By D. A. Bogdanov
When ASCAP Award-winner Chip Deffaa wrote and directed his Off-Broadway play George M. Cohan Tonight!—which I had the pleasure of seeing, years ago–he had no idea that it would evolve into a unique cottage industry, keeping him busy with Cohan-related work on stage, on screen, and on disc. But the show and its offshoots have done just that for Deffaa–and also for the multi-talented star for whom Deffaa originally wrote the play, Jon Peterson. They’re both busy these days with Cohan-related work on stage, screen, and in the recording studio. Deffaa always seems to have a million different projects going. (And he has a web site, www.GeorgeMCohan.org, so that anyone searching online for “Cohan” can see what’s new.) That got me thinking: “Someday I’d like to interview him….”
Deffaa has now written no less than seven different musical plays about the legendary Broadway showman George M. Cohan–with different stories and songs, written for different-sized casts—and all have been published and are now available for licensing. I’ve never come across another playwright who’s written seven different published plays about one subject. (Have you?) That alone convinced me: “This Chip Deffaa feller is not like any other playwright I know….”
But I actually first got that feeling–that Deffaa might be a little different from your typical playwright–when I went to see an early tryout, years ago, of his Cohan show at his own “Chip Deffaa Invitational Theater Festival,” which featured works by more than two dozen writers, in two venues on 42nd Street in NYC, for six weeks. Deffaa himself was greeting people at the door to the theater, explaining: “Tonight’s performance of our Cohan show is absolutely sold out. Every seat is occupied. But I’m sending my actors up and down 42nd Street to see if they can borrow any extra chairs from theaters, stores, or restaurants. If they can, we’ll add some extra chairs and be able to seat some more people.” When his actors returned with chairs loaned to them by other venues, Deffaa seated more audience members in front of the theater’s regular seats, and started the show. The audience, which included celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, was enthusiastic throughout.
When I told Deffaa afterwards that I really liked the show, he said, “Great! I wrote that show while we were rehearsing it. I’ve actually got five different shows that I’ve created in this festival, from The Johnny Mercer Jamboree to Mad About the Boy. You should check them all out!” He handed me his card, adding: “And we’re always looking for possible investors.”
When Deffaa released two more albums of Cohan songs this year—one featuring vintage recordings of Cohan himself from Deffaa’s personal collection (“George M. Cohan: Rare Performances”), the other featuring new recordings of Cohan songs by singers from the Broadway/cabaret community (“The George M. Cohan Songbook”)–I concluded it’s high time to properly interview Deffaa, to find out just what makes this prolific fellow tick.
I called and asked him: “Would you have time to sit down for an interview? I’d like to focus on your George M. Cohan projects, which I’ve followed since the beginning.”
Deffaa responded amiably: “I don’t really have time to SIT DOWN for much of anything. But if you have time to WALK with me for an interview, come over to my place one day around dusk, and I’ll answer all your questions. We’ll walk through the woods by my home while we talk. I’ll introduce you to some of my deer—I feed ‘em and sing to ‘em, most every day. It’s more fun to walk and talk than to just sit. And the woods are really beautiful this time of the year. So are the deer!”
I had a million questions prepared when I showed up, notepad in hand, at Deffaa’s home up on New Jersey’s Garret Mountain. I’d done my homework! I wanted to ask him how he got to this point, where he’s produced more recordings of George M. Cohan songs than anyone living, just as he’s produced more recordings of Irving Berlin songs than anyone living. And having produced more than 40 albums in total now, Deffaa has surely recorded more members of New York’s theater/cabaret community than any other independent record producer living.
I also wanted to ask him about the new film version of his play George M. Cohan Tonight!, which has won awards at 19 different international film festivals to date. (I saw it at a festival in New York City where Deffaa, as screenwriter, did a little talkback afterwards.) And I wanted to ask him about his lifelong fascination with Cohan, and how he chose such an unusual career path for himself… and so much more.
But when I got to his home, I found him out in front, happily hand-feeding some apples to two deer, while he was gently singing to them: “Life is make-believe and spectacular… life will hand you just a few laughs, a few….”
He stopped singing and said to me: “I’d figured that we might run into some of the deer while we walked in the woods. But then I opened the door to step outside my home and found these two deer already waiting for me, right in front of my door. These are my two favorite deer. May I introduce you to Cole and Oscar?”
