Book Review. Pal Joey: The History of a Heel

The Rodgers and Hart musical “Pal Joey” is surely best-known these days for its most recorded song “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and for the stars who played Joey — Gene Kelly in the original 1940 Broadway production, Frank Sinatra in the bowdlerized 1957 movie — but the title character is depressingly relevant in 2020: A liar, a womanizer, a hustler, a heel.
“Pal Joey…marked a first in musical comedy history. Its title character was a louse,” author Julianne Lindberg writes in Pal Joey:The History of a Heel (Oxford University Press, 272 pages.)”Featuring one of musical comedy’s first antiheroes, Pal Joey challenged audiences to identify with, or at least tolerate, characters who would otherwise be flattened out into stereotypical villains.” The flawed characters aren’t lovable (like those in “My Fair Lady” and “Guys and Dolls”), and they’re not redeemed. “In the end, Joey learns no lessons; the only moral to the story, apparently, was to avoid getting mixed up with a Joey type.”
But the “Pal Joey” musical itself offers lessons aplenty, according to Lindberg, an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Nevada, Reno, who argues for the musical’s social and cultural significance and aesthetic influence. In making that case, the author presents a methodical, academically thorough and occasionally fascinating analysis and behind-the-scenes chronicle that should satisfy the most fanatical musical theater aficionado….though it might overwhelm anybody else.

“Pal Joey” began in the aftermath of a drunken binge in 1938. That’s when then-famous 33-year-old writer John O’Hara began his first short story about low-life Midwestern nightclub entertainer Joey Evans, “with a roaring hangover and no sleep and a wife thinking I am in Philadelphia.” Full of remorse, or so he explained later, O’Hara tried to think up a character who was more of a heel than he.  That story, in which Joey writes a letter bragging of his exploits to his friend Ted, a far more successful bandleader, was the first of a dozen published in the New Yorker magazine over the next two years. It was subsequently published as a book, with two extra stories. It was O’Hara himself who contacted Richard Rodgers suggesting that his stories would make a fine musical. O’Hara wound up writing the book of the musical, his only Broadway credit.

By the time of “Pal Joey,” composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart had written over thirty musicals together; they had been celebrated from a young age for finding a successful balance between innovation and commercial appeal. “Pal Joey,” Lindberg and others maintain, was the best they did.

Part of what makes “Pal Joey” stand out, the author argues, is not just how well-integrated the Rodgers and Hart’s songs were with the narrative (three years before Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma”), but how the musical both followed and upended the conventions of musical comedy. Exhibit A for her seems to be the treatment of the four main female characters in the show. All are “archetypes” (which is Lindberg’s  euphemism for sexist stereotypes) — Vera the older wealthy socialite whose interest in Joey is carnal; Melba the hard-boiled reporter who sees right through Joey; Linda the ingenue who genuinely falls for him ; Gladys the scheming chorus girl;  But the last two are parodies of the archetypes — and, we infer by extension, a poke at such depictions in previous musical comedies. (Linda is the only decent character in the play, Rodgers observed; “her trouble was simply that she was stupid.”) Vera is made sympathetic through a surprisingly nuanced characterization, aided by the much-praised veteran Broadway actress who portrayed her, Vivienne Segal. A couple of the other actresses are currently more familiar, and Lindberg makes much of them — Gladys the crooked schemer was played by June Havoc, whom we know as the sister of Gypsy Rose Lee (and a character in “Gypsy”); and, in the 1952 revival, the hard-boiled reporter was performed by Elaine Stritch. Lindberg devotes several dense pages to a half-musicological, half-sociological analysis of Melba/Stritch’s song “Zip,” which the author sees as a good example of the many ways that “Pal Joey” reflects the era’s anxieties about class and gender.

The production enlisted the great George Abbott (who dominated Broadway for some 80 years, living to 107) to be its producer and director (and, Lindberg makes clear, script doctor.) The scenic and lighting designer was Jo Mielziner, who went on to win the first of his nine Tony Awards for the original production of Death of a Salesman. Lindberg gives them their due, but seems most excited about another crucial collaboration.She devotes a chapter to the importance of the dancing in the original production. Choreographer Robert Alton and Gene Kelly told much of the story through dance; their moves also made the whole enterprise more palatable to audiences. This aspect of the show has not gotten attention in the past, Lindberg says, because few dance critics were around to review the show, and Alton never wrote any of its dances down.

If all you know about “Pal Joey” is the Sinatra movie, then you don’t know “Pal Joey.” Lindberg writes:

“The 1957 screen adaptation….starring Frank Sinatra as Joey, Rita Hayworth as Vera, and Kim Novak as Linda—redeems Joey. Now a singer rather than a dancer, Joey genuinely falls in love with the ingénue Linda, and makes seemingly selfless decisions that the stage Joey would have scorned. The film praises Joey’s vulnerability and laughs conspiratorially at his self-seeking behavior; in the end Joey gets the girl. The 1957 screen version of Pal Joey promotes a set of emerging gender archetypes that defy traditional, middle-class, suburban constructions of masculinity and femininity. Joey’s stage-to-screen evolution—from heel to swinging bachelor—is mirrored by Linda’s transformation from stenographer to sex kitten.”

This is not to say that the stage musical has always been received with acclaim, even initially. As Lindberg writes: “Brooks Atkinson, in the New York Times [review], penned the most infamous lines in theater history when he wrote: ‘Although Pal Joey is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?'”

Lindberg certainly does an impressive job of finding the sweet water, but readers who are not already enamored of the musical might feel a bit… drenched.  We get a timeline “from short story to musical comedy,” a table that offers a synopsis of each of the 14 short stories that made up O’Hara’s book, an appendix that details the differences between the rehearsal script and the opening night script. We learn not just that O’Hara liked jazz, but the specific musicians, songwriters and songs that he liked. Another table explains at length the nearly two dozen mostly outdated pop culture references in the song Zip (Minsky, Stravinsky, Luscious Lucius)

Atkinson changed his view after the 1952 revival, but Lindberg admits that modern-day productions have been sporadic and uneven, that the slang is out-of-date, and the show is not as well-known as others proclaimed from the Golden Age. “Pal Joey: The History of a Heel” is the latest tome in Oxford University Press’s Broadway Legacies series, whose dozen previous works chronicle such crowd-pleasers as “South Pacific,” “My Fair Lady” and “Show Boat.”

All of which begs the question: Why a book about “Pal Joey”?

It might be easiest to appreciate “Pal Joey: The History of a Heel” by thinking of it as a reference work that  expands our musical theater knowledge, helps train us to think about the social and cultural implications of a work of art, and offers a glimpse into the creative process of some of the greatest theater artists of the twentieth century.

Author: New York Theaterh

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

1 thought on “Book Review. Pal Joey: The History of a Heel

  1. Excellent analysis of a book that focuses on one of the lesser-known Broadway shows. Being only familiar with the Frank Sinatra film of “Pal Joey,” I am now eager to see a theatrical production that sticks to the story’s original script and tone.

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