'Pal Joey' Returns, Hoping To Be Understood

Matthew Risch and Stockard Channing take a curtain call at the Roundabout Theatre Co.'s Studio 54. i i

Matthew Risch and Stockard Channing lead the cast of the new Pal Joey at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54 in New York. Will Ragozzino/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Will Ragozzino/Getty Images
Matthew Risch and Stockard Channing take a curtain call at the Roundabout Theatre Co.'s Studio 54.

Matthew Risch and Stockard Channing lead the cast of the new Pal Joey at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54 in New York.

Will Ragozzino/Getty Images

When Pal Joey, the Rodgers and Hart musical with a script by John O'Hara, opened on Broadway in 1940, it thrilled and confused audiences. The score contained brilliant songs like "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," but the story, about an amoral nightclub performer, was a dark brew of adultery and blackmail.

As Brooks Atkinson, the former drama critic for The New York Times, famously wrote about the musical, "How can you draw sweet water from a foul well?"

In the almost 70 years since the show opened, tastes have changed — and now, a revival of Pal Joey is opening on Broadway.

In the 1950s, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were the titans of musical theater. Their shows included Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The King and I.

But from 1925 to 1943, Rodgers' writing partner was the witty and troubled Lorenz Hart. And perhaps their best show was Pal Joey. Still, a television interviewer once asked Rodgers why the musical hadn't been a bigger hit when it first opened.

"The theater-going public wasn't ready to meet people like that in musical comedy," Rodgers replied. "They were all bad people, except the girl. And she was stupid."

But in the new version, that has changed.

Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Greenberg has created a new script for this revival of Pal Joey.

"That was the first order of business for me," Greenberg said, "to make her un-stupid."

He says the show always had a great score and intriguing characters — but in many ways, it was ahead of its time.

"I think that was always the curious status of Pal Joey," Greenberg said, adding that "it didn't really quite belong to the classic '20s-'30s musical, which was mostly about generating joy, because the characters were too disturbing and the story was too unlovely."

Matthew Risch is playing the title role, stepping into shoes played by Gene Kelly in the original production and Frank Sinatra on film. He says Joey is a character who needs to exude bottomless charm, even as he creates emotional havoc in his wake.

"He's a dog, or better yet, a street rat," Risch said. "You know, he just sniffs what's happening around him and he's open to everything and everyone. And is always going down different avenues and if that doesn't work out, then he's going down the other one. And so it's ... it's quite an interesting character."

Joey romances and breaks the hearts of two women in the show — the now less-stupid ingénue Linda and Vera, a rich older married woman who bankrolls Joey's nightclub. Stockard Channing plays Vera and gets to sing the Rodgers and Hart classic, "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."

In the original version, Vera sang "Bewitched" in a tailor shop. But in Greenberg's rewrite, she sings it in bed, smoking a cigarette, while Joey sleeps.

"I do feel an enormous sense of responsibility, and the only way that I could possibly do this song is how we approached it," Channing said. "It is a monologue of hers and that is, to me, totally appropriate to the song itself — to do it as if no one had ever heard it before."

Veteran Broadway music director Paul Gemignani says what makes the Pal Joey score so appealing is the mix of Hart's acid lyrics and Rodgers' soaring melodies.

"Lorenz Hart was, for lack of a better word, a cynic — so, his lyrics are very clipped and sarcastic and very New York-sounding," Gemignani said. "And Richard Rodgers has, you know, got the gift of melody that any composer wished he had. And they complement each other really well, because of two sort of opposing, you know — lyricism and this sort of sarcastic look at life.

As beautiful as the songs are, Channing says Pal Joey is a tough-minded show that never veers into sentimentality. And in her view, by the end, the audience actually roots against the barely repentant Joey getting together with the ingénue, Linda.

"Which is sort of violating every rule of musical comedy," Channing said, "that you don't want the two young people, these two nice young kids, to get together!"

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