Theatre People’s very own Man in Chair (aka Simon Parris) begins a new monthly column looking at classic musicals of yesteryear, with a particular focus on cast recordings.

Merry Christmas 1940! Rodgers & Hart’s latest musical joined a Broadway lineup that included Irving Berlin’s Louisiana Purchase, The Man Who Came to Dinner and Ethel Merman in Panama Hattie.

Oklahoma! is frequently hailed as the first musical to integrate song, dialogue and dance but it did not just fall from the sky fully formed. Pal Joey is a classic example of a musical that was well on the way with this evolution: a fabulous score containing several songs that became standards, a gritty, almost too serious book and choreography that even included a dream ballet.

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz (Larry) Hart wrote a dozen musical together over a seventeen-year period, including Babes in Arms and The Boys from Syracuse. Hart was a miserable man, with depression brought on by his homosexuality and his belief that he was an unattractive man. He suffered from alcohol abuse and basically drank himself to death, passing away at 48 from pneumonia while on an alcoholic binge after the opening of 1943’s revival of A Connecticut Yankee.

By 1943, Rodgers had formed a far more positive professional partnership with a man closer in mindset to himself. He and Oscar Hammerstein II went on to write some of the most beloved musicals of Broadway’s Golden Age.

Pal Joey had a book by John O’Hara based on his novel of the same name. The premiere season was not a great success, which, in hindsight, appears due to the fact that the show was ahead of its time. The central character of Joey Evans, second-rate dancer and nightclub MC, was a charming heel who schemed to get rich and open his own nightclub. Almost a decade and a half later, closer to the days of Rebel without a Cause, a revival of Pal Joey was a great hit. Audiences had come to appreciate the ‘anti-hero’.

A talented young actor named Gene Kelly played Joey in 1940, with Vivienne Segal as the wealthy Vera Simpson. Joey charms the influential society matron and soon has her bankrolling his interests. Awakened by a new love, she sings the classic “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”

Segal was on board for the hit 1952 revival with Elaine Stritch as the reporter Melba. An understudy for Joey was a dancer by the name of Bob Fosse. Fosse played Joey in revivals in 1961 and 1963.

The success of the 1952 revival led to the 1957 film version, starring Frank Sinatra as Joey. Both Rita Hayworth (Vera) and Kim Novak (Linda) were dubbed for the film. Only half a dozen songs from the score were used for the film, with some songs from other Rodgers and Hart shows added.

Pal Joey came to prominence for the current generation of music theatre fans with a fabulous concert as part of New York’s City Center Encores 1995 season. City Center Encores is the program that, to a large extent, inspired the creation of Melbourne’s The Production Company.

Patti LuPone returned to New York after a less than successful run as Norma Desmond in the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard to play Vera. Bebe Neuwirth played the reporter Melba. Peter Gallagher made a terrific impression as Joey, coming shortly after equally positive notices for his portrayal of Sky Masterson in the legendary 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls. Unlike LuPone’s and Neuwirth’s continued dominance of Broadway, Gallagher went on to further stardom as the dad in The O.C..

A highlight of the cast recording of the 1995 concert is the sensational orchestrations, recreated from the originals by acclaimed Rob Fisher. The jazzy, brassy sound must have been very modern in 1940 and added to the feeling of the show being ahead of its time. A bonus was that the musical research uncovered a song that had beencut during tryouts for the original production: “I’m Talking to my Pal”. The melancholy ballad for Joey fits in with the downbeat ending that sees him alone and chasing women again.

Pal Joey had a chance to come back to prominence when a long-planned revival directed by Joe Mantello (Wicked) opened in 2008. The revival, starring Stockard Channing as Vera and Martha Plimpton as Gladys, was a flop. Coming off his Tony Award win for Jersey Boys, Christian Hoff was cast as Joey but was replaced by his understudy before opening. A foot injury was the official reason but rumours of drug use abounded. Hoff has not been seen on Broadway since.

Who knows if we will ever see a production of Pal Joey in Australia again? The Production Company would be our best chance. The book has aged badly but the score remains a glorious delight of melodious tunes, witty lyrics and swinging dance music.