When musical theater fans think of New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson’s review of the twenty-sixth collaboration between Rodgers and Hart, they usually recall its final line.
“Although PAL JOEY is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?”
No, Atkinson didn’t give PAL JOEY a thumbs-up. But many theatergoers who were reading the review may not have even reached his conclusion. They may have decided paragraphs earlier that they wouldn’t attend the musical adaptation of John O’Hara’s stories. The line that could have been the deal-breaker was the way the usually tasteful Atkinson described the show’s title character:
“A rat infested with termites.”
Long before Cyndi Lauper insisted in KINKY BOOTS that “The Sex Is in the Heel,” O’Hara, Rodgers and Hart gave us a very different kind of heel whose sexual prowess got him what he wanted (at least for a while).
You may not have known about Atkinson’s rodent-and-insect imagery, but Julianne Lindberg quotes it in her marvelous and meticulously researched “PAL JOEY”: THE HISTORY OF A HEEL.
“PAL JOEY’S book marked a first in musical comedy history,” she writes. “Its title character was a louse. The characters and situation were depraved. The setting was caustically realistic. Its female lead was frankly sexual and yet not purely comic. With help from a narratively driven dream ballet that closed the first act, it begged audiences to take seriously the inner life and desires of a confirmed heel. In the end, Joey learns no lessons; the only moral to the story, apparently, was to avoid getting mixed up with a Joey type.”
How different was PAL JOEY from other Broadway musicals of the day? Notice that the next musical to open (two days later) was called ALL IN FUN.
PAL JOEY’S musical journey started on Oct. 22, 1938 when The New Yorker published the first of O’Hara’s fourteen stories about Joey Evans. He was a minor Midwest nightclub entertainer who’d write letters about his life – especially his two-women love life – to his friend Ted, a successful New York bandleader.
One needn’t be a great between-the-lines reader to see that Joey was a jealous guy who had great powers of rationalization when he groused on why he wasn’t getting ahead.
O’Hara was approached to sell the stage rights, but instead wrote Rodgers out of the blue and asked if he and Hart would like to musicalize PAL JOEY. As added enticement, O’Hara, now a best-selling author (his BUTTERFIELD 8 is still well known), offered to write the libretto.
His participation would certainly solve the problem of getting the rights to the material.
O’Hara’s offer came in the early days of 1940, and by the end of the year – on Christmas Day, in fact – PAL JOEY was no longer an idea for a musical but a musical that had opened on Broadway.
(My, musicals happened quickly in those days!)
This time-frame is even more remarkable when one considers that as 1940 began, O’Hara was working on a movie (DOWN ARGENTINE WAY) as Rodgers and Hart were readying a new musical (HIGHER AND HIGHER). Both properties would open in early 1940, leaving the rest of the year for PAL JOEY.
George Abbott, who’d worked with Rodgers and Hart on five shows (including ON YOUR TOES and THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE), not only offered to direct but also produce. That meant raising the kingly sum of $80,000, but he did it.
Lindberg reports that “for the role of Joey, they saw Gene Kelly – and didn’t bother to see anyone else.” That’s impressive, considering that Kelly’s Broadway experience in musicals consisted entirely of playing “Secretary to Mr. Goodhue” in LEAVE IT TO ME! and “Friend, Mr. Gordon, The Best Man, Reporter, Singer and Western Union Boy” in ONE FOR THE MONEY. To be fair, Kelly had made a splash playing an out-of-work vaudevillian in William Saroyan’s THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE.
Not asked to audition was Vivienne Segal, who would play Vera, the East Side adulteress who dallies with and keeps Joey. Rodgers and Hart had already seen her deliver the goods in their 1938 musical I MARRIED AN ANGEL.
There was another event in 1938 that was of more interest to the general public: November 11 became a national holiday. But two years later, it wasn’t a day off for the PAL JOEY company, for cast and crew were on the job for the show’s first rehearsal.
Lindberg reports that one of the most significant developments in rehearsals involved Gladys Bumps. She was one of the characters intent on extorting money from Vera; if the adulteress didn’t pay, Gladys would tell the cuckold how his wife had been spending her time and his money.
Gladys, played by June Havoc, made such an impression on the JOEY team that she got a new song (“That Terrific Rainbow”) and would appear in four more. This was the entertainer many of us came to know as Baby June and Dainty June in GYPSY. Lindberg states that Gypsy Rose Lee attended PAL JOEY’s world premiere in Philadelphia, but she makes no mention of whether or not Rose attended, too.
(But can’t we guess?)
The tryout at the still-standing Forrest Theatre was merely eleven days in duration, but Rodgers and Hart had enough time to write a new song for Vera: “Love Is My Friend.” It was lost for decades, but Lindberg has it for us.
The song is probably unfamiliar to even ardent PAL JOEY fans, for Rodgers’ melody was retained and put to a new Hart lyric: “What Is a Man?” Dorothy Hart (Lorenz’ sister-in-law) and Robert Kimball inferred in their 1986 tome THE COMPLETE LYRICS OF LORENZ HART that the change happened five months after the Broadway debut; Lindberg says the rewrite went in during previews.
Her story seems more likely. Hart famously tried to keep his writing from getting in the way of pursuing liquor and men. He’d be expected to rewrite during a tryout – that’s what these break-ins are for – but once PAL JOEY had opened and was en route to a respectable 374-performance run, Hart would have most likely left well enough alone.
Too bad that PAL JOEY’s opening predated the true creation of original cast albums (nearly three years before OKLAHOMA! started the policy in earnest), for otherwise “Love Is My Friend” would have made the album.
That brings us to the marvelous series of recordings that Columbia Records’ artist and repertoire manager Goddard Lieberson envisioned in the late 1940s. He decided to record scores of notable Broadway musicals that had either opened before the advent of original cast albums or had abbreviated albums in the days before long-playing records.
Lehman Engel conducted the sessions, ten in all between 1951 and 1961. Engel must have lobbied for PAL JOEY, for Lindberg reminds us that when he wrote his study THE AMERICAN MUSICAL THEATER in 1975, he listed PAL JOEY among the twelve most impressive Broadway musicals.
PAL JOEY would be the only one in the series that would sport an original cast member, for Segal replicated her Vera. Gene Kelly, however, was now a film superstar who was finishing up AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and getting ready for SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. (He’d co-direct it with Stanley Donen who, ironically enough, had been a dancer in PAL JOEY in 1940.) Harold Lang, still playing Bill (“Bianca”) Calhoun in KISS ME, KATE, would take his place.
The resulting recording was one reason why Jule Styne, who liked to produce as well as compose (HIGH BUTTON SHOES; GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES), sponsored a PAL JOEY revival in 1952 with both Lang and Segal. It became the longest-running Broadway revival, thanks to enthusiastic reviews.
One came from Brooks Atkinson, still at the Times. “In 1940,” he wrote, “there was a minority, including this column, that was not enchanted. But no one is likely to be impervious now.”
Although Atkinson’s review was expertly done, couldn’t he have drawn sweeter words of apology for his original foul review?