PAL JOEY [Musical/Nightclub/Romance/Sex/Show Business] B: John O'Hara; M: Richard Rodgers; LY: Lorenz Hart; SC: John O'Hara New Yorker stories; D/P: George Abbott; CH: Robert Alton; S/L: Jo Mielziner; C: John Koenig; T: Ethel Barrymore Theatre; 12/25/40 (374)
Because this musical had as its hero a realistically depicted, cynical gigolo, it was considered a milestone in the development of American musical theatre. Pal Joey was based on a series of salty epistolary stories by John O'Hara appearing in the New Yorker, with O'Hara--who had suggested the project--himself doing the libretto, although his failure to attend the rehearsals and production meetings seriously annoyed his coworkers and even provoked Rodgers to send him a telegram, "SPEAK TO ME JOHN SPEAK TO ME." The show was rather controversial, its subject of a kept man being thought distasteful by several critics, especially Brooks Atkinson ( NYT), whose comment, "Although Pal Joey is excellently done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?" rankled the creators. Fortunately, it had a brilliant score by Rodgers and Hart and all the genius that its outstanding director, choreographer, and designers could muster, plus brilliant performances by Gene Kelly--in the role that made him a star--and Vivienne Segal.
Richard Rodgers wrote in Musical Stages that before it opened, director- producer Abbott demonstrated a lack of faith in the show that irked the creative staff. When designer Mielziner was told by Abbott to keep his costs as low as possible and choreographer Alton was not allowed to hire two extra chorus girls, Rodgers went to Abbott and asked him to give up the show on the grounds that he was not the ideal person to produce it. But Abbott, for all his doubts, was not ready to hand Pal Joey over to anyone else, and his attitude thereafter improved.
The show effectively captured the atmosphere of the second-rate niteries it depicted. Richard Watts Jr. ( NYHT), called it "a brilliant, sardonic and strikingly original musical comedy," unusual in its consistently hard-boiled, unsentimental atmosphere. Hart's hard-hitting lyrics blended perfectly with the rough-edged quality of O'Hara's bitter prose. Richard Lockridge ( NYS) enjoyed the show's rich humor, especially that of the central character, but thought that it occasionally "stops rolling and stumbles into routine. . . . But it is always lively and almost always funny." Sidney B. Whipple ( NYWT) considered it "a bright, novel, gay and tuneful work, made interesting by the rich characterizations of its book." John Mason Brown ( NYP) praised the first act's originality and imagination but found that act two grew gradually tiresome as intrusively melodramatic plot elements began to interfere with his enjoyment.
Joey Evans ( Kelly) is a handsome, boastful nightclub dancer and MC in a Chicago dive who drops the sweet Linda English ( Leila Ernst) to bed down Vera Simpson ( Segal), a wealthy and sexually available society matron, in order to get the funds to open his own glitzy joint, Chez Joey. (An excellent dream ballet was built around the nightclub's opening.) Vera also sets Joey up in his own posh apartment.