A Dreamer Reborn: Reinventing Pal Joey at The Rep

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The American musical has long given birth to the lives of dreamers and romantics. In this new, radically reconceived version of Rodgers & Hart’s Pal Joey, our sexually charismatic protagonist Joey is both a dreamer and a romantic, albeit a troubled one. He is a Bad Boy who is trying to be better.

This has never before been the case with Joey.  When he first made his appearance–in a series of short stories in the New Yorker by John O’Hara–Joey  was an untalented, narcissistic young nightclub singer, a cad and a womanizer with few redeeming qualities.

In 1940, O’Hara called upon Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to set Joey’s sexual machinations  to music. And they did so gloriously with songs which have since become standards, including “Bewitched,  Bothered and Bewildered” and “I Could write a Book.”  In the process, O’Hara, in his libretto, incited Joey’s ambition to own a nightclub, something he achieves by becoming the plaything of Vera Simpson, a rich Chicago socialite, and betraying every one around him.

The songs softened those harsh edges. The musical was a modest hit in 1940 and and launched the career of Gene Kelly. Later, Frank Sinatra turned it into a contemporary film vehicle for himself by setting it in 1957 San Francisco. The movie was almost unrecognizable from its source material. That was understandable. After 1952,  “Pal Joey” became what is known as “a problem” musical. It has never been successfully revived, due in part to a rhetorical question posed by Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times critic, in his review of the 1940 production: “Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?”

That was the challenge when I and my creative team set out to reinvent the show with all due respect and admiration for its origins. Part of the problem was that Joey had been born at a pessimistic time. In 1940, Europe was at war and America was preparing for it.  So one of the first decisions we made was to update the musical to 1948, a much sunnier era.  We are after all, an optimistic people. It is part of our DNA. And post-War America was brimming with optimism, a country on the make perfectly suited for a guy on the make.

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Clifton Oliver stars as Joey. Mr. Oliver has also starred as Simba in The Lion King, Fiyero in Wicked and Benny in In The Heights.

And in our version the guy on the make is African-American. His presence raises the stakes. We felt that there was a certain poignancy in the notion of a talented young black man going for the brass ring in the white world of 1948. Joey’s dreams are fueled by the change that is in the air. Jackie Robinson has broken the color barrier in pro baseball. Joe Louis is the World’s Heavyweight Champ. Harry Truman has integrated the Armed Forces. For someone whose grandparents could have been born into slavery, Joey’s hunger to succeed is fierce. He wants everything the American dream promises.  But as he strives, he must confront not only his all-too-human flaws, but also a society which has told him to know his place.

On the most basic level, Joey just wants what we all want: to be visible, to count, to be worthy of someone’s love and attention. The two women who love him, in different ways, are Vera, the white socialite, and Linda, the working girl who is African-American. Our decision to make Joey and Vera’s relationship interracial was not taken lightly. It is a loaded one, especially for 1948. But our musical is less about race than about the desire for connection with another human being, whatever the age or color or sexual orientation for that matter.

MI0001717341We took our cue from the songs of Rodgers and Hart, which are all about the yearning for sex and love despite feeling unworthy of it. With this as our major theme, we replaced six songs in the original with others from their extraordinary catalogue, including “Sing for Your Supper,” “Nobody’s Heart,”  and “Glad to Be Unhappy.”

Which brings us to Ted, the piano player in the nightclub, who is a totally new character in the show. A songwriter and admirer of the Beat Generation, Ted bonds with Joey over their love of bebop and jazz. This gave us the opportunity to  re-interpret some of these well-known songs in the jazz idiom, giving them a fresh patina as performed by a very talented cast of actors.

We leave it to others to judge whether we have realized our goals. What we can say without reservation is that we are beyond delighted that the world premiere of our Pal Joey is at the Arkansas Rep in Little Rock. Bob Hupp and his exceptionally gifted and generous team have been invaluable in mounting this complex and challenging work. We are so very grateful to them. As we are to you, our first audiences.

After all, Pal Joey is ultimately about us. Our hopes, our dreams, our desire to love and to be loved, to be accepted for who we are. It is a quintessentially American story. If we have given Joey a heart, then we stand guilty as charged. But, as we all know, sometimes getting to the heart of the matter means a whole lot of drama—desire, doubt, betrayal, and all the other frolic and follies of our well-intentioned but often misdirected choices.

The miracle is that we ever end up connecting at all.

We hope you enjoy our Pal Joey.

- Peter Scheinder and Team

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