Friday, May 28, 2021

Mom & Me & Pal Joey

Original cast recording, Pal Joey, 
Broadway, 1952

I was thinking about an old musical, Pal Joey, which debuted on Broadway in 1940, and my parents saw in revival in 1953, when they had just moved back to New York from Dayton, Ohio.

The playbill for Pal Joey was buried in a carton in the attic of the house where I grew up, along with dozens of other playbills. The soundtrack was stashed among the LPs in the den on the first floor where the record player lived.

The record player was built into the far corner of a wooden window seat that looked onto the front porch. To use it, you had to lift up a heavy lid, which was designed to lean back against the wall and stayed put most of the time. In the large hole below were the turntable and controls, accessible with a few clunky maneuvers.

I’ve never seen anything like that record player except in my childhood home. I’m pretty certain that my parents designed it when they moved into the house. They liked to innovate whenever possible but had varying success.

The records were categorized in a cabinet, also below the window seat: Brigadoon, South Pacific, Annie Get Your Gun, West Side Story, and so forth. Between the images on the front of the album and the story summarized on the back, it was possible for a child to figure out the characters and what the songs meant. 

Pal Joey was based on a selection of short stories by the writer John O’Hara, previously published in The New Yorker, who offered them to the songwriting team of Rodgers and Hart to transform into a musical.

Joey, the central character, is a likeable opportunist and womanizer, the emcee of a Chicago nightclub who longs to run his own show. While courting a chorus girl, he starts an affair with a society dame who gives him the money to start his own club, Chez Joey. In the second act, after a blackmail plot is revealed, Joey blithely carries on in search of more prey.

An eminent theater critic, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, applauded Pal Joey when it opened on Christmas 1940, closing his review with a question that became legendary—at least among a certain generation:

“Although ‘Pal Joey’ is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” 

Screenshot of Brooks Atkinson's review of the 1940
Broadway production of Pal Joey, starring Gene Kelly

“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “I Could Write a Book,” are among the unforgettable songs that Rodgers and Hart wrote for Pal Joey. My favorite is “Zip,” performed by a newspaper reporter who plans to write an article about Joey’s new club and regales him with stories of famous people she has interviewed. In “Zip,” she sings about one of the interviewees, Gypsy Rose Lee, who revealed what she thought about while performing a striptease.*

Today, “Zip” is astonishing because its lyrics assume a relatively high level of cultural literacy among the audience. And that’s also why the song is so funny.

            Zip! Walter Lippmann wasn’t brilliant today.
            Zip! Will Saroyan ever write a great play?
            Zip! I was reading Schopenhauer last night,
            Zip! And I think that Schopenhauer was right . . .
            I don’t like a deep contralto
            Or a man whose voice is alto
            Zip! I’m a heterosexual.
            Zip! It took intellect to master my art
            Zip! Who the hell is Margie Hart?

It goes on for two more verses:

            Zip! I consider Dali’s paintings passé.
            Zip! Can they make the Metropolitan pay?
            Zip! Rip Van Winkle on the stage would be smart.
            Zip! Tyrone Power would be cast in the part . . .

It fell to my forty-year old mother to explain Lippmann, Saroyan, and Schopenhauer to ten-year old me, not to mention Margie Hart (a striptease competitor), Lili St. Cyr (another burlesque dancer), the words heterosexual and misogynistic, and more.

I’m thanking her today on her 93rd birthday.

Newspaper caricature of Jean Casto performing
"Zip," 1940 Broadway production

(New York Public Library for the Performing Arts) 

*Here is Bebe Neuwirth singing "Zip." It's very close to the original recording. 

1 comment:

  1. I find the most inventive and subversive line: "I am heterosexual" and it so slyly makes a huge comment on how that often felt like a minoritarian viewpoint in the arts. My parents had a few classical albums - then in the 60s Jose Feliciano ("Light My Fire")and Joan Baez crept in. But spending money on records always felt like a luxury with 5 kids and all the attendant expenses.
    Happy Birthday, Gloria!


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