Pal Joey, our first production at Studio 54 this season, is a musical that almost feels as though it were written on a dare. In 1939, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were riding high as a successful composer/lyricist team. After Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, and other hits, they were at the top of the musical comedy world when John O’Hara asked if they would help turn his series of short stories about a Chicago cad named Joey into a musical. I can’t help but admire that they said yes to this endeavor, which was undoubtedly a huge risk. No one had put a character like Joey Evans on stage before – least of all as the hero (or anti-hero, really) of a musical. But Rodgers, Hart, and O’Hara took on this challenge and created Pal Joey, which premiered in 1940 and, in a theatrical season of farces and follies, was immediately recognized as something utterly new – but not as something that the audience was ready to see. As Brooks Atkinson famously wondered, “Although it is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?”
It wasn’t until 1952 that Pal Joey was recognized as the major work that we know it to be today. In the intervening years, which saw the premieres of Oklahoma! and South Pacific among others, the rest of the theatrical world had caught up to Joey and his realistically rakish ways, and the musical that was once seen as morally repugnant suddenly became deliciously devilish. Pal Joey basically defines the idea of a piece of art being ahead of its time.
It would be hard to blame the audiences of 1940 for their initial shocked reactions. After all, the first page of the script has Joey and a bar proprietor candidly making small talk about drugs, alcohol, and homosexuality. This wasn’t the kind of musical that anyone was expecting, but Pal Joey’s outsider status is what I have always loved. It looks into the seedier parts of the world and refuses to make judgments about the characters it finds there. They are complex people with an awareness that they sometimes let the lesser side of their nature take the lead, and they are willing to face the consequences of their bad behavior.
And, of course, Pal Joey has some of the most wonderful music ever written for the theater. “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “I Could Write a Book” are among the most familiar, and this production adds to the mix “I’m Talkin’ To My Pal,” a song that was cut before the original production opened and will now be heard on Broadway for the first time.
I have wanted to put Pal Joey on stage at the Roundabout for over a decade, and I can’t imagine having put together a better team to do it. We are thrilled to have wonderful actors like Stockard Channing, Matthew Risch, and Martha Plimpton on the stage, and with director Joe Mantello, choreographer Graciela Daniele, and music director Paul Gemignani, this production could not be in better hands. The show will also feature a new book by Richard Greenberg that, in my opinion, does a stunning job of enhancing O’Hara’s original by more fully integrating the songs with the book and giving even more of a full life to each of his characters (and while the experts among you may notice that the character of Melba has been cut, don’t worry – I promise you that you’ll still be hearing “Zip!”).
I find it truly thrilling to be seeing Pal Joey on Broadway again for the first time in over thirty years, and I hope that you’re as eager as I am to see this cad and his pals indulging in bad behavior at their newest “Den of Iniquity” at Studio 54.
I look forward to seeing you at the theater!
-Todd Haimes, Artistic Director
2008-2009 Season, Pal Joey