The Tortured History of John O'Hara's Pal Joey

Drama Jazz Age Music New York City


In mid-November my wife took me to a preview of a new production of my favorite Broadway musical, Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey, which is about to open at Studio 54. On this night, the much-anticipated revival starred Christian Hoff and Stockard Channing, and I liked both lead performances very much. Hoff was moody and believable as Joey (a rakish nightclub entertainer and amateur gigolo) while Stockard Channing delivered a sharp, sarcastic but sweetly vulnerable Vera Simpson (the wealthy "cougar" who briefly funds Joey's dreams while Joey fondles hers).

I had high hopes for this show, which has long been a cult favorite among Broadway musical aficianados despite the fact that it's never achieved a successful theater run or film adaptation. I don't believe in Chicago Cubs-like "curses", but the tortured history of Pal Joey does seem to suggest some kind of curse, or at least a lot of bad luck. And, strangely enough, the musical takes place in Chicago. Gets you wondering, doesn't it?

Pal Joey was born as a series of funny character sketches in the New Yorker by John O'Hara, a wonderful American fiction writer who is too infrequently read today. I wrote extensively about the original O'Hara stories in an earlier LitKicks post.

These short New Yorker pieces caught the attention of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, the composer-lyricist team then at the peak of their Broadway fame. The musical opened on Christmas Day 1940 with an up-and-coming Gene Kelly as Joey and Vivienne Segal as Vera. Vera's big number "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" left these early audiences humming, but the show was not the spectacular success everyone had hoped for and it closed after a year. Soon afterwards, Lorenz Hart (always a troubled soul) descended into a private internal maelstrom of alcoholic and emotional problems, and died a lonely death two years after Pal Joey closed. The show was never recorded, and Gene Kelly's performance is lost to posterity. As for John O'Hara, he never published another "Joey" story again.



Richard Rodgers began working with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, whose approach to the Broadway musical couldn't have differed more from Lorenz Hart's. Hart specialized in dark, bitter, urban humor and intense psychological plots, while Hammerstein's songs aimed at diverse global settings and progressive social messages. Richard Rodgers reinvented his own approach to songwriting to work with Oscar Hammerstein, abandoning all elements of jazz (but Pal Joey proves beyond any doubt that Richard Rodgers could write jazz) to score massively successful shows like Oklahoma, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music.

Fortunately, Richard Rodgers did not lose interest in Pal Joey even during the height of his success with Oscar Hammerstein. Rodgers worked on a cast recording album of the musical (which must have now been for him a poignant reminder of his lost friend) that was finally released in 1950. Gene Kelly was long gone to Hollywood by this time, but Harold Lang rose to the occasion and sang the songs perfectly. Vivienne Segal recorded superb renditions of "Bewitched" and several other tunes. The album is a masterpiece, and Pal Joey seemed to be bound for a second shot at Broadway success when this new cast finally opened onstage in 1952.

Again, the show was neither a failure nor a success, and it closed after a year and a half. Why doesn't this musical ever catch fire with audiences? The problem may have to do with the fact that the songs in Pal Joey are better than the drama. The arc of the story involves a couple of broken-up romances, but an earthbound cynicism abounds from beginning to end. The plot offers no emotional peak and no satisfaction of release or resolution. For a love story, Pal Joey can feel strangely like a cold hand on the heart. No wonder audiences wanted to flock to the latest Rodgers and Hammerstein show instead.

The show took its most brutal beating in 1957 when George Sidney directed an abysmal film version starring Frank Sinatra. Sinatra could have been perfect for the part (though he was too old at this time), but he failed to find his way into the character and delivered a superficial performance. Rita Hayworth did her best, which wasn't very good, as Vera Simpson. The film's greatest crime involved the music, which George Sidney had no ear for at all. Great songs like "You Mustn't Kick It Around", "Plant Ya Now Dig Ya Later" and "That Terrific Rainbow" were either deleted or bludgeoned, while several other Rodgers and Hart standards that had nothing to do with Pal Joey ("My Funny Valentine", "The Lady is a Tramp") were transplanted in, destroying the integrity of the work. The film was a moderate hit, but nobody who takes their Rodgers and Hart seriously will give it the time of day.

Pal Joey, like its earnest and unbreakable lead characters, keeps coming back (though it never quite breaks through -- many people who love classic Broadway musicals have still never heard of Pal Joey, much less seen a real production). Bob Fosse played the lead role in a rare limited-engagement star turn in 1963. Peter Gallagher and Patti Lupone revived the show in New York City in 1995. I caught an excellent performance in Philadelphia starring Christine Andreas in 2002. But I nearly flipped out in anticipation of the current Christian Hoff/Stockard Channing show, because I knew Stockard Channing had the presence to make the show soar, and I had heard good things about Jersey Boys alumnus Christian Hoff.

This new Pal Joey has been significantly rewritten by Richard Greenberg to emphasize the dramatic tension in one of the two romantic subplots. Pal Joey is essentially about a love triangle between Joey, Vera and the innocent shopgirl Linda English, who Joey can't stop seeing even as he shacks up with Vera, and to whom he sings his tenderest love song, "I Could Write A Book". Greenberg's new script adds depth to this relationship, suggesting that Joey's connection with Linda may be of the life-changing variety. This production even goes so far as to suggest a happy ending for Joey and Linda (Vera, somewhat improbably, lets go of Joey easily, which unfortunately takes the vinegar out of her last song, "Take Him", a duet with Linda).

We're far from Lorenz Hart -- or John O'Hara -- with this sweetened interpretation, but in fact the changes do help provide the dramatic closure that Pal Joey needs. Why shouldn't they throw in a little Oscar Hammerstein to make the Rodgers and Hart go down smoother? I thought the dramatic new interpretation worked, and I was very impressed by all the performers. Stockard Channing finds a beautiful balance as a lusty but humane Vera Simpson who never raises her voice when disappointed, and who sings a slow "Bewitched" while hugging her knees in bed. This interpretation of Vera Simpson was a pleasure to watch.



As Joey Evans, Christian Hoff is not much of a dancer, but he speaks his lines with the furtive simplicity of a method actor, and I found him very believable in the part. I was also impressed by Martha Plimpton's powerful "That Terrific Rainbow" and energetic "Zip!" (another highlight of the show) in the plum comic role of Gladys Bumps. Jenny Fellner was also fully believable and effective as Linda English.

I left the show that night humming the tunes (of course) and happily predicting that this revival would finally bring the long successful Broadway run the show has never had. The Chicago-curse moment came a week later when it was suddenly announced that Christian Hoff had injured his foot and was out of Pal Joey indefinitely. The part would be taken by a younger, less experienced understudy named Matthew Risch.

Out ... indefinitely for a foot injury? Anybody who knows anything about Broadway knows that you don't announce that the star of a show is out indefinitely unless said star is fired. It didn't make sense. Finally, this weekend Michael Riedel of the New York Post confirmed the obvious: Christian Hoff had been canned, apparently because the producers felt his dancing was not strong enough (though, of course, there may have been several additional reasons as well).

Hoff really can't tap dance -- I saw it for myself -- but who cares? Joey Evans is supposed to be a hack nightclub entertainer, not (hmm) Gene Kelly. I liked the way Hoff inhabited the role, and based on this as well as on the chemistry I saw between Hoff and Channing at the mid-November preview, I believe the producers are making a mistake in letting the actor go. Stockard Channing seems to hint at the same thing in this New York Times interview. Of course, I haven't seen Matthew Risch's performance yet, so I'll have to read the reviews when the play opens on December 18 to see if the new guy is an improvement or not. I wish him the best.

No matter who plays Joey, this is a great show and I highly recommend it if you're looking for an evening's entertainment in New York City.

And if the new guy doesn't work out, I hope they'll bring Christian Hoff back for a second chance. "Bad foot" and all.

Here's the official theater site, here's the Pal Joey blog (yes, there's a Pal Joey blog, I told you this thing was a cult), and here's the blog of the John O'Hara Society.
14 Responses to "The Tortured History of John O'Hara's Pal Joey"

by Catherine on

Thanks for the plug on the pal joey blog! It seems that many people share your opinion that letting go of Hoff was a mistake. Loved all your background on the show - very entertaining, as usual.

by mtmynd on

An impressive review of a Broadway show that surprised me, Levi. I had no idea, after all these years, you were an aficionado of (live) musicals. But you do live in the heart of all things Broadway... which makes it so accessible.

Enjoyed the read!

Philadelphia::9 December 2008

Thanks for the link to the John O'Hara Society (www.OHaraSociety.blogspot.com). Great review. Society 'pals' will be attending show in January.
Cheers, Richard.

by Cal Godot on

Chicago is cursed.

by Levi Asher on

Mtmynd, I have been obsessed with Broadway musicals since I was a kid. I hope to eventually write about other literary connections in Broadway musicals -- there's a lot to write about.

by Michael Shepley on

Now that I am approaching 60, I am finding that I have lived through, or recall, things that nobody else seems to know about. One of these is the troubled 1976 production of "Pal Joey" that played Circle in the Square Uptown. Why is this production never mentioned anywhere? During previews, Joey was played by Edward Villella, the handsome and charismatic New York City Ballet soloist who is now Director of the Miami Ballet, and Vera was portrayed by Eleanor Parker, the wonderful film star. Both left the cast during previews. Villella's understudy, Christopher Chadman (a Fosse dancer) took over, and -- similar to the comments the young current replacement is getting -- was uncharismatic (a word?) in the part. (Chorus boys do not make good Joeys, it seems.) Vera was taken over by Joan Copeland, playwright Arthur Miller's sister, and an actress not well known for a sense of humor. She was wonderful, however. The cast boasted one other star -- Dixie Carter. Anybody else remember all of this or have more to offer on the subject?

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for mentioning this, Michael -- I actually did not know this production ever took place, or I would have included it ...

by mtmynd on

I still find it a wee bit difficult to see you as a Broadway fan given the fact of the early days of Litkicks... the beats and all. That's the suit I see you in.

Way back when I was a young teen, I went with my mother and aunts to NY and we saw the Broadway musical, Oklahoma. My first and only Broadway show. But I was too young to appreciate it in it's entirety. Something about the western clothing and the dancing just seemed so unreal compared to the western wear and music I grew up with in the Southwest.

That first impression pretty much scarred me.

by tony on

First of all, I was highly entertained by PJ. Now, my quibbles are with Greenberg's script and plotting especially that sleazy blackmail stuff - ugh! Who's to like when the 2 leads who are morally questionable at best, counter with a homophobic threat. I mean it switches your sympathies to the blackmailers. Also, ZIP was such a disappointment. Why weren't the lyrics more accessible to today's audience. My date had no idea the song was about a Gypsy Rose Lee interview. Don't know if I would have known except that I am super familiar with Pal Joey in most of its forms. Plimpton was good but undercut by lousy staging and the obscure lyrics, of course. I happen to know that Lorenz Hart wrote a slew of lyrics for ZIP that are archived. I'm sure Joe & Richard could have put together enough lyrics appropriate to the 1930's and yet, accessible to 2008. Hart was known to write huge sets of lyrics for all his songs that never got used initially. In fact, BB&B has verse after verse that goes on for 12 minutes if sung in totality. Ella Fitzgerald has a spectacular 8 + minutes version of BB&B that takes you right through to Vera's lost illusions with Joey. I liked Joey - he's very talented but at this stage in his career lacks star quality - essential for Joey if he must pull off a successful cad. Vera, on the other hand was terrific, Stockard Channing's BB&B was so well acted that a prettily sung version couldn't possibly convey Vera's soul. Unlike the reviews I've read, I like the noir quality of this production. I like dirgey, Mr. Brantley! Also, while strolling to Kodama after PJ, my date and I discussed how PJ or at least this PJ reminded us of CABARET. Joey is Sally Bowles and MC rolled up into one. The chorus are the Kit Kat girls etc. I like the overall production - looks great. Hope there will be a cast album if just for Channing's interpretation of BEWITCHED BOTHERED AND BEWILDERED.

by Hunter J. Jones on

Hi Levi and thanks for this 'terrific rainbow' of a site. As a kid I always loved the movie version of "Pal Joey"; it was considered 'adult'. I was 'bewildered' when I read the mixed reviews of the film, but then I discovered the SCORE. I bought the LPs both with Vivienne Segal and with Jane Froman, and realized what a CATASTROPHIC missed opportunity the film was.

