In mid-November my wife took me to a preview of a new production of my favorite Broadway musical, Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, which is about to open at Studio 54. On this night, the much-anticipated revival starred Christian Hoff and Stockard Channing, and I liked both lead performances very much. Hoff was moody and believable as Joey (a rakish nightclub entertainer and amateur gigolo) while Stockard Channing delivered a sharp, sarcastic but sweetly vulnerable Vera Simpson (the wealthy “cougar” who briefly funds Joey’s dreams while Joey fondles hers).
I had high hopes for this show, which has long been a cult favorite among Broadway musical aficianados despite the fact that it’s never achieved a successful theater run or film adaptation. I don’t believe in Chicago Cubs-like “curses”, but the tortured history of Pal Joey does seem to suggest some kind of curse, or at least a lot of bad luck. And, strangely enough, the musical takes place in Chicago. Gets you wondering, doesn’t it?
Pal Joey was born as a series of funny character sketches in the New Yorker by John O’Hara, a wonderful American fiction writer who is too infrequently read today. I wrote extensively about the original O’Hara stories in an earlier LitKicks post.
These short New Yorker pieces caught the attention of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, the composer-lyricist team then at the peak of their Broadway fame. The musical opened on Christmas Day 1940 with an up-and-coming Gene Kelly as Joey and Vivienne Segal as Vera. Vera’s big number “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” left these early audiences humming, but the show was not the spectacular success everyone had hoped for and it closed after a year. Soon afterwards, Lorenz Hart (always a troubled soul) descended into a private internal maelstrom of alcoholic and emotional problems, and died a lonely death two years after Pal Joey closed. The show was never recorded, and Gene Kelly’s performance is lost to posterity. As for John O’Hara, he never published another “Joey” story again.
Richard Rodgers began working with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, whose approach to the Broadway musical couldn’t have differed more from Lorenz Hart’s. Hart specialized in dark, bitter, urban humor and intense psychological plots, while Hammerstein’s songs aimed at diverse global settings and progressive social messages. Richard Rodgers reinvented his own approach to songwriting to work with Oscar Hammerstein, abandoning all elements of jazz (but Pal Joey proves beyond any doubt that Richard Rodgers could write jazz) to score massively successful shows like Oklahoma, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music.
Fortunately, Richard Rodgers did not lose interest in Pal Joey even during the height of his success with Oscar Hammerstein. Rodgers worked on a cast recording album of the musical (which must have now been for him a poignant reminder of his lost friend) that was finally released in 1950. Gene Kelly was long gone to Hollywood by this time, but Harold Lang rose to the occasion and sang the songs perfectly. Vivienne Segal recorded superb renditions of “Bewitched” and several other tunes. The album is a masterpiece, and Pal Joey seemed to be bound for a second shot at Broadway success when this new cast finally opened onstage in 1952.
Again, the show was neither a failure nor a success, and it closed after a year and a half. Why doesn’t this musical ever catch fire with audiences? The problem may have to do with the fact that the songs in Pal Joey are better than the drama. The arc of the story involves a couple of broken-up romances, but an earthbound cynicism abounds from beginning to end. The plot offers no emotional peak and no satisfaction of release or resolution. For a love story, Pal Joey can feel strangely like a cold hand on the heart. No wonder audiences wanted to flock to the latest Rodgers and Hammerstein show instead.
The show took its most brutal beating in 1957 when George Sidney directed an abysmal film version starring Frank Sinatra. Sinatra could have been perfect for the part (though he was too old at this time), but he failed to find his way into the character and delivered a superficial performance. Rita Hayworth did her best, which wasn’t very good, as Vera Simpson. The film’s greatest crime involved the music, which George Sidney had no ear for at all. Great songs like “You Mustn’t Kick It Around”, “Plant Ya Now Dig Ya Later” and “That Terrific Rainbow” were either deleted or bludgeoned, while several other Rodgers and Hart standards that had nothing to do with Pal Joey (“My Funny Valentine”, “The Lady is a Tramp”) were transplanted in, destroying the integrity of the work. The film was a moderate hit, but nobody who takes their Rodgers and Hart seriously will give it the time of day.
Pal Joey, like its earnest and unbreakable lead characters, keeps coming back (though it never quite breaks through — many people who love classic Broadway musicals have still never heard of Pal Joey, much less seen a real production). Bob Fosse played the lead role in a rare limited-engagement star turn in 1963. Peter Gallagher and Patti Lupone revived the show in New York City in 1995. I caught an excellent performance in Philadelphia starring Christine Andreas in 2002. But I nearly flipped out in anticipation of the current Christian Hoff/Stockard Channing show, because I knew Stockard Channing had the presence to make the show soar, and I had heard good things about Jersey Boys alumnus Christian Hoff.
This new Pal Joey has been significantly rewritten by Richard Greenberg to emphasize the dramatic tension in one of the two romantic subplots. Pal Joey is essentially about a love triangle between Joey, Vera and the innocent shopgirl Linda English, who Joey can’t stop seeing even as he shacks up with Vera, and to whom he sings his tenderest love song, “I Could Write A Book”. Greenberg’s new script adds depth to this relationship, suggesting that Joey’s connection with Linda may be of the life-changing variety. This production even goes so far as to suggest a happy ending for Joey and Linda (Vera, somewhat improbably, lets go of Joey easily, which unfortunately takes the vinegar out of her last song, “Take Him”, a duet with Linda).
We’re far from Lorenz Hart — or John O’Hara — with this sweetened interpretation, but in fact the changes do help provide the dramatic closure that Pal Joey needs. Why shouldn’t they throw in a little Oscar Hammerstein to make the Rodgers and Hart go down smoother? I thought the dramatic new interpretation worked, and I was very impressed by all the performers. Stockard Channing finds a beautiful balance as a lusty but humane Vera Simpson who never raises her voice when disappointed, and who sings a slow “Bewitched” while hugging her knees in bed. This interpretation of Vera Simpson was a pleasure to watch.
As Joey Evans, Christian Hoff is not much of a dancer, but he speaks his lines with the furtive simplicity of a method actor, and I found him very believable in the part. I was also impressed by Martha Plimpton’s powerful “That Terrific Rainbow” and energetic “Zip!” (another highlight of the show) in the plum comic role of Gladys Bumps. Jenny Fellner was also fully believable and effective as Linda English.
I left the show that night humming the tunes (of course) and happily predicting that this revival would finally bring the long successful Broadway run the show has never had. The Chicago-curse moment came a week later when it was suddenly announced that Christian Hoff had injured his foot and was out of Pal Joey indefinitely. The part would be taken by a younger, less experienced understudy named Matthew Risch.
Out … indefinitely for a foot injury? Anybody who knows anything about Broadway knows that you don’t announce that the star of a show is out indefinitely unless said star is fired. It didn’t make sense. Finally, this weekend Michael Riedel of the New York Post confirmed the obvious: Christian Hoff had been canned, apparently because the producers felt his dancing was not strong enough (though, of course, there may have been several additional reasons as well).
Hoff really can’t tap dance — I saw it for myself — but who cares? Joey Evans is supposed to be a hack nightclub entertainer, not (hmm) Gene Kelly. I liked the way Hoff inhabited the role, and based on this as well as on the chemistry I saw between Hoff and Channing at the mid-November preview, I believe the producers are making a mistake in letting the actor go. Stockard Channing seems to hint at the same thing in this New York Times interview. Of course, I haven’t seen Matthew Risch’s performance yet, so I’ll have to read the reviews when the play opens on December 18 to see if the new guy is an improvement or not. I wish him the best.
No matter who plays Joey, this is a great show and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for an evening’s entertainment in New York City.
And if the new guy doesn’t work out, I hope they’ll bring Christian Hoff back for a second chance. “Bad foot” and all.