Pal Joey – Broadway Revival Cast Recording 1952
The history of the musical Pal Joey is a fascinating one. However, the one fact most everyone would agree with is that it was this 1950 studio recording of the Rodgers and Hart score that paved the way for the most successful Broadway production of the show, a revival in 1952, that Lorenz Hart did not live to see. Pal Joey was based on a series of short stories, in the form of fictional letters, written by John O’Hara, published in The New Yorker. They told of the adventures of a fast-talking Chicago cad and were all signed “Your Pal Joey.” There are two versions of how it all started. One is that Producer/Director George Abbott approached O’Hara about adopting the stories from the letters into a book for a musical; and the other version is that O’Hara pursued Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart by letter in 1939, while they were out-of-town with their musical Too Many Girls. Whichever was first, the creative team of Pal Joey was born. Rodgers & Hart agreed to write the songs, if O’Hara, himself, would write the book. George Abbott would be the Producer and the Director. The team was excited that this would be a totally different kind of show. Different from anything that anyone had ever tried or ever done before. That would end up being an understatement. Pal Joey had on out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia and opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Christmas night of 1940. To say it received “mixed” reviews would be somewhat kind. But probably one of the most famous quotes came from Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times: “Although it is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” This question would last about twelve years. Audiences seemed somewhat perplexed as well and the show ran only 374 performances. The cast featured a somewhat unknown Gene Kelly as Joey Evans, a small-time, fast-talking Chicago entertainer and Vivienne Segal as Mrs. Vera Prentiss Simpson. The original 1940 cast also included June Havoc, Van Johnson, and Stanley Donen. Everyone seemed put off by this story of a kept heel. The characters were uncompromising and the lyrics were, in some cases, considered “spicy” and “scandalous” and “too bold.” It was the first musical to present us with an anti-hero and no one knew how to judge it. Pal Joey, of course, would later come to be interpreted as “ahead of its time,” “ground-breaking,” and “changing the face of musical theatre forever.” The practice of recording Broadway shows didn’t really begin until 1943 and, even then, were not done with any regularity. In the late 1940s, Goddard Lieberson, then the Executive Vice President of Columbia Records, initiated a series of albums of previously unrecorded shows. He had the foresight to see the historic, artistic, educational and commercial significance these recordings could have on the future of the musical theatre. Together with Lehman Engel conducting the orchestra and the chorus, they did this studio recording of Pal Joey, in 1950, asking Vivienne Segal to reprise her original Broadway role. They also enlisted dancer Harold Lang to record the part of Joey. The album was on enormous success and composer Jule Styne decided to produce a lavish Broadway revival headed by Vivienne Segal, with Harold Lang in the role of the ambitious, immoral hoofer. (Just as a sidebar, Bob Fosse was Mr. Lang’s understudy.) It seems that Mr. Styne had also seen a recent summer stock production that served as further inspiration for his instincts that the show could work twelve years later. The sparkling revival opened at the Broadhurst Theatre, on Broadway, on January 3, 1952, in the middle of a season many critics had referred to as “the worst ever.” It was directed by Robert Alton and David Alexander and choreographed by Mr. Alton. The show was a smash and a sellout! In the twelve years since the original, the audience climate had changed and they seemed more receptive to the story and its characters. Jule Styne also seemed to have a clever knack for casting, realizing that Pal Joey required finely skilled performers. The show also boosted Elaine Stritch, Barbara Nichols, and Helen Gallagher (who won a Tony Award®). It won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical, breaking the organization’s own rules on what constitutes a new musical. Even Brooks Atkinson changed his mind. He loved the production and lauded the “terseness of the writing, the liveliness and versatility of the score and the easy perfection of the lyrics.” Lorenz Hart never lived to read those words. He died on November 22, 1943. This is unfortunate, as Mr. Atkinson’s original review devastated him. I personally believe that there was a lot of what was inside of Larry Hart in the lyrics of Pal Joey. The audiences came in droves, on a Broadway that already had The King and I, Guys and Dolls, and South Pacific playing on the neighborhood’s streets. In the years since the original production, many of the songs had already become popular on the radio, making the score seem full of “hits.” It also seemed that Vivienne Segal captivated audiences. She had just the right “touch” to make the character of the wealthy, amoral Vera Simpson work. In the wrong hands, some of the bawdier lyrics could have come off as offensive. Ms. Segal, who had first done I Married an Angel for Rodgers & Hart, had the versatility, the voice and the comedic command for the role. That is surely illustrated in this recording. The story of blackmail, sex, greed and power, along with some unsavory characters, would now pave the way for future writers of musicals to be more daring. Audiences were brought into on age of what some writers referred to as “adult theater.” The revival ran for 540 performances, now hailed as a “classic.” The 1957 film version, directed by George Sidney and choreographed by Hermes Pan must be mentioned. Although the story was drastically changed and the score altered to suit the talents of Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth, it received five Academy Award® nominations. The 1960s saw a couple of staged revivals at City Center and Broadway saw another revival in 1976 starring Joan Copeland and Christopher Chadman. New York’s popular Encores! Series also did a concert version in 1995. This 1950 studio recording is a testament to the integrity and intent of the show, with no changed lyrics, and is a pride to the memory of the legacy of Goddard Lieberson and proves why these re-issues are so significant. This studio recording will forever be considered a defining representation of the Rodgers, Hart, and O’Hara creation. From the downbeat of the Overture, we are transported to another time. Listening to the orchestra, the melodies, the lyrics, and the performances will make you smile. Rodgers & Hart are almost impossible to beat. And the honesty of the delivery is in one simple word, “delicious.” One can only imagine what it must have been like to sit in a theatre, at that time, and hear these words for the first time! This is an exciting digital re-mastering of the original sessions and comes with 2 bonus tracks. One is a version of “I Could Write a Book” performed by Harold Lang on a CBS Television show, presented by Chrysler, called Shower Of Stars. The appearance was in 1955 when “color broadcasting” was just beginning to appear on television. It’s a big production number that, obviously, had lots of dancing in it. The other bonus track is Vivienne Segal on a CBS Radio show that was hosted by Mike Wallace. The show was called Stagestruck and covered the theatre and performing scene. Ms. Segal was heard on the October 30, 1953 broadcast and sang “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.” The CD booklet also contains some never-before-seen photos.
– Richard Jay Alexander
Vera Simpson: Vivienne Segal Joey Evans: Harold Lang Linda English: Beverly Fite Gladys Bumps: Barbara Ashley Melba Snyder: Jo Hurt Ludlow Lowell: Kenneth Remo Chorus and orchestra conducted by Lehman Engel Orchestrations by Ted Royal