Monday, February 16, 2009

Reviving Broadway: Pal Joey Flops; South Pacific Sails On: Will the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization Ever Learn?

The triumphant revival of South Pacific, which closely follows the original 1949 script, is nearing the end of its hugely successful first year at Lincoln Center.

Meanwhile, in the land of make-believe makeovers, the recent revival of yet another rewritten Pal Joey stumbles prematurely towards an early closing at Studio 54. It will have lasted less than three months.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, it appears, refuses ever to learn from its many failed attempts to rewrite the shows that charmed the critics and public when they first opened --- to rewrite them into more sophisticated treatments aimed at pandering to modern audiences.

The late Richard Rodgers once wrote, “We’ve found from experience, some of it painful, that the best way to project these things and to get a response from a live audience is to do them the way they were done originally, after we got finished correcting them ourselves.”

This latest effort to breathe new life into Pal Joey in the form of a revised book by Richard Greenberg, met with generally downbeat reviews. Ben Brantley in The New York Times called it, among other things, “joyless.”

Was it the fault of yet another dubious libretto overhaul? Or, had it adhered faithfully to John O'Hara's original script, might Joey still have fizzled? Some of the critics pounced hard on the direction and certain cast members.

R&H seem never to have realized that revivals, no matter how good, usually have a much shorter life on the boards the second and third times around. For example, A Chorus Line, played 15 years when first produced; recently in its first return to Broadway, it lasted not quote two years. One aberrational exception to this general reality is Chicago, which enjoyed a modest 2 year run when first staged, but has turned itself into a revival phenomenon -- over 12 years and still a survivor on the Great White Way!

I believe that R&H have an artistic (one could argue moral) obligation to respect these ground-breaking musicals and the gifted artists who created them in the first place, and to let audiences enjoy them, as Richard Rodgers said, "the way they were done originally."

After months of playing to full houses, South Pacific’s box office may be slipping a bit. I suspect that once serious New York theatregoers have their chance to enjoy this fabulous production, it’s ticket sales will naturally wane, and that it can’t count on tourists to fill up the seats. It’s an old fashioned love story that is not going to have widespread appeal to the younger generations who flock to see shows like Wicked and Hairspray.

Ironically, Pal Joey is the cynical musical — the one whose amoral pulse (gigolo uses rich woman to open night club) you’d think might make it a hot sell. Evidently, Greenberg's script, or the direction, has somehow managed to make the play even “seamier,” according to one critic, while making the show itself far less engaging.

And that’s not entertainment.

[photos, above: Matthew Morrison and Li Jun Li in the current revival of South Pacific; Gene Kelly in the original 1940 production of Pal Joey]


henry edgar said...

Pal Joey has never been the huge hit it should have been. and part of the problem lies within the book, i assume the original book, the book that is the official licensed script. over the years, it's been revised, rewritten and revived possibly more than any other rodgers musical, with a variety of stars and styles. i think it's because nobody seems to have found a way to make joey work as a character, to capture his seamy side, yet allow the audience to cheer him on. he's too good to be completely evil, too evil to be good. he's usually portrayed as a slimy snake; by now it should be obvious that doesn't work. the best written character is vera. the current revival even took out zip, one of the best numbers in the show. to succeed in the future, someone has to find afocus for the show and stick with it consistently.

Showbiz David said...

Very interesting take, Henry. I LOVE the score, it's loaded with one great song after another, Rodgers and Hart at their prime.

henry edgar said...

pal joey is one of my favorite shows -- every time it's revised, i keep hoping its been fixed. it' some of the best music rodgers and hart wrote. incidentally, the most fun show they ever did, in my opinion, is also one of their least appreciated -- by jupiter. about the greeks and the amazons. really great music, fun script. when i directed it, we costumed it with so many red and gold lames a friend with ringling asked if don foote did tthe costumes! if you've never seen it, at least get the cd. you wil love it!

Showbiz David said...

I have the Jupiter LP, which contains possibly the greatest love song ever written that never became famous -- "Careless Rhapsody."

So I'm not the only one who felt continuously assaulted by Don Foote's obsession with the color red!?

Jack Ryan said...

Concerning Henry's comment that the very funny and topical-to-its-time "Zip," containing a bunch of Lorenz Hart's wittiest lyrics, was removed from the revival: in a review I read, the critic praised actress Martha Plimpton's rendition of "Zip" as the highlight of the show. Just sayin'.

Showbiz David said...

I was listening to my cast album last night. Oh, yes, that lyric is hilarious. Seems to me that some of the best lines did not make it into the movie version. I think perhaps the funniest lyric ever written came from Hart, 'To Keep My Love Alive."

henry edgar said...

jack - thanks for correcting me! wiser heads must have prevailed! before the show opened, i read that zip would be cut and i thought they can't do that. sounds like somebody agreed with me and it was left in the show after all. i'm glad to hear that! thanks for correcting me. zip has always been a highlight of the show, and it definitely belongs in the show no matter how the book is changed.

Jack Ryan said...


Certainly agree with you on "To Keep My Love Alive." Priceless.

Speaking of great lyrics, if you have a recording of Cole Porter's "At Long Last Love" hanging around, dust it off and give it a listen sometime. (I like Bobby Short's take the best.) The lyrics are, to me, nearly perfect.

Sure, I am in awe of Sondheim (sometimes -- OK, most of the time). I know he studied lyric writing literally at the feet of Oscar Hammerstein but even Mr. S. would admit that the lyrics of Hart and Porter are hard to top and have surely stood the test of time.

Showbiz David said...

Jack, YES YES to Porter's "At Long Last Love" It's on my favorite upbeat Sinatra album, A Swinging Affair. Maybe I will listen to tonight after watching Changeling. The theatre no longer has those lyric writing giants.