Knowing Deffaa’s love for musical theater, I told him: “I bet you named those two deer ‘Cole’ and ‘Oscar’ after Cole Porter and Oscar Hammerstein!”
Deffaa said: “Well, that’s a really good guess. But, no, I actually named these two deer, who are brothers, in honor of two terrific performers I like a lot, who are also brothers–Cole Williams and Oscar Williams. Right now Cole is performing in a show, Amelie, up in Vermont, along with another of his brothers, Rowan Williams. If I didn’t have a book under contract right now, with a firm deadline that I have to meet, and a new album that I’m busy producing, I’d be tempted to drive up to Vermont this weekend in my big old Lincoln Town Car to cheer them on.”
“You’d travel all the way up to Vermont just to cheer on performers? I asked.
“Of course!” Deffaa responded. “If I like the performers, and they’re good…. I once went to Austin, Texas, just to see Carol Channing. I drove to Washington, DC, to see Betty Buckley. I traveled to L.A. to visit with George Burns. And I’m glad I made those trips—those turned out to be some of the best showbiz-related experiences I ever had! In each case, the artists gave me enough positive energy to live on for a year. Anyway, right now I am cheering for all of the talented Williams brothers from a distance. If they open their windows, maybe they can hear me: Hello, Cole! Hello, Oscar! Hello, out there—”
“Well, I actually came here to ask you about George M. Cohan….” I reminded him.
“And I’ve been singing to the deer a George M. Cohan song,” Deffaa answers. “Let me finish it, and then we can walk and talk. It’s called ‘Life is Like a Musical Comedy’ and it’s very good.” Deffaa talk/sang more of the song to the deer, softly but dramatically: “Lights on, lights out, before you know…. Life’s just a great big musical show….”
“I’ve never heard of that song,” I said.
“Almost no one has,” answered Deffaa, as we began walking across the grass towards the woods. “Cohan was dying when he wrote that song. It’s his final statement on life. He did not live long enough to introduce it, record it, or even copyright it. About 20 years ago I found a copy of the unpublished song—Cohan’s handwritten vocal lead-sheet–in the Cohan Papers, organized by John Kenrick, at the Museum of the City of New York. I didn’t feel I was quite old enough back then to sing that thoughtful rumination on life–but I am now. I’m the first person to ever make a recording of that song. You can hear it on my album, ‘Chip Deffaa’s Tin Pan Alley,’ released this year. The song is a commentary on life, written by a man who was very much aware of his mortality. I sing it often these days. It means a lot to me that I’m the first person to ever record it; that song certainly speaks to me. Cohan has been a prime source of inspiration for me since I was nine. Even back then, I was having vivid color dreams in which I sang Cohan songs. I love singing his songs!
“All of my Cohan work today is a continuation of my interests since I was nine years old. That was when I first saw the film about Cohan’s life, Yankee Doodle Dandy. I was so enthralled, I looked up Cohan in the encyclopedia, wrote a 10-page report on him for school, and began collecting Cohan music and such. Today I have one of the two major Cohan collections in the world. I have handwritten letters from his parents, rare recordings, programs and posters, even the deed to one Cohan-family cemetery plot. And hundreds of pieces of sheet music—I have copies of virtually every song he’s known to have written.”
“Every song?” I ask.
“Plus every known recording of Cohan,” Deffaa answers. “I’m a completist; if I’m into an artist, I like to have complete collections of their work. For example, I have every known recording by Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, and Bix Beiderbecke; and every book ever written by L. Frank Baum, Richard Halliburton, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. If I get into a subject, I like to do so as thoroughly and completely as possible.”
As we talked, we rambled casually through the woods, up towards the Lambert Castle Tower, high on Garret Mountain. We climbed the steps of the stone tower, looking out over the New York skyline in the distance.
“My father used to take me here as a boy,” Deffaa said. “I loved this castle and the lookout tower, and the whole mountain. That’s why I live up on this mountain today. I hope to live here for the rest of my life. I have such good memories of exploring this mountain as a boy with my dad, who was a very wise man. He gave me some invaluable advice, right here: ‘As you grow up, Chip, just follow your heart. Do what you love; the money will find you.’ And that’s just the way I live. I actually put my father’s sentiments into a song in my Cohan show. My father teared up the first time he heard the song, because he knew that song was my way of expressing my love for him. But whether I’m writing a book or a play or a song, or producing an album, I’m just doing what my father repeatedly told me: ‘Follow your heart. Do what you love. The money will find you….’
