This is what I think was really meant to be. It’s sort of a mission—my life’s mission.”
About his life as a gay man, he adds, “I was lucky enough to grow up in the ’60s and ’70s in New York City. I watched the revolution happen. I have experienced seeing more and more liberation for gay people. I feel like I lived through the gay rights movement. I marched in Silence=Death parades.”
Without a doubt, he says, the most monumental moment was the March on Washington in 1987. “That was incredible. It was a very empowering event to be there asking for equality, which we’re still asking for.”
Last year, Rocco released a CD, It’s Between Us. At jamesrocco.com, promotional materials explain, “It’s Between Us ‘is the CD I couldn’t not make. There are so many people like me, who lost their dreams in the twists and turns and demands of life. This CD is my waking up and realizing my passion never went away. And what I’ve learned in the intervening years makes singing so much fuller, so much more enjoyable even than before. I had to continue with my first love.’
“The CD is Rocco’s ‘re-debut.’ It’s filled with an eclectic mix of contemporary adult pop, featuring songs by Jackson Browne, Jennifer Warnes, Diane Warren, and others. He’s backed by a great group of Twin Cities musicians led by Raymond Berg, the co-producer. On It’s Between Us, Rocco rocks and rolls as only a man of a certain age can. It’s introspective, personal, and all about circling back in on your dreams.”
What: Yankee Doodle Dandy
When: 8:15 p.m., July 17–22
Where: Miller Outdoor Theater, 6000 Herman Park Drive
More info: tuts.com or milleroutdoortheatre.com. To contact TUTS by phone,
call 713/558-TUTS (8887).
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.