Pal Joey

Original Broadway Production (1940)

Trivia & History

Some sources describe the production as having been a failure or flop, citing the 374-performance run as proof that the show was not terribly popular. In fact, the show returned its investment within just a few months, making it a hit in the traditional Broadway definition of the word. In addition, it had an excellent run for the time period. In addition, its run must be viewed in the context of the time period: during the entire 1930s, only three book musicals ran more than 400 performances and not a single one ran 500 performances. Admittedly, the show opened in late 1940, and slightly longer runs had already started to become a bit more common, but a 374-performance run would have unquestionably marked the show as a popular success in 1940.

Also, it had the third longest run of all the original productions of Rodgers and Hart shows. The only Rodgers and Hart shows whose original productions ran longer than the original production of Pal Joey were A Connecticut Yankee and By Jupiter. Pal Joey ran longer than Babes in Arms, The Boys From Syracuse, or On Your Toes, all of them commonly regarded as having been hits.

While the reviews were not unanimously favorable, many were extremely favorable. One notable exception was the influential Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times, but even his review was far from a pan. Here are excerpts from some of the reviews:

  • [B]rilliant, sardonic and strikingly original ... one of Rodgers's most winning scores, some of Hart's finest lyrics ... an outstanding triumph ... a bitter, satirical and yet strangely realistic account of the flora and fauna of the night clubs, done with such zest and successful relish that it achieves genuine power. — Richard Watts, New York Post
  • Musical comedy took a long step toward maturity ... I am not optimistic by nature, but it seems to me possible that the idea of equipping a song-and-dance production with a few living, three-dimensional figures, talking and behaving like human beings, may no longer strike the boys in the business as merely fantastic ... Mr. Rodgers and Mr. Hart have written some of their best songs. — Wolcott Gibbs, The New Yorker
  • [T]he best musical comedy in a season of good musical comedies—the best in two or three seasons, for that matter. .. cool, sardonic and a little nasty. But the show has pace and point, most of the funny lines are funny, the cast is good, the dancing is expert. ... Rodgers' best score. ... Hart is in there punching too. I think he is running in a private sweepstakes with Cole Porter to see which can be the wickedest little rascal in the lyric-writing dodge.  — John Lardner, Newsweek
  • [A] bright, novel, gay and tuneful work, made interesting by the rich characterizations of its book. ... Gene Kelly is made for the part. ...  The lyrics are brilliant in their reflection of night club life—smokey and blue. — Sidney B. Whipple, New York World Telegram
  • If it is possible to make an entertaining musical comedy out of an odious story, 'Pal Joey' is it.  ... John O'Hara has written a joyless book about a sulky assignation. Under George Abbott's direction, some of the best workmen on Broadway have fitted it out with smart embellishments. ... Rodgers and Hart have written the score with wit and skill. Robert Alton has directed the dances inventively. ... Some talented performers also act a book that is considerably more dramatic than most. ... [O]ffers everything but a good time. — Brooks Atkinson, New York Times

Shortly into the run, the lyric for "Love Is My Friend" was rewritten and the song was retitled "What Is a Man?" (reflecting the new lyric).

A month after the opening, stars Vivienne Segal and Gene Kelly were out of the show for several days, both being laid low by the grippe. Also out for the same reason for at least some of the same period (perhaps all of it) was Leila Ernst, who played the ingenue role of Linda.

Because Segal's understudy was Jean Casto, who usually played Melba, audiences saw understudies in four of the six principal roles during the time that Segal, Kelly and Ernst were out.

The production shut down for two weeks, suspending performances after Saturday, August 16, 1941, and re-opening with a Labor Day matinee on September 1. The re-opening was at the Shubert, which had approximately 400 more seats than the Ethel Barrymore, where the show had been playing since the opening. The plan at the time was for the production to run at the Shubert for four weeks at reduced prices, then go on tour, starting on October 1.

The move to the larger theatre but with lower-priced tickets worked out better than must have been anticipated. The closing was canceled, as was the plan to start the tour on October 1. And when the time came that the show had to vacate the Shubert to make way for Lillian Hellman's play Candle in the Wind, it moved to the even larger St. James, playing there through November 29. 

When Robert J. Mulligan, who created the role of Mike Spears, left the production, he was replaced by Averell Harris, who had created the role of Max, but Harris kept the character name Max.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein Fact Book incorrectly gives the dates of the Philadelphia tryout as December 16-22, 1940. The run in Philadelphia was December 11-21.

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