Pal Joey, Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart's musical adaption of the novelist John O'Hara's stories of the fictional Joey Evans, a small-time hoofer with big dreams and a bad character, was an anomaly when it opened on Broadway in 1940. By that I mean, the most polite phrase critics used to describe Joey, was calling him "a heel." In truth, Joey was as dishonest as they come: a liar, a cheat and a bit corrupt. Yet audiences embraced him. This was undoubtedly helped by casting in the role a charming twenty-eight year-old actor on the rise named Gene Kelly. And with that—the anti-hero in the American musical was born.
Gene Kelly and Vivienne Segal in Pal Joey (1940).
O'Hara wrote Pal Joey as a series of letters—or short stories—that were published in The New Yorker in the late 1930s. Set in contemporary Chicago, Joey's philandering ways and desperate need to succeed (doing anything and everything in order to survive) made for a sensuous and attractive character, in spite of his very noticeable flaws. O'Hara took the stories and crafted them into a novel, publishing it in early 1940. It was then the author's own idea to set about finding collaborators who could help him turn it into a musical. With immediate interest from Rodgers and Hart, O'Hara wrote the book for the show himself. It all came together surprisingly quickly, opening on Broadway on Christmas Day, 1940, just before the year was out. Considering the depth and quality of the score, that's quite an accomplishment.
Literally, a dime novel.
So what did the critics have to say about a show that today is considered one of the earliest examples of the Broadway musical being brought to a new level of maturity? Sadly, the overwhelming majority objected to the show's seamy subject matter, unable (or unwilling) to look past its baseness to the new ground being broken by Rodgers, Hart, O'Hara, director George Abbott and choreographer Robert Alton. This wound up not mattering much, as audiences liked it and kept it around for eleven months, a nice run back in the day, and one long enough to insure it closing in the black. And though one of its songs became what is now a long-time standard, it took nearly to the end of the 1940s for "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" to catch on. It took even longer for Pal Joey to be made into a film. It wasn't until 1957, with Frank Sinatra as Joey—less a heel, and more a misunderstood kind of guy—who unlike the Broadway show, does get the girl in the end.
Since Pal Joey opened in 1940, just a few years before original cast albums were recorded on a regular basis, we have no way today of hearing Gene Kelly warble some of the great tunes (and worse, only snippets of silent footage of him dancing). But with "Bewitched" becoming a song recorded by dozens of popular songsters, a long overdue cast album was now in order. Fortunately, Vivienne Segal, (who originally played Vera and introduced "Bewitched"), was ready, available and still eminently castable. Harold Lang was chosen for Joey, a dancer of such impeccable credentials, it was almost as the casting was being culled together in hopes of a new production, which is precisely what happened. Composer (and sometime producer) Jule Styne took a listen and, having recently seen a summer stock production on Long Island, decided the time was ripe to bring Pal Joey back to Broadway. So he set about making it happen.
Vivienne Segal and Harold Lang in Pal Joey (1952).
Now this was something not done very much in 1952, save for Porgy and Bess, which was resurrected (and re-appreciated) after it failed in 1934, only to be touted a work of brilliance in 1942. But Jule Styne, made it his personal business to see that Pal Joey was reinstated to its rightful place in the pantheon. It wasn't easy to find the backing for a show that had only been on the boards a dozen years prior, but Styne persisted. He enlisted Robert Alton, its original choreographer to repeat his chores, and direct as well. Styne also signed on a recent discovery he found while producing the 1951 musical Make a Wish: a young dancer-singer named Helen Gallagher. In addition, character actor Lionel Stander of the famed husky voice was cast, and another husky voice, Elaine Stritch (who would perform the iconic "Zip").
Elaine Stritch performing "Zip" in Pal Joey (1952).
When the new Pal Joey opened on January 3, 1952 (sixty-six years ago today) critics who had earlier dismissed it, now praised it (some of them eating a bit of crow in the process):
"There was a minority, including this column that was not enchanted [by the original] ... Brimming over with good music and fast on its toes, Pal Joey renews confidence in the professionalism of the theatre." - Brooks Atkinson, New York Times.
"To tell the truth, we didn't realize what a masterpiece Pal Joe really was until we caught it last night." - Robert Coleman, Daily Mirror
"As one of the original enthusiasts for Pal Joey, I am happy to report that the famous musical comedy is every bit as brilliant, fresh and delightful as it seemed when it set new standards for its field over ten years ago." - Richard Watts, New York Post.
It was courageous of Jule Styne to set a new production of Pal Joey in motion and it paid off. The revival ran longer than the original by five months. Its next New York production in 1963 was considered one its best. It only ran at City Center for a two-week limited engagement, but the man who understudied Harold Lang as Joey in the 1952 production got his shot at playing it this time around. Bob Fosse not only got rave reviews, but a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Musical, a nice way to go out on his final appearance as an actor on stage.
Bob Fosse and Carol Bruce in Pal Joey (1963).
For a little perspective, I can’t help quote from Robert Coleman’s review of this 1963 production in the New York Mirror: “Though it’s selling for a $3.95 top, you couldn’t find better entertainment at twice or triple that figure.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.