Pal Joey literally has a storied past. The charming but morally questionable nightclub singer Joey Evans first appeared in American writer John O’Hara’s seminal short fiction entries for The New Yorker. By 1939, those stories evolved into a book and garnered enough acclaim that when O’Hara pitched his series to songwriting duo Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, their answer was a swift and resounding, “Yes.”
Building a show around Joey was a novel challenge for the pair. The character was a fast-talking cynic, lecherous with women, and perpetually down on his luck. When the show premiered on Broadway in 1940, it was a notable departure from the cheery musical comedies fronted by wide-smiled charmers audiences had grown accustomed to. Critical opinions fell on both sides of the aisle and the songs, while considered standards today, only blipped national airwaves. It begs the query: If Joey Evans was already difficult to root for in 1940, what hope is there for him in 2023?
Goldwyn, a celebrated actor and director, was one of the first to recognize the challenges presented by the character of Joey (played here by Ephraim M. Sykes). When he and long-time collaborator Richard LaGravenese (co-writer of this revival alongside Daniel “Koa” Beaty) embarked on this undertaking seven years ago, their initial step was to redefine Joey’s motivations. “At first, we wanted to make it about a guy who was genuinely an artist and who was fighting to find his voice as a jazz singer. That was compelling to us, but it still didn’t feel like enough.”
In O’Hara’s original story, Joey’s ambition to own a nightclub drives his seduction and greed. Goldwyn and his collaborators thought it wise to keep this passion but re-architect the socio-political contexts surrounding it. The idea was proposed to make Joey a talented but overlooked Black jazz singer in 1940s Chicago, thereby casting a new perspective on the work.
“Daniel ['Koa'] Beaty is an incredible artist who helped Richard dig deeper, flesh it out more from the original book, and focus on this idea,” says Goldwyn. “The notion of feeling invisible in the world when you have a gift and a voice and something to say is really powerful. It’s relevant for everyone regardless of the color of your skin, but particularly for a Black artist today–let alone 85 years ago. We have a lens into this story that is extremely alive.”
The concept stuck and, with approval from the Rodgers and Hart estate, the decision was made to expand this resurrection of Pal Joey beyond the original score. So while original gems like “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “I Could Write a Book” remain in this iteration, prepare to be delighted by other selections from the duo’s esteemed songbook.
Even with a new voice, new songs, and a new vision, the project was still missing a crucial element: a new rhythm. Fortunately, the creative team was able to find just that in Savion Glover. A Tony-winning doyen of tap and dance performance, Glover joined as co-director and choreographer, and he also joins the company of incredible dancers. Glover infuses this revival of Pal Joey with the signature syncopations of Chicago jazz that underscore the very themes in the show’s revival—expression, resilience, and the right to creative freedom. He is less concerned about perfecting shuffles, hops, and flaps, but instead wants the movement in this production— the dance, foot stomps, and shouts—to access a sound only the imagination can hear, and tap into the cultural legacy of the music.
“Jazz came about because a bunch of cats playing music became interested in how the mistakes sounded,” Glover says. “And so, with Ephraim [Sykes], his imperfections are what make him perfect. He’s a cat! And he’s telling an honest story.”
For both directors, architecting Pal Joey’s cast was a labor of love and even rebellion. “We were interested in people who were willing to give their input,” Glover divulges about his and Goldwyn’s process. “Creation is key. We were looking for people willing to try things they’d never done before. Everyone here has skills that are outrageously divine, but it’s not about that. It’s about a willingness to disrupt what’s been done before and participate in this vision.”
That vision also presented the chance to advance the women of Pal Joey. Vera Simpson (Elizabeth Stanley), Linda English (Aisha Jackson), and the newly scripted Lucille Wallace (Loretta Divine) don’t just share a man in this story, they share a relentless ambition. Each one of these characters is given compelling, new motivations as they strive to succeed in a world that perpetuates inequality.
“I want people to leave here with something that feels emotionally honest. So they see themselves in this man,” