Based on a series of short stories John O'Hara had written
for THE NEW YORKER about Joey Evans, a small-time, fast-talking
Chicago entertainer, Pal Joey introduces us to the young
cad as he weasles his way into an emcee job at a second-rate
nightclub on the south side. The gig doesn't last long, however.
When he doesn't respond appropriately to the flirtations of Mrs.
Vera Prentiss Simpson, an influential patron of the club, Joey
finds himself back on the street. Vera, however, still has her
eye on the smooth-talking young man, and when he shows a little
interest, she decides to buy him his own club! Soon, all the
gang from the old club has migrated to the new one, and everyone
is busy preparing for opening night. But some of Joey's old pals
are jealous of his good fortune, and when they decide to blackmail
Vera over the affair with Joey, everything is bound to come crashing
Pal Joey opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre
on December 25, 1940 with a cast that featured Gene Kelly (Joey),
Vivienne Segal (Vera) and Leila Ernst (Linda). The NEW YORK HERALD
"Brilliant, sardonic and strikingly original ... an outstanding
triumph ... done with such zest and scornful relish that it achieves
Many critics, however, put off by a "heel" like
Joey, were not so generous with their praise. Brooks Atkinson
of the NEW YORK TIMES, said of the play, "Although it is
expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?"
As a result of reviews like this, the production was doomed to
failure. It lasted a scant 374 performances.
Then in 1950, several band leaders and pop singers rediscovered
one of the songs from the score. Before long, seven different
versions of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" had
reached the top of the charts. In order to capitalize on these
developments, Columbia Records decided to produce a cast recording
of the entire score featuring one of the original stars, Vivienne
Segal, along with newcomer Harold Lang. The albums was such a
hit that a revival was immediately put into the works starring
Segal and Lang, and on January 3, 1952, Pal Joey opened
at the Broadhurst Theatre where it remained for 540 performances,
sparked a twelve-city national tour, and went on to win the New
York Drama Critics' Circle Award for "Best Musical."
Explaining the resurgence of Pal Joey, Richard Rodgers
would later write:
"Joey as a person met with a great deal of resistance
in 1940 when he was first presented to the Ameican public, but
I have an idea that this was due largely to the fact that nobody
like Joey had ever been on the musical stage before. In the conventional
sense, his characteristics were those of a villain, and so long
as there was an orchestra in the pit, the villain was supposed
to wear a black moustache and be nasty all the way. Since that
time, however, characters in musical plays have become more human,
and the attitude of the public toward these characters has become
more human, too."
The 1957 film version featured Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth
and Kim Novak.
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