I still 'defend' the film as far as possible BECAUSE for many of the stage score's contemporary fans it was their introduction to the 'real show' and 'real score'. A flawed "Pal Joey" film is better than nothing, and I think Hayworth is almost 'good' (minority opinion). Years ago I wrote to author Eric Monder as he was preparing his book on director George Sidney. He said that Sidney HAD wanted to include more of the original songs than what we see on screen. So maybe that bad decision was made 'higher up' by Harry Cohn or someone else.

As to the not unreasonable interpolation of the 'Lady Is a Tramp' in the film, it is wise to remember that Richard Rodgers himself was not above SHUFFLING his songs around. Rodgers & Hart's 'Mountain Greenery' showed up in Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Allegro"! I was happy to see both the Circle in the Square (1976, Joan Copeland) and London (1980, Sian Phillips) revivals. I would have PREFERRED to have seen Christian Hoff and NOT 'Matt' in the last revival. Martha Plimpton stole the show of course. I hope someone, maybe Rob Marshall will film the real score... someday. Thanks for your time.

Sincerely,

HJ

by Hunter J. Jones on

Hi 'me' again:

Just a brief follow-up comment or two. There HAVE been considerably intelligent people who actually liked the "Pal Joey" film, e.g. Jean-Luc Godard (Kael, 1970, pg. 100). The director made his own film musical "A Woman Is a Woman" because of it. Maybe Godard didn't have access to the original (score) recordings, and thus wasn't aware of how far short the film fell from the extraordinary work it might have been. Billy Wilder was set to direct the "Pal Joey" film but had a falling out with Harry Cohn. Wilder also carped about Rita Hayworth NOT being 'old enough'. I love Rita, but she had had a hard life. At 39 she easily looks 50 in the film. Wilder should have thought twice. For those of you who feel we missed a masterwork in this case, it's good to remember that Wilder cut ALL of the songs (and 'he' did do it 'himself') from his film of "Irma La Douce". George Sidney was an 'okay' director at best. Stanley Donen (who'd been in the play) or even Otto Preminger, who didn't listen to censors, would have done a more faithful job.

My 'demi-friend' the late Ben Bagley (the marvelously madcap Off-Broadway producer and preserver of obscure songs) ALSO was sympathetic to the "Pal Joey" film. Like myself, he thought Hayworth was really quite good, and like myself he felt the film was "better than nothing". Unlike the 'other' Rodgers & Hart shows (probably little known by 'most folk' outside of the New York City theatre beltway), "Pal Joey" as a 'title' is a household name. Whatever its faults and missed opportunities, the FILM has helped to keep the PLAY alive. We 'owe' it that! HJ

by Hunter J. Jones on

Sorry, the above reference to Pauline Kael should be...

Kael, P. "Going Steady". Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970.

The title should be italicized, but the keyboard won't 'let me'. HJ

by Eric Monder on

Hi Hunter,
Thank you for the kind words about my book. I am preparing another Sidney project with the cooperation of his Estate and have just returned from the Smithsonian, where his papers, photos, etc. are stored. In the PAL JOEY book of photos, there exists about a dozen photos from Rita Hayworth's cut number, "What Is a Man?" (I believe you asked me once about what numbers were filmed but cut). If you are interested in more detail, let me know.
Best,
Eric

by Hunter J. Jones on

Hi again Eric. Thanks for remembering me. I'm sure that Levi and anyone else who reads these blogs would be interested in any further info on "What Is a Man?" I am THRILLED to learn that this number was at least shot. Maybe Columbia can find the voice track that Rita Hayworth/Jo-Ann Greer must of recorded. If they can find the footage- wow- that would be even better!!

I quite like George Sidney and have frequently had to 'defend' him on forums like the Internet Movie Database. Your intensive book did an amazing job in EXPLAINING how his 'mistakes' as a film director were actually planned maneuvers. Thanks.

Maybe you can keep this site informed should your new Sidney 'project' evolve into another book or a journal article.

Best,
Hunter

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