George M. Cohan (1878-1942) rose to the top of his profession as a performer, songwriter, playwright, director, and producer. And this year, the 13th Street Repertory Theater’s “George M. Cohan Song-and Dance Award”–honoring multi-talented performers –has been presented to Michael Czyz and Rayna Hirt. Cohan’s great-granddaughter, actress Jennifer Cohan Ross, representing the Cohan family, presented the award. ASCAP award-winning writer Chip Deffaa, whose plays have often been presented at the theater, served as master of ceremonies for the awards presentation. And Edith O’Hara, the 13th Street Rep’s 97-year-old founder/artistic director, was on hand to offer her congratulations and encouragement to this year’s winners. (The photo shows, from left to right: Jennifer Cohan Ross, Edith Wright, Rayna Hirt, Michael Czyz.)
“No one in theatrical history ever did so many different things as well as George M. Cohan,” Deffaa remarked. “He was not only Broadway’s biggest star in his heyday, he wrote, directed, and co-produced the shows he starred in. And his best songs remain part of Americana. We’re glad to present an annual award in his name, saluting some dedicated song-and-dance players of today.”
Jennifer Cohan Ross remarked that she was “honored and proud to hand out a George M. Cohan Award on behalf of both my family and myself. Chip has been such a great and grand supporter of my family and all they have contributed to the arts. I am more than happy to hand out a George M. Award to two talented young up-and-comers.”
Michael Czyz said:: “Receiving this award was something I genuinely was not expecting, but I am certainly honored to be one of its recipients. Accepting it from the hands of one of George M. Cohan’s descendants definitely adds a personal touch to the occasion.”
Rayna Hirt commented: “Being able to work with Chip Deffaa alongside some amazing actors such as Michael Czyz; who also was awarded the George M Cohan Award, was such a privilege. Being honored with this triple-threat award is a reassurance to me to continue my passion of singing, dancing and acting.”
Ross added: “I am always thrilled to see any interest in George M. after all of these years, considering all that he and my other family members have historically contributed to the arts.” Her great-grandfather, George M. Cohan, was known in his day as “The Man Who Owns Broadway,” and his statue stands on Broadway (at 46th Street) today; her great-grandmother, Agnes Mary Nolan Cohan, was an actress; her grandmother, composer/lyricist Mary Cohan, collaborated on the Broadway musical “George M!” And Edith O’Hara noted proudly one link that her own family has to the Cohan family; when “George M!” opened on Broadway, back in 1968, it was Edith’s daughter Jill O’Hara who portrayed Cohan’s second wife–Jennifer’s great-grandmother–Agnes Mary Nolan Cohan. She sang Cohan’s song “Billie” in the show–and still sings it occasionally in her appearances today.
The spirit of George M. Cohan was conjured up for the awards presentation by performer Giuseppe Bausilio (from Broadway’s “Billy Elliott” and “Newsies”) who sang and danced through Cohan’s theme song, “The Yankee Doodle Boy” (choreographed by Tyler DuBoys)–wearing the boots he’d worn in “Newsies.” And veteran song-and-dance man Michael Townsend Wright sang the song Cohan described as “the prettiest song I ever heard,” Irving Berlin’s “When I Lost You.”
In 2014, Michael Czyz co-starred in two shows at the 13th Street Rep. Chip Deffaa’s high-energy “Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue” drew packed houses throughout its run in its world-premiere engagement. It proved such a hit that a cast album (to be released by Original Cast Records) is now in the works. And–to the happy surprise of co-producers Edith O’Hara and Sandra Nordgren–“Theater Boys” was the most successful gay-themed musical to play at the historic 13th Street Theater since the trail-blazing “Boy Meets Boy,” 40 years earlier. The theater intends to bring both “Theater Boys” and “The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue” back for return engagements. Award-winner Rayna Hirt not only co-starred in “The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue,” she helped choreograph it.
Deffaa told the audience he hopes to be able to include Czyz, Hirt, and Bausilio in two musicals he is developing for the 13th Street Theater, “Mad About the Boy,” scheduled to open April 12, 2015, and “Give My Regards,” planned for later that year. (Additional awards were presented at the theater to Kate Solomon-Tilley and Brandon Pollinger for their hard work.)
