December 25, 1940— When it premiered at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Pal Joey opened Broadway to more mature subject matter as the first American musical about an anti-hero. Without it, I would argue, you would never have the monstrous stage mother in Gypsy, the emcee in Cabaret, or the all-too-human leads in Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musicals like Follies.
When people think of names associated with Pal Joey, the ones that come to mind are its composer and lyricist, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. But the person often overlooked on the production team is the person who came up with the idea, the creator of the libretto and the original source on which it was based: John O’Hara.
In a way, that’s symbolic of what has happened to his place in American culture since his death 45 years ago: Once a bestselling novelist and short-story writer, he’s now hardly remembered in comparison with his good friends Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Some readers of this blog may know of a song from Pal Joey called “I Could Write a Book.” Well, O’Hara could—and did—write lots of them—novels, short stories, essay collections—and that’s not even counting plays, unproduced screenplays, or letters.
Pal Joey may have had the most unusual genesis of any of his works, as a series of about a dozen sketches in The New Yorker written in the form of letters to a friend from his “Pal Joey” Evans, a two-bit nightclub entertainer.
The sketches themselves were slight, but like Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner, O’Hara took a virtuosic delight in slang such as “take a powder” (get out), “making with the throat” (singing), “joint,” “crib,” and “angle.” Oh, yes—and the most delicious malapropisms until Archie Bunker came along, including my favorite, Joey’s account of his annoyance: “I lost my composer.”
When he was well along in this series, O’Hara wrote to Rodgers to see if he and partner Hart would want to adapt it into a musical. Rodgers recalled years later that he quickly said yes, because it would not only be different from anything they’d ever done but also different from anything anyone had ever done in a musical. Now, what did Rodgers mean?
Much of it stems from the slang word that Joey may use most frequently, and certainly, most enthusiastically: “mouse,” or young woman who’s caught his eye. Nowadays, we would call Vera Simpson, the rich, older society woman who pays for his clothes and his Chicago nightclub where he is emcee while making him her kept man, a “cougar.” These terms suggest predators and prey.
Virtually everybody in this animal kingdom uses everyone else, except for one sweet young woman, Linda, who still carries the torch for Joey. It’s a mark of the musical’s cynicism that Linda is as dumb as a rock.
Surprisingly, O’Hara’s interest in the musical faded after he first came up with the idea. George Abbott, a veteran director and script doctor, liked to have playwrights at out-of-town tryouts to make last-minute changes, but O’Hara went AWOL. So Abbott was left to make most of these changes, and he was also the one who helped create the plot: the affair between Joey and Vera.
Pal Joey was not a great success in its first run, because of its risqué subject matter, its lack of a sympathetic lead or happy ending, and its premiere during a musicians’ strike that limited the radio exposure that songs in new musicals needed at that time. The critical quote that most succinctly summarized the state of opinion at that time came from Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, who queried, "Although it is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?"
Over time several songs, especially “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “I Could Write a Book,” became standards, and a cast album and revival in 1952 (which featured a young but already brassy Elaine Stritch) really thrust the show and its music into the popular consciousness. (Less successful were the 1957 film adaptation starring Frank Sinatra, and a 2008 “revisal”—i.e., a rewritten book—produced by the Roundabout Theater and starring Stockard Channing. See my review at the time of the latter here.)
The original 1940 production was also notable for launching young talents. Three of them ended up at MGM Studios: the actor Van Johnson; a chorus-line dancer who became a noted director-choreographer, Stanley Donen; and the show’s lead, who impressed just about everyone with his dancing: Gene Kelly (with a dancer in the image accompanying this post). (Kelly can also be found, in all-too-brief form, in this YouTube clip--taken from a patron who surreptitiously taped the show at the time.
This production, as well as its 1952 revival, which he also worked on, gave O’Hara a yen for the theater that he never really got over. One of the hardest-to-find O’Hara books is one that came out in 1964, Five Plays. They were unproduced, and they remain so, partly because he didn’t take well to director’s suggestions. But he was still working on another play at the time of his death in 1970.
As for the songwriting team that created it: “It was the most satisfying and mature work that I was associated with during all my years with Larry Hart,” recalled Rodgers in his autobiography. It would also be their last. The notoriously unreliable, alcoholic Hart was in no condition to work on the next project Rodgers had in mind, and its setting—rural life in the late 19th century—was far removed from the contemporary urban milieu in which the lyricist excelled. Oklahoma launched a new partnership between Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II that would be even more wildly successful than either of them--than anybody, really, certainly including the fictional Joey Evans--had ever known before.