“I write the Cohan scripts, produce the various albums and such simply because I want to–never counting on any financial rewards. I place my trust in the universe that it will work out somehow. George M. Cohan Tonight! wound up running for months at the Irish Repertory Theater in New York City, and then for months in Florida, and then for months in Rochester, and so on. I get royalties for every performance, whether it’s at a school, a senior citizen’s center, a regional theater, or if we’re doing the show for 6,000 people at the Garden State Arts Center—and all of those sorts of venues have presented the show. It’s had two productions in London, two in Seoul….
“Anyone interested in presenting the show can license the script and score from the publisher, Stage Rights / Broadway Licensing. Or they can book a complete production from me or from Jon Peterson, starring Jon or one of the other performers who’ve done the show.
“The money I make from a script that I wrote with such love—and so very quickly—still comes as a most welcome surprise to me. I’m earning a living, doing work that I love with people I love. Can’t beat that….
“And now the George M. Cohan Tonight! movie has just found a distributor. And that’s exciting! Both Jon Peterson (who stars in the film and directed it) and I were surprised to see that the film–which is about as ‘all-American’ as you can get—was honored at the Paris Film Festival, the Athens Film Festival, and the Moscow International Film Festival, among other festivals around the world.
“And we were gob-smacked that somehow the film also won the ‘People’s Choice Award’ at ‘The American Jewish Film Festival’–even though Cohan himself happened to be Catholic. In fact, Cohan was the longtime head of the Catholic Actors’ Guild, as well as the Friars Club. But he’s got universal appeal. When we first did the play in Korea, one reviewer wrote approvingly that Cohan–with his love of country and family, and his good head for business—was ‘quite Korean in his attitudes.’”
We leave the stone tower and follow a winding trail along the mountain ridge. Deffaa tells me how George Washington’s troops encamped on this high ridge, looking out over New Jersey and New York, during the Revolutionary War.
This brisk hiking is fun for me; I feel like we’re a million miles away from the everyday world now. But I’m also becoming a little bit winded. Deffaa uses a cane, but he still maintains a pretty good pace; and I’m trying to keep up. He notes: “At first I didn’t like the fact that I have to use a cane these days; but then my friend Victoria Leacock Hoffman said, ‘Didn’t George M. Cohan use a cane?’—such a wise woman!–and that took the sting off of it.”
Deffaa says he likes to ramble through these local woods a couple of times a week. And he devotes one day a week, if possible, to longer hikes, way out in the country, in northwestern New Jersey. “I hike out to some hard-to-find, hidden lakes that I’ve loved all my life. I get my best ideas for projects there. I’m more grateful than I can explain that I’m able to do these hikes. A couple of years ago, when I was in the hospital, doctors told me I’d never be able to do stuff like that again. I had to use a walker at that time, and just walking across the room would exhaust me. But—knock wood!– I’ve gradually built my strength back up. I love walking in the woods. Nothing tops it…. Now, we’re heading over to the Garret Mountain Stables. I want to say hi to the horses.”
He greets the horses with affection. We’re only 18 miles from Manhattan, but the vibe is completely different here. “Being with the animals is good for my soul,” Deffaa says, gently stroking the neck of a fine brown horse. “Here I am, just 45 minutes from Broadway—so if I need to be in New York City to run a recording session or direct a play or something, it’s convenient. And yet I’ve got all of this serenity, and the wildlife and the greenery that I love, right here where I live.
“Follow me carefully now! The path’s going to get a little rocky. We’re going to walk through the woods down to Barbour’s Pond. Sometimes I like to just sit by the water and reflect on life; sometimes I like to read there.”
“It’s a pity you don’t have a book with you now,” I say.
