1940: A Year In Review (VI)

Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday! Today concludes our series of six posts on Broadway musicals of 1940. While my initial intention was to highlight shows that opened in 1939 (since this is the 75th anniversary of that marvelously entertaining year), I realized that 1940 has been represented less frequently on this site — almost criminally so. The only show we’ve covered before was Louisiana Purchase, and since 1940 premiered a handful of great works that deserve our attention, I thought it only fair that we give the year (and the shows within it) the deserved recognition. In this series, we’ve featured Higher And Higher, Keep Off The Grass, Hold On To Your Hats, Cabin In The Sky, and Panama Hattie. Today… 

 

VI. Pal Joey (12/25/40 – 11/29/41)

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Our series on 1940 ends with the most well known of the bunch, and if I were to compile a list of my 25 (or even 20) favorite musicals, Pal Joey would certainly make the list. Rodgers and Hart’s strongest score is met by a fascinating book by John O’Hara, on whose stories the musical is based. The original production was directed by George Abbott (who has since been credited for much of the script doctoring) and starred rising dancing sensation Gene Kelly, Rodgers and Hart favorite Vivienne Segal, Leila Ernst (fresh from 1939’s Too Many Girls), and June Havoc — sister of the iconic stripper who made it into the lyrics for “Zip.” (Van Johnson and Stanley Donen were among the ensemble.) The story was daring for 1940, essentially constructed around an unlikable (but schemingly charming) protagonist who dreams of owning his own nightclub.

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Kelly played Joey Evans, who gets a job at a low rent club in 1939 Chicago. A shameless womanizer, he meets and picks up the innocent Linda (Ernst) outside of a pet shop. The romance is short-lived however when Linda watches as Joey gets fired from his job after insulting a patron — married socialite Vera Simpson (Segal), whom he insists is hot for him. They do eventually begin an affair, and Joey essentially becomes her boy toy, further alienating Linda, but receiving from the cougar his own nightclub: Chez Joey. The plot sort of derails in the second act, as Linda overhears one of the club gals, Gladys (Havoc) conspiring with her crooked ex-flame to blackmail Vera. Linda confronts Vera, who confronts Joey, and after she gets the police commissioner to arrest Gladys and her cohort, dumps her boy toy and closes the club. Linda invites Joey to dinner, but he declines and goes after another skirt as the curtain falls. (Both the 1940 and 1952 scripts have been published.)

Contrary to popular belief, audiences of 1940, though a bit taken aback by the gritty antiheroic depiction of Joey, were quite enthralled with the show and its charming dancing lead, granting the show a healthy 11 month run. Nothing from the original cast was recorded and the score, despite the show’s success, didn’t catch on until late ’40s, but eventually inspired a 1950 Columbia studio recording that used the original orchestrations and paired Segal with dancer Harold Lang. The strength of this album convinced Jule Styne to produce a 1952 Broadway revival that featured Lang, Segal, Helen Gallagher as Gladys, Pat Northrop as Linda, and Elaine Stritch as Melba (the stripping reporter). A 1952 recording features the latter three from the production but uses substitutes for the two leads.

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Productions of the show have been consistent ever since. From a 1957 film adaptation with Sinatra in the title role, to several City Center productions starring Bob Fosse in the ’60s, to a 1978 revival with Clifton Davis and Lena Horne, Pal Joey has been a musical theatre staple. (I am not going to list all of the productions. There are too many.) But ever since 1952, there’s been a constant desire to “fix” the problems of the book — most notably some of the contrivances of the second act. But every little twist seems to dilute some of the unique rawness that made the 1940 (and 1952) productions successful. This was most evident in the misguided Roundabout revival of 2008 that tried to make every single character more likable. In the words of my young friends, it was an “epic fail.” (There have been more revisals since, some of which are quite terrifying in their deviation from what was seen in 1940.) While I don’t think the book is without its flaws, I do maintain that the closer a production sticks to the ideas and construction of the original, the more likely it is to be a success. Keep it dance heavy, keep it gritty, keep them unfulfilled.

What needs no tinkering, however, is that marvelous score. You’ve all heard songs from Pal Joey before, whether you know it or not. The most well known tune is Vera’s saucy (if you stick with the original 1940 lyrics) “Bewitched, Bothered, And Bewildered.” Above is Segal’s 1950 recording of the number.

Also from that 1950 recording, here’s Lang with Joey’s opening number, his audition for the club, “You Mustn’t Kick It Around.” Below are Lang and Segal with one of the best atmospheric representations of the show, “Den of Iniquity.”

The aforementioned Melba is a walk on role who comes in to interview Joey about the opening of his club. She gets one number, the mildly popular “Zip.” It is probably most well known today from a legendary story that Elaine Stritch told in her one woman show about her time out-of-town with the 1952 revival. Though the lyrics aren’t the same as they were in 1940, this version is probably the most performed. Here’s Stritch’s 1952 recording.

Though I usually listen to a combination of the 1950 and 1952 cast albums, the 1995 recording of the well received Encores! production with Peter Gallagher and Patti LuPone is a great listen, and the most complete rendition of the score. Below are LuPone and Daisy Prince with Vera and Linda’s “Take Him.”

We close this post with my favorite number from the score, the cutely romantic “I Could Write A Book,” which is given a whole extra layer of meaning with its context in the show: it’s Joey’s pick-up line when he meets Linda outside of the pet shop. Here is a 1970’s recording of original lead Gene Kelly. (Pardon those orchestrations!)

 

NOTE: Since this is the last Musical Theatre Monday post of 2014, I have a special Pal Joey treat for subscribed readers. Subscribers, please comment below if interested and I will contact you via e-mail. To those who have yet to subscribe, you can do so on the right column of the home page. Happy New Year and thanks for reading — your interest and support means the world!

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Come back next Monday for a new series of vintage musicals! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the second season of Sanford And Son!

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