Not Your Average Christmas Show
Peter Filichia –
So what would be the most logical Broadway musical to open on Christmas Day?
Why, Here’s Love, right? After all, it’s the musical of Miracle on 34th Street.
But Here’s Love opened on Oct. 3.
Annie would be another candidate, because it concludes on Christmas.
But it debuted on April 21.
Would you have ever guessed Pal Joey? No, of course not. How strange that of all the days that producer-director George Abbott could have chosen to open the cynical Rodgers and Hart musical, he selected the birthday of Jesus Christ.
The two men have little in common. Joey Evans is an out-and-out heel, gigolo and social climber. He was the creation of John O’Hara, who had entered the public eye in the latter half of the ‘30s, what with his hit debut novel Appointment in Samarra followed by the bigger success, Butterfield 8. When O’Hara wasn’t working on these projects, he had been writing a series of epistolary stories in The New Yorker – letters from Joey to his pal Ted. Not much reading between the lines was needed to see that Joey was a skunk who had a great sense of entitlement.
Perhaps because Joey was an entertainer, O’Hara had the idea of musicalizing the stories that had since been published as a book. Making such a sleazy character the centerpiece of a song ‘n’ dance show was one of the most daring moves that musical theater had then braved. Gigolos had appeared in musicals, but they were never main characters who held center stage.
To provide the score, O’Hara went to the reigning kings of musical theater: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Hart obviously responded, because this nightly denizen of watering holes had met many a Joey in his time.
But Rodgers too was intent on writing an unconventional show. Yes, Boy Meets Girl (Linda, in front of a pet shop), but then Boy Meets Woman (Vera, a socialite in a loveless marriage who’s ready to make Joey her pal in bed). While the word cougar hadn’t yet been invented, we can now point to Vera as the first one in modern musical theater. And to think that the previous musical to open on Broadway – Panama Hattie – thought it was daring because it had its heroine dating a divorced man.
Rodgers and Hart came up with a score that may well be their best. Joey’s first song, “You Mustn’t Kick It Around,” really means “You mustn’t kick ME around.” When he meets Linda, he delivers the enchantingly lovely, “I Could Write a Book,” which has to be among the best songs the team ever wrote. That distinction is also true of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” Playing against the lovely melody are frank lyrics about being oversexed, sleeping where one shouldn’t and having ants in pants. Equally blunt is “In Our Little Den of Iniquity,” in which Joey and Vera flaunt their illicit affair.
In between, numbers that were supposed to be tacky nightclub fare were special thanks to Rodgers and Hart’s talent. Songstress Gladys Bumps’ “That Terrific Rainbow” had her describe feelings for her young man in colorful language. That’s not a euphemism for profanity; it literally was colorful, as red, blue, purple, green, orange, white, gold and grey were included.
Joey does get Vera to finance his nightclub Chez Joey, “They’ll pay Joey, the gay Joey,” he sings, letting us know for certain that this show comes from another era. If there’s one thing that Joey would be dead set against, it’s being gay in the way we mean it today.
And, in the era of the yet-to-be-integrated musical, there was “Zip,” a throwaway. Melba, a newspaper reporter, tells of interviewing personalities as disparate as Stravinsky (which Rodgers punctuates with one of his famous “wrong notes” that’s just right for Stravinsky) and Gypsy Rose Lee.
All good and bad things must come to an end, and when Linda and Vera have their showdown, it’s the unexpected “Take Him,” in which they virtually flip a coin and determine that the loser gets Joey. It has an intoxicating melody, and even though Sondheim is right for criticizing the false accent in “I know a movie executive WHO’S twice as bright” (as opposed to “I know a movie executive who’s TWICE as bright” — which is the way we’d say it when speaking), it ranks as one of the pair’s most underrated songs. “Take him,” the warning goes,” but don’t let him ever take you.”