“Oh, but I do. And it’s a good one—Scott Yanow’s memoir, ‘Life through the Eyes of a Jazz Journalist.’ I’ve enjoyed his other books, and I’m happily surprised to find he speaks of me in this book… I usually carry a book or two with me, to read when opportunities arise,” Deffaa says. “At any given time, I’m usually reading two different books—alternating between the two. And I’m usually working on two different projects at once—maybe writing a book while also writing a play, or writing new songs while also producing an album or consulting on someone else’s script. I need to always have at least two different projects going. When I was a student at Princeton, I used to tell myself, ‘They make us work too hard here! After I graduate, I’m going to take things easy.’ But I never did. The truth is, I like to work. I write almost every day; I’ve logged exactly how many hours I put in each day, writing, ever since I was in college.”
Deffaa has written eight published books, 20 published plays, and countless newspaper and magazine stories—for 18 years, he covered entertainment for The New York Post. He’s edited books. Written liner notes for many albums. He’s lectured on theater, on behalf of the U.S. State Department. And he’s produced 41 albums.
I ask him if we could stop and sit down for a bit. I need to catch my breath. We find some fallen trees to sit on.
“Now tell me about the new albums,” I request.
“Well, ‘George M. Cohan: Rare Performances’ is a historic album. When I release a historic album–like this Cohan CD, or CDs I’ve released this year like ‘Fanny Brice: The Real Funny Girl,’ ‘Al Jolson Sings Irving Berlin,’ or ‘Al Jolson: King of Broadway’—I’m sharing rarities from my personal collection, always including some material that’s never before been on any album. I’ve got a lot of never-before-released stuff. I want to share it with all who might appreciate it. These are albums I would have loved having as a kid. But they did not exist. I think of these albums as my gifts to my nine-year-old self.
“Last year, when I had some friends over for Thanksgiving, like Jonathan M. Smith, Howard Tucker, and Frances Shea, I told them I hoped to release albums of vintage Fanny Brice, Jolson, and Cohan recordings. But I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do so. I’ve still got some health challenges; I can’t take anything for granted. And doctors tell me to slow down, not to push so hard. But I feel good. And there’s so much I’d like to get done before the barn doors close.
“I’d much rather share these recordings that I’ve collected than keep them all to myself the way some collectors do. I’m working on a Fanny Brice follow-up CD now, with some more stuff that’s never before on an album. Scott Gordon handles with finesse the audio restoration for me, taking great care to get the best possible sound out of recordings made more than a century ago.
“I’m proud, too, of the album I’ve just released, ‘The George M. Cohan Songbook,’ featuring new recordings of 37 Cohan theater songs by stars from Broadway and nightclubs. The singers include Jon Peterson (Cabaret), Stephen Bogardus (Bright Star), Eric William Morris (King Kong), Dea Julien (The Kite Runner), Seth Sikes (The Band’s Visit), and more. David Herzog, who did George M. Cohan Tonight! on stage in London, gets to offer his take on Cohan, too, preserving a bit of his London performance.
“The youngest singer on the album is Jack Corbin, a Berklee student with good TV credits, who’s 19. He’s got a beautiful voice, with kindness in it—that reflects who he is. I don’t know a better balladeer his age. I like Jack a lot. The senior-most artist on the album–also very special to me–is Okey Chenoweth, who’s 93, and has been an important mentor of mine. He directed both Eric William Morris and me when we were just teens. He’s known me since I was 14. It warms my heart me hearing his good voice on the album.
“And I’m especially happy that Alex Craven–who first played Cohan in a production of one of my shows when he was nine–is on the album, singing a Cohan rarity now at the age of 23. He’s just had a new musical that he’s created presented at the TADA Youth Theater. I like seeing young artists whom I’ve found develop their various talents, and Alex is now helping create shows, besides performing. My singers are loyal, and I’m grateful.
“We have wonderful singers on the album—most of whom have worked with me for many years—including Jed Peterson, Michael Townsend Wright, Bobby Belfry, Molly Ryan, Jeremy Lanuti, Caroline Rose McFee, Ryan Muska, Santa Claire Hirsch, Keith Anderson, Melodie Wolford, Max Beer, Katherine Paulsen, Tyler DuBoys, Alec Deland, Mark Dodici. The album mixes Cohan songs that everyone knows with some wondrous rarities, including never-before-recorded numbers I’ve found. It’s important; it’s the most comprehensive collection of Cohan songs ever put together.”
