Even a hit show can't last forever.
One of the wonderous things about theatre is its ephemeral quality: as a living, breathing, in-the-moment piece of art, it is automatically of its time. Some shows prove to have longer lives than others, establishing themselves in multiple productions across generations as finely tuned pieces of craft that speak to something about the human experience that isn't contained by a particular cultural period. Others are of the moment, capturing a specific slice of a cultural trend before tastes inevitably change.
Pal Joey is a show that has somehow managed to occupy both positions in the 82 years since it first premiered on Broadway. Featuring music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart, the musical is the most enduring of their properties, continuing to soldier on while many of their other musicals have become less familiar to the general public (even as their songs have become bonafide American standards). Based on a series of short stories by John O'Hara, the show has been revived a multitude of times, in a multitude of forms.
While the music of Pal Joey has remained mostly consistent throughout the decades, the book that ties the piece together has been overhauled many times, with O'Hara's original book labelled as "odious" and "joyless" by then New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson in 1940. Centering on Joey Evans, a womanizing nightclub performer who uses the women around him as the instruments of his success, the show is one of the first truly prominent cases of an anti-hero in an American musical. That original 1940 production was directed by George Abbott with Joey played by Gene Kelly.
Over the years, the slippery charmer has been adjusted to public tastes by almost every major production, as his wicked ways have become less and less publicly acceptable.
The show's next director, David Alexander, softened some of Joey's edges in the 1952 revival. Then, a total gut rewrite was carried out for the 1957 film adaptation starring Frank Sinatra. Featuring a new script by Dorothy Kingsley, the film adaptation dramatically reimagined Joey as a much more moral man, giving the show an uplifting ending worthy of the Hays Code years.
It was this version of Pal Joey, plus the supremely popular cast recording featuring the 1952 cast, that would become the defining versions of the show for the general public for much of the 20th century.
Variations of the original O'Hara book endured for another two decades, with directors and performers working to overcome its more wincing aspects. In 1963, the show was revived for the first time at New York City Center, where it played just 15 performances with the true-to-character Bob Fosse in the leading role (netting him his only performance Tony nomination). A 1976 revival, featuring Christopher Chadman in the title role, limped through a 73-performance run at Circle in the Square Theatre. In 1992, a significantly revised book was incorporated by Richard Greenberg for a production starring Donna Murphy as Vera, the socialite Joey seduces. Greenberg again revised the book for the 2008 Broadway revival, starring Stockard Channing as Vera.
Now in 2023, Joey has been reimagined once more, in what is perhaps the most radical reimagining yet. Staged at New York City Center as its annual gala production, November 1–5, the show may still sport the name Pal Joey, but make no mistake: the new production has every intention of wholly reforming the classic into something new for the modern zeitgeist.
"I saw Pal Joey at the Circle in the Square in the late '70s," says Richard LaGravenese, one of the two new book writers that were brought on to reform Pal Joey. "And, of course, I knew the movie growing up because we were big Frank Sinatra fans. My feelings about the show were that it was always a brave, flawed attempt in 1940 by Rodgers and Hart to do something against the grain."
Both LaGravenese and Daniel "Kora" Beaty, the other new book writer, were brought on to reimagine Pal Joey for a new generation, guiding the material to a new home that would resonate with modern audiences. Their inspiration? The 1992 musical Crazy For You, a dramatically reimagined version of the Gershwin's 1930 musical Girl Crazy, which revived public interest in the work of the Gershwin's by retooling a troubled-yet-tuneful show with a fresh eye.
Like Crazy For You, this production of Pal Joey heavily reworks its leading man and the women of the piece. "It has this unsympathetic main character, and it was mired in old-fashioned musical devices. It had novelty numbers that weren't connected to story, it had thin character tropes, like an ingenue character that had no dimension whatsoever," LaGravenese explains. "It had very contrived storylines. I never liked the original second act of Pal Joey, with the bank and with the blackmail. It made no sense to me, but it had some great songs."
Beaty nods his head in agreement as LaGravenese continues on. "And, let's be honest, it had some songs that were not so great, because Lorenz Hart, at this stage of his life, was a troubled man. So you see bursts of brilliance in the score, like 'Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.' But then you have other songs that really fall flat, and the lyrics kind of feel phoned in. This was an opportunity to do a whole new book, as well refine the Rodgers and Hart material, taking out the stuff that didn't work, and bringing in songs from their musicals that will never be revived. Some of their greatest songs weren't even written for musicals, they were written for revues, so we took them as great opportunities to bring dimension to the characters, while enhancing the overall show."
