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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When the musical "Pal Joey" opened on Broadway in 1940, it both thrilled and confused audiences. It's a Rodgers and Hart musical with a script by John O'Hara. The score contained brilliant songs like "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered," but the story about a womanizing nightclub performer was a dark brew of adultery and blackmail. And at the time, Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic for the New York Times wrote, "How can you draw sweet water from a foul well?" In the nearly 70 years since the show opened, tastes have changed. And a revival of "Pal Joey" opens on Broadway tonight, as Jeff Lunden reports.

(Soundbite of music)

JEFF LUNDEN: 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, Richard Rodgers' writing partner was the witty and troubled Lorenz Hart. And perhaps their best show was "Pal Joey." Still, a television interviewer asked Rodgers why "Pal Joey" hadn't been a bigger hit when it first opened.

(Soundbite of archive television interview)

Mr. RICHARD RODGERS (Composer; Actor; Lyricist; Producer): The theater-going public wasn't ready to meet people like that in musical comedy. They were all bad people, except the girl. And she was stupid.

Mr. RICHARD GREENBERG (Playwright): That was the first order of business for me was to make her un-stupid.

LUNDEN: Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Greenberg has created a new script for this revival of "Pal Joey." He says the show always had a great score and intriguing characters, but in many ways it was ahead of its time.

Mr. GREENBERG: I think that was always the curious status of "Pal Joey," is 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.

(Soundbite of musical "Pal Joey")

Mr. MATTHEW RISCH: (As Joey) (Singing) Danger's easy to endure, When you're out to catch a beaut. Like an ambush, but be sure, When you see the whites of their eyes. Play the horn from night till morn, Just play no matter what time, Pray there'll be a hot time. Happy little hunting horn.

LUNDEN: 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.

Mr. MATTHEW RISCH (Actor): He's a dog, or better yet, a street rat. 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 quite an interesting character.

(Soundbite of musical "Pal Joey")

Mr. RISCH: (Singing) Try to ring the bell.

CHORUS: (Singing) Ding.

Mr. RISCH: (Singing) (Unintelligible) The next one may not do as well. You mustn't kick it.

CHORUS: (Singing) You mustn't kick it.

Mr. RISCH: (Singing) That's right.

Mr. RISCH & CHORUS: (Singing) You mustn't kick it around.

LUNDEN: Joey romances and breaks the hearts of two women in the show, the now less-stupid ingenue 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."

(Soundbite of song "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered")

Ms. STOCKARD CHANNING: (As Vera) (Singing) I'm wild again...

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

Ms. STOCKARD CHANNING (Actress): I do feel an enormous sense of responsibility, and the only way that I could possibly do this song is that it is a monologue of hers. And that is, to me, totally appropriate to the song itself.

(Soundbite of song "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered")

Ms. CHANNING: (Singing) Couldn't sleep. And wouldn't sleep. Until I could sleep where I shouldn't sleep. Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I.

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

Mr. PAUL GEMIGNANI (Music Director): Lorenz Hart was, for lack of a better word, a cynic. So his lyrics are very clipped and sarcastic and very New York-sounding. And Richard Rodgers is, you know, got the gift of melody that any composer wished he had. They complement each other really well because of the two, sort of, opposing, you know, lyricism and this sort of sarcastic look at life.

(Soundbite of musical "Pal Joey")

Mr. RISCH: (Singing): And the simple secret of the plot, Is just tell them, that I love you a lot.

Mr. RISCH & Ms. CHANNING: (Singing) Then, the world discovers, As my book ends, How to make true lovers of friends.

LUNDEN: As beautiful as the songs are, Stockard Channing says "Pal Joey" is a tough-minded show which never veers into sentimentality. She says at the end the audience actually roots against the barely repentant Joey getting together with the ingenue Linda.

Ms. CHANNING: Which is sort of violating every rule of musical comedy, that you don't want the two young people, these two nice young kids, to get together.

LUNDEN: "Pal Joey" opens at Studio 54 tonight. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of piano tune "Mountain Greenery" performed by Richard Rodgers)

MONTAGNE: The songs of Rodgers and Hart are having something of a revival. Two recent CDs showcased their tunes. Jazz guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli has recorded an album titled "With a Song in My Heart," which features a small swing band. And a tiny independent label, Harbinger, has just released "Richard Rodgers: Command Performance." It features Rodgers at the piano in radio air checks, demo recordings, and piano roles. Here he is playing the 1926 Rodgers and Hart tune "Mountain Greenery."

(Soundbite of piano tune "Mountain Greenery" performed by Richard Rodgers)

MONTAGNE: And this is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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