“And no one else could have done it,” I suggest. “Because no one else has your knowledge of Cohan’s work and also has all of the hard-to-find original sheet music, and also knows the artists who are right for these songs.”
“Thanks. Well, we’re having fun, anyway. And I’m trying to help get Cohan’s music out there! In the early 20th century, Cohan remade the American songbook. He was, for a while, the most significant and influential songwriter in America. Irving Berlin, who admired him greatly, kept a portrait of Cohan in his office all his life,” Deffaa says. “Everyone knows such Cohan songs as ‘Give My Regards to Broadway,’ ‘Mary’s a Grand Old Name,’ ‘Over There,’ and ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag.’ They’re pure Americana. But Cohan wrote hundreds of other songs—jaunty, fresh, catchy–that deserve to be heard again. In his day, Cohan was considered an American institution.”
All of Deffaa’s albums are available, as either physical CDs or in digital form, from Amazon, Apple Music, Shazam, Footlight.com, and other leading outlets. (Deffaa’s “George M. Cohan Songbook” is available from Amazon as either a physical CD or digital download: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=chip+deffaa%27s+the+george+m.+cohan+songbook&ref=nb_sb_noss .)
Deffaa says more Cohan albums are in the works: “The George M. Cohan Tonight! soundtrack album, starring Peterson (with music direction by Michael Lavine), is currently being mixed and mastered for release in 2023. Also in preparation for release later in 2023 are the cast album of my George M. Cohan Revue (a show which is published by Concord Theatricals / Samuel French Inc.) and another album of all-new recordings, ‘A George M. Cohan Celebration.’ I’m very grateful that there are some great radio hosts, with extensive musical knowledge–like David Kenney at WBAI-FM, like Floyd Vivino (“Uncle Floyd”) at WFDU-FM–who will play this timeless music and help get it to wider audiences.
“Doing these albums, as you can probably tell, is very meaningful for me. Joel Grey once told me that my Cohan work ‘comes from a very deep place.’ He’s exactly right.”
I ask: “What is it you like so much about Cohan?”
Deffaa comments: “I’ve always loved Cohan’s attitude–that ‘can-do’ spirit of his is inspiring. He had no formal education; he learned by doing; and left a terrific legacy. Just a remarkable man! No one in Broadway history ever did as many different things as well as Cohan. He wrote book, music, and lyrics for Broadway shows that he starred in, directed, choreographed, and co-produced. He wrote or co-wrote some 50 Broadway shows, produced or co-produced some 80 Broadway shows. At his peak, he owned or controlled seven Broadway theaters.
“Cohan’s shows–fast, funny, and unusually well-plotted for their day–laid the foundation for modern musical comedy. It was Cohan who made America–not Europe–the pace-setter for musical theater. In an era when musicals were often little more than collected vaudeville acts, Cohan was creating well-plotted musical plays. And critics took note that he was advancing the artform. George Jean Nathan, a top critic, wrote that Cohan’s musicals were “as carefully plotted as the dramas of Euripides.” By writing book, music, and lyrics, and supervising all aspects of production, Cohan was creating musicals far more cohesive than those before. And the best younger people working in the theater, like Oscar Hammerstein and Irving Berlin, took note and built upon Cohan’s foundation. Cohan was a major contributor to our culture. He was the first member of his profession honored with a Congressional medal, presented to him by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
Deffaa stood up, began walking, and gestured for me to follow. “It’s getting dark now; time to get you home! If you have any more questions for me, ask ‘em now,” he said. “It gets dark so damned early….”
“Have you ever been in the woods at night?”
“Of course! Camping out can be wonderful!” he said. “I relish being in the woods, day or night. And when my time comes, I’d like my ashes to be scattered in the woods. But encountering wild animals in the dark can be rather unnerving. And sometimes there are curious flashes of lights in these woods at night—ghostly lights, we call ‘em.”
“Do you believe in ghosts?” I ask.
“Not really,” Deffaa answered. “But I’ve sometimes run seances for friends, just for fun. One rainy night we tried to contact Cohan. We were sitting in a circle in my home, holding papers that Cohan had once owned and had held in his hands. I said, ‘If you can hear us, Mr. Cohan, give us a sign!’ And then all of the lights went out! It was just a coincidence, I’m sure; the storm knocked the power out. But one of my friends was so startled—frightened–he insisted we call off the séance. And we did. He said he felt a presence…. Incidentally, Cohan’s father, Jerry Cohan, definitely was a believer. I have in my collection something he wrote about his experiences with the Supernatural and with ghosts. Personally, I think that you’re simply gone for good when you die… and you will surely leave unfinished work behind.
“I’ve read the musical that George M. Cohan was writing when he died; it’s fascinating, but he died before he could complete it and get it produced. My friend Philip Chevron, from the Irish punk-rock band, The Pogues, loved Cohan’s music. He came to see my show George M. Cohan Tonight! in New York, which meant a lot to me. He made his living writing and performing punk rock! But this intense punk rocker was also writing an original musical about George M. Cohan (1878-1942). Philip shared with me what he’d written thus far and it was wonderfully evocative. But he died—too young–before completing it.”
“Do you ever worry you won’t be able to finish some projects?” I ask.
“Often! You just do the best you can,” Deffaa says. “I’m working on a book and a play right now. And I’d love to make a film adaptation of my Irving Berlin and Fanny Brice shows. We will see….”
“Tell me one thing you especially like about your work,” I request.
“I’ve gotten to work with first-rate talents: Carol Channing, Betty Buckley, Steve Ross, Anita Gillette, Stephen Bogardus, Santino Fontana, John Tartaglia, Jeff Harnar–you name ‘em! I’m very grateful. I’ve also gotten see some wonderful newcomers who’ve worked with me go on to great success. Seth Sikes, to whom the newest album is dedicated, is now the hottest male singer in the nightclubs; but I’ve been knocked out by his talent since he first recorded for me, when he was an unknown ‘new kid in town,’ fresh off the bus from Paris, Texas. I love that sunlit voice of his!
“ Analise Scarpaci, who records with me, has wowed me since she was a kid. She now has three Broadway shows to her credit. She’s going to do very well. A consummate pro with a beautiful, pure voice. Her talent was obvious from the first time I heard her.
“Pianist Richard Danley has been an invaluable, indefatigable collaborator as my music director for many years; believe it or not, he’s recorded nearly a thousand tracks with me! And he’s the first one I call when I’m mounting a show.
“Master song-and-dance man Jon Peterson, who gave me the best audition performance I’ve ever witnessed when he first auditioned or me, owns the role of Cohan today; no one sings Cohan songs better. And I’m glad the Cohan film captures his brilliance so well. I hope we get to work on more shows, films, recordings for years to come. He’s really an artist. Making this film was his idea. I could not be happier with his work.
And I’m thankful for people behind the scenes, from recording engineer Slau Halatyn to graphic designers Frank Avellino and Frank Dain, and colleagues Steve Garrin, Matt Nardozzi, Jessee Riehl. And producers Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly of the Irish Rep—none better. And Jim Morgan, Joe Battista. I’m very lucky to know these people.”
“OK, my tireless interviewer, it’s getting awfully late and we’ve covered a lot… You get to ask me just one more question, and then you’re on your way!”
“All right. My final question—and I’m hoping you can help me with this one–is: As a writer, do you have any advice for aspiring writers on how to deal with writer’s block?”
“Just don’t worry about it!” Deffaa said. “We all get a bit of writer’s block sometimes. Your mind feels like it’s going on strike. Your energy is gone! Then, if you’re lucky, maybe you run into someone who has really good, positive energy, and—just by being themselves–they help re-charge you and get you past the block. The other day, Tavi Victoria did that for me without even realizing it, and I’m grateful. I probably owe Tavi a Coca-Cola now, or should at least tell him ‘Basheema’ or ‘Taudi’—that’s ‘thank you’ in Aramaic—or something. But sometimes someone will have just the right good energy in them; they radiate a nice quality and your writer’s block melts away. And you’re very happy that you bumped into them…. That’s my two cents. Worrying won’t help.
“Thank you for this good interview. If you want to join me and my friends for Thanksgiving or Christmas or something, at my home, I’m a pretty good cook. I’ll feed you well,” Deffaa tells me. “And maybe we can even sing a Cohan song together to the deer. I’ll teach you ‘Life is Like a Musical Comedy.’ Cole and Oscar will thank you!”