Rayna Hirt, 21, studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA). But her association with playwright/director Chip Deffaa, she commented, actually goes back to when she was just 14 and played the role of “Madeline Foy” in a production of Deffaa’s “The Seven Little Foys” at New York’s 750-seat Schimmel Center for the Performing Arts. “But even then she’d already begun to make her mark as a performer,” Deffaa said. “Even before I began working with her, she’d won the title of ‘Junior Miss Dance of Florida,’ and she’d been seen in numerous commercials; and had toured the US and Canada in a show. Her talents manifested themselves early.”
The same might be said of Michael Czyz, 22, Deffaa added. Czyz acknowledged that the acting bug hit him when he was just five years old. “When I saw the Disney cartoon ‘Snow White’–in which the heroine falls asleep after eating a poisoned apple–I’d relive the movie, pretending to be Snow White; I’d take one bite from an apple, and then faint. My mother kept finding around the house apples with just one bite taken from them.”
“Snow White” was his favorite role that year–until he saw the Disney cartoon “101 Dalmations.”
Czyz recalls: “I’d put on my mom’s fur coat, pretend to smoke a cigarette, and act out the role of Cruella DeVille.” He may well have been the best five-year-old Cruella deVille his mom had ever seen. By the time he was 11, Michael Czyz–the son of Polish immigrants, growing up in Calgary, Canada, and small for his age–was starring in his school’s production of “The Mikado.” His high school had posters of various institutions of higher education–including one for the venerable American Academy of Dramatic Arts, showing photos of famed graduates. He auditioned for the Academy, was accepted, and moved to New York City–a young man who knew no one in the big city.
At first, he was not sure he would survive the transplant. The stress of starting a new life in New York initially felt overwhelming. “My body went into shock. For three days, I did not eat anything,” Czyz recalls. He phoned his parents, telling him he needed to return home. But his parents–who had fled the oppression of Communism in Poland, to start a new life in Canada with virtually no money, told him he had to tough it out. “They were quite firm with me,” he recalls. He was getting an opportunity to fulfill his dreams that they’d never had when they were his age, living under martial law in Poland. “They assured me that if I stuck it out–even though it was so tough at first–I’d be fine. And they were right.”
He thrived at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. “There were two teachers I really learned a lot from–Burke Pearson and Janis Powell. They were just very supportive, and they made you think for yourself. They would ask questions and make you think about the scene, rather than impose their own ideas; they would give you a lot of freedom. They really did care for you and wanted you to do your best.”
Deffaa, who also studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in his youth (with Jack Melanos, Ruth Enders, Richard Altman), commented, “I’m glad to see that the Academy–which has ben around since Cohan’s day and where I had teachers tell me about Cohan–is still turning out students so passionate about theater.”
Both Czyz and Hirt have won the respect and admiration of their co-stars. Joseph Spitale, who played opposite Czyz in “Theater Boys,” commented: “Michael is so alive and present when he’s on stage. He has this ability to connect in a very real way. Every performance with Michael feels fresh and new, which really keeps me invested as a scene partner. And I have a lot of respect for how grounded he is in scenes where he’s so exposed.”
Assistant director Peter Charney observed “Michael brings a lot of vulnerability to his work that makes him both believable and fun to watch.”
And Michael Townsend Wright praised Hirt’s commitment and talent as a performer.
According to Edith O’Hara, the longtime head of the 13th Street Repertory Company, the theater’s mission has always been to nurture and encourage young performers, and the Cohan award is in line with that tradition. O’Hara recalls proudly that many accomplished performers have worked at the theater, early in their careers–including Bette Midler, Chazz Palminteri, Christopher Meloni, Giuseppe Bausilio, Amy Stiller, Barry Manilow. She’s all for encouraging new talent. And for the theater company, having a member of the Cohan family on hand to present the Cohan Award, symbolizes the passing down of high standards from one generation to the next. The award is, along with the “Betty Buckley Award,” presented last month to young artist-to-watch Emily Bordonaro, is a major award at the theater company.
When Deffaa introduced 97-year-old Edith O’Hara, she got the night’s biggest ovation. Deffaa thanked her for her lifelong contributions, and told the audience: “Someone really ought to be presenting an award to this remarkable woman. For many decades, she’s been a positive force in the theater world. Fighting powerful commercial pressures, she’s maintained for more than 40 years this magical theater, which has always been an incubator for new talent. I hope she–and the very nurturing theater company she’s created–will be around forever.”