On Dec. 26, 1940, the critics lauded newcomer Gene Kelly’s Joey and Vivienne Segal’s Vera. But Joey was still Joey. A script that alluded to drugs and homosexuality got an ominous review from all-important New York Times’ critic Brooks Atkinson. To this day, his closing line is still remembered: “Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” (One wonders what Atkinson, who retired in 1960, would have thought of later and more skunky anti-heroes Harry Bogen in I Can Get It for You Wholesale and Sammy Glick in What Makes Sammy Run? )
Many theatergoers believed Atkinson and stayed away, but plenty of others kept Pal Joey around for nearly a year; it closed on the following Thanksgiving weekend. Nevertheless, putting it in perspective, Pal Joey’s success wasn’t commensurate with its worth. Cabin in the Sky, Meet the People and Rodgers and Hart’s own Higher and Higher had also opened in 1940. Each had substantially shorter runs than Pal Joey. In fact, lump the runs of all three together, and you’ll find that the sum barely surpasses Pal Joey’s 374 performances. And yet all three got movies shortly after they’d closed. No one in Hollywood wanted to film Pal Joey – not then, anyway.
There was no original cast album, for the idea of such recordings was still a few years away. Then, in 1950, when Columbia Records’ Goddard Lieberson and conductor Lehman Engel decided to create studio cast renditions of yesteryear’s great scores, Pal Joey was one they chose to immortalize.
Kelly didn’t make himself available. Soon after Pal Joey had closed, he’d gone Hollywood and in the ensuing ten years had made twenty movies. So Harold Lang took his part on the recording. Segal, with no Hollywood career of note (her last film had been in 1934), was readily available.
The recording was such a smash that a producer started thinking about a revival. The surprise is that he was better known as a composer: Jule Styne. Although his first show, Glad to See You, had closed in Boston in 1945, he’d recently had two smash hits with High Button Shoes and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, each of which had become one of Broadway’s fifteen longest-running musicals. But in 1950, while Styne was writing Two on the Aisle, he’d heard the Pal Joey recording and thought that it had too much worth to simply live as an album.
There’s an irony here: High Button Shoes had opened on Oct. 9, 1947, and received raves from the critics. Some have since theorized that those raves affected the aisle-sitters the next night when they were disappointed with the show that opened: Allegro, with music by Richard Rodgers.
No hard feelings from Rodgers, who approved of Styne’s production – especially when he heard that Lang and Segal would play the roles. But Pal Joey was still a tough sell. Some thought that few would see a musical that had been closed for “only” eleven years. Think of it this way: Saturday Night Fever closed eleven years ago this week after a run that was only 17 weeks longer than Pal Joey’s. If today’s producers announced a revival, wouldn’t it seem too soon? (Yes, many of you are saying — as well as “Never would be too soon for that one.”)
But the time was right for Pal Joey. Even Atkinson now called it “a pioneer” that “renews confidence in the professionalism of theater.” The show became the longest-running revival in Broadway history. Today its 542 performances may seem paltry to Chicago’s 6,264 (and counting); Pal Joey now rests in twenty-fifth place on the musical long-run revival chart.
Still, the production put the musical back in the public’s consciousness. Hollywood finally made a movie, and New York revivals followed in 1963 (with Bob Fosse in the lead), 1976 and 2008. In the history of paperbacks, fewer than two dozen musicals have been published in the mass-market format, but Pal Joey, albeit in an edition that offered both the source material stories and the libretto, was one of them.
Lieberson and Engel also recorded The Boys from Syracuse, Brigadoon, Roberta and Oh, Kay! – but none of these led to a production. Yes, their On Your Toes did – but only after Pal Joey had wildly succeeded.
And that’s what makes this terrific recording of Pal Joey as significant as it is wonderful: it was the first studio cast album to spur a revival. So although Joey Evans has little in common with Jesus Christ, Pal Joey and Jesus Christ Superstar share that “album-first, production-later” distinction.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.