There were three types of Irish-American music that influenced Broadway from the mid-1870’s to 1920, all different from each other. One strain of music was composed by a classically trained musician (Victor Herbert); two strains of music came from unschooled composers (David Braham and George M. Cohan).  Cohan was regarded as one of the greatest American patriots ever to sing, dance and compose music for Broadway.

David Braham, composer for Harrigan and Hart (Broadway Influence:  1873-1884)

Harrigan & Hart Mulligan Guard Poster

Poster of Harrigan & Hart in Mulligan Guard

The first Irish-American influence came from the team of Harrigan and Hart, led by Ned Harrigan. Harrigan was born in New York and met Tony Hart in Chicago in 1870; they would remain partners for the next fourteen years. Harrigan wrote the lyrics and stage patter, but Hart’s charm and singing talent played a large role in the duo’s success.

Starting in 1871 in Boston, the team moved on to New York, where they first worked with Tony Pastor before beginning a long run at Josh Hart’s Theatre Comique. By the mid-1870s they began moving from the variety show toward musical theatre. Harrigan’s sketches on the Comique’s crowded bill featured comic Irish, German and black characters drawn from everyday life on the streets of New York. Their breakthrough hit was the 1873 song and sketch “The Mulligan Guard”, a lampoon of an Irish neighborhood “militia” with music by David Braham, who would become Harrigan’s musical director.

By 1878, with The Mulligan Guard Picnic, Harrigan and Hart settled down on Broadway and performed in seventeen of their shows over the next seven years. Though still broad and farcical, these shows featured music, dialogue and dance that was integrated with a more realistic story line; and the shows began to resemble modern musical comedy. Harrigan wrote the stories and lyrics, and Braham wrote the music.

Harrigan and Hart’s comedies were about everyday people, and the ticket prices were kept low so that working folk could fill up the seats. The action of the plays took place in downtown Manhattan and concerned real-life problems, such as interracial tensions, political corruption, and gang violence, all mixed with broad, street-smart comedy, puns and ethnic dialects.

One of Harrigan’s most popular plays with the Mulligan Guard Series, the Mulligan Guard’s Ball (1880), shows off the smooth juxtaposition of the comedy, musicality, and a healthy dose of humanity that made Harrigan’s plays so distinctive. Full of laughable chaos and “Harrigan hilarity,” two groups on the stage (the Irish militia and Black militia) butt heads in a satirical whirlwind of dance, stage violence, and buffoonery. The New York Herald compared the Mulligan series to the Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, and one devotee wrote: “America has produced nothing more national, more distinctly its own, than these plays of the Irish in New York.”  People spoke of Harrigan as the American Molière.

The partnership came to an end in 1884. Hart’s health deteriorated, and he died at age thirty-six in 1891.  Harrigan opened up Harrigan’s Theatre in 1890 on Herald’s Square, and twenty-three of his plays achieved runs of more than 100 performances each on Broadway. Harrigan continued writing plays and performing until his last public appearance on March 16, 1910.  Harrigan died in 1911.

Victor Herbert (Broadway Influence:  1894-1917)

Victor Herbert, American Composer, Conductor and Cellist

Victor Herber

Two years after Harrigan and Hart’s partnership ended, Victor Herbert emigrated to America (1886). Herbert was born in Dublin, studied music in Europe and later became an American citizen.

Herbert came to America only twenty-one years after the Civil War had ended and stayed long enough to see it emerge after WWI as the greatest nation on earth. America’s contributions to the world of art forms lay mostly in the future.

It was in this new country that Herbert blossomed as a cellist, conductor and composer. His musical curiosity led to an appreciation of the new sounds found in the great melting pot of New York, from the music halls to vaudeville to ragtime. The emerging African-American and Latin rhythms were already evident in his music by the time he published his Pan Americana in 1901.

A few years after arriving in New York, Herbert would be called the best cellist in America; however, his greatest success came as a composer of music for the voice. It’s only natural that Herbert, who had married a singer, would turn to writing for the voice. The first evidence that he had begun to work with English-speaking lyricists is found in 1893, when Herbert’s attention had turned to the music hall and musical theater.

Once begun, there was no stopping him. There were six completed Broadway operettas in the next five years: Prince Ananias, (1894); The Wizard of the Nile (1895); The Gold Bug (1896); The Serenade (1896); The Idol’s Eye (1897); and The Fortune Teller (1898).

Herbert’s major operettas include Fortune Teller (1898), Babes in Toyland (1903), Mlle. Modiste (1905), The Red Mill (1906), Algeria/Rose of Algeria (1908/1909), Naughty Marietta (1910), Sweethearts (1913), The Only Girl (1914), Princess Pat (1915) and Eileen (1917).

Herbert’s total body of work included forty-six operettas, two operas, and many songs.

Herbert has been called the Father of the American Musical Theatre. Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. called him “the greatest musician America ever developed.” Jerome Kern referred to him as “the greatest of them all.” Musical theatre historian Gerald Bordman considers him “the first towering master of our musical stage….”

The American Songwriters Hall of Fame, of which Herbert was an inductee, states in his biography that Herbert “was composing music that undoubtedly was a mixture of European romanticism and American tradition. He is arguably the greatest influence on American theater, transitioning it from vaudeville and variety acts to operatic and story-based entertainment.”

Herbert was a leading advocate for the protection of composers’ copyright interests and was one of the founders of ASCAP, an organization that stated in his biography that: “It is difficult to comprehend the American popular song without the music and vision of Victor Herbert. Today, Herbert is revered as one of the giants of the American Musical Theater and troubadour for songwriter.”

George M. Cohan (Broadway Influence:  1904-1922)

George M. Cohan was born July 3, 1878 and was an American entertainer, playwright, librettist, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and producer. Cohan began his career as a child, performing with his parents and sister in a vaudeville act known as “The Four Cohans.” Little Johnny Jones opened on Broadway in 1904 and was Cohan’s first big Broadway hit. Cohan introduced “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway,” in this first show, and Cohan would go on to write, compose, produce, and act in more than three dozen Broadway musicals.

Producer, Composer and Performer

George M. Cohan

As a composer, he was one of the early members of the ASCAP. Cohan became one of the leading Tin Pan Alley songwriters, publishing upwards of 300 original songs, noted for their catchy melodies and clever lyrics that used snappy American slang. His major hit songs included “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway,” “Mary Is a Grand Old Name,” “The Warmest Baby in the Bunch,” “Life’s a Funny Proposition After All,” “I Want To Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune,” “You Won’t Do Any Business If You Haven’t Got a Band,” “The Small Town Gal,” “I’m Mighty Glad I’m Living, That’s All,” “That Haunting Melody,” “Always Leave Them Laughing When You Say Goodbye”, and America’s most popular WWI song “Over There”, which was recorded by Enrico Caruso among others.

In 1925, he published his autobiography, Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took To Get There.

Known in the decade before WWI as “the man who owned Broadway,” he is considered an innovator in the development of American musical theatre by bringing melodrama to the Broadway musical. He became an early pioneer in the development of the “book musical,” using his engaging libretti to bridge the gaps between drama and music. More than three decades before Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, Cohan used dance to advance the plot. Cohan’s main characters were average Americans that appealed to a wide American audience.

Cohan earned acclaim as a serious actor in Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, Ah, Wilderness! (1933), and in the role of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Rodgers and Hart’s musical I’d Rather Be Right (1937). In 1940, Judy Garland played the title role in a film version of his 1922 musical Little Nelly Kelly.

Wikipedia mentions that Cohan has been called “the greatest single figure the American theatre ever produced – as a player, playwright, actor, composer and producer.” On June 29, 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to World War I morale, in particular the songs “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There.” Cohan was the first person in any artistic field selected for this honor.

Cohan’s life and music were depicted in the Academy Award-winning film Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and the 1968 musical George M!. A statue of Cohan in Times Square in New York City commemorates his contributions to American musical theatre. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and into the American Folklore Hall of Fame in 2003. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.