While many of the beloved original songs from Pal Joey have been maintained in the new production, including the aforementioned "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" and "I Could Write A Book," the production incorporates other Rodgers and Hart standards, such as "My Funny Valentine" and "Falling In Love With Love," to flesh out the women within the piece. Originally written as thin archetypes Joey could seduce (the lonely yet wealthy socialite, the naive secretary, the rough and tumble showgirl), LaGravenese was focused on reimagining the show's women into much more grounded individuals.
Vera, originally a very much married socialite, has been transformed by this production into the jilted widow of a crime boss who is stuck with her husbands debts after his untimely passing. Her characterization has been heavily influenced by the numerous women that have played the part in various developmental readings.
"In earlier workshops, the incandescently beautiful Marin Mazzie played Vera," LaGravenese shares. "She said, 'What if Vera really loved him?' And that changed the whole thing, making her a human being and not just an archetypal pithy character like she usually is. That gave her some dimension, and some heart, and it brought in the idea of her owning the club, so she has more stakes."
Gladys, the quick-witted showgirl who sees through Joey's tricks, has been almost entirely eliminated from this production, with aspects of her character instead being incorporated into that of Linda English, who has been reborn from her naive origins into a world-weary radio singer. "It's always about choice," Beaty details. "We had the real estate to make this other character have a full journey, but there wasn't enough space for them both."
LaGravenese nods furiously. "Linda was the ingenue who sings, you know, but there was no character there at all. For real estate, we decided to build Linda, and make her a better character. We gave her a history, we made her a singer so that she can actually sing songs, and she's tougher. The original Linda just has no character whatsoever. She's just a prop."
To complete the trio of women around Joey, the script now has Lucille, a brand new character concocted for this production. The original owner of the club Joey happens upon in Chicago, Lucille is a down-on-her-luck performer from the Harlem Renaissance who serves as a grounding maternal force at the center of the shows upheaval. She is also a key aspect in perhaps the productions most obvious shift: originally a tale of all white corruption, this production of Pal Joey reimagines Joey Evans and Linda English as two Black performers trying to survive in the white-dominated entertainment industry.
"The women are the guides that surround Joey," LaGravenese states. "Each woman gives him a different thing." Beaty, who spearheaded the introduction of dancing ancestral griots that haunt Joey, sees Lucille has the woman closest to guiding Joey to his truth. "Ancestor griots are other worldly spirits, and it is nice for one of the core characters to be the embodiment of that. They're expressing the same thing in different ways, and that all comes together the second act, when she's actually able to help him and the audience understand who we've been seeing this, this very old thing that's a part of them."
LaGravenese fervently agrees. "This is the part of the story that really glued the whole thing together. It's become the soul of the whole, it's what made it alive. And it made the characters more alive. It makes the music and dance work together in a way that's never been seen before or heard before."
Beaty, a Black man, was faced with quite the challenge when he began work on Pal Joey years ago. "When you see the movie, recordings, or even productions of the show, Black people just were not in it. They weren't even a consideration...I came to this with my own personal challenges as a Black artists inside of a system that historically would not include us."
This sense of forming space in a system not originally built to support Black artistry is directly folded into Joey's new motivations, which take him further from his lothario origins to instead position him as a man desperate to make the art that speaks to his soul, regardless of the compromises forced upon him by the system at large.
"The presence of spirit, and the presence of the ancestors, have honestly kept me alive, and gave me the energy to keep going," says Beaty. "I can name them specifically now, but they have always been there. And that's what Joey learns. He can't name it initially, but something appears that helps him keep going. And then by the end of the show, everything's not solved, but he knows who he is. And he knows who walks with him." These ancestors are manifested in the show by dancers dressed in black, who tap dance around Joey in his moments of indecision or despair.
Whereas the original Joey intentionally never learns his lesson, the new production reimagines him as a man constantly at square one, yet all the wiser for his journey back to the beginning. "You learn who Joey is in between the lines of what he's saying," LaGravenese says. "In the beginning, he's not self aware at all. But by the end, you get a different sense of him. His circumstances haven't changed much but he has."
Adds Beaty: "The more we evolve as a culture, and the more women have a voice and people of color have a voice, stories that did not have those elements included become harder to hear. And the question becomes, why are we telling that story?" He then adds, confidently. "As we build a new world, we investigate what is old while creating space for what is new, and we find the ways that they dance together. It is because of the respect we have for the original creators that we endeavor to offer this, and this intentional dance between the past and the present. All we ask that you give us the space to share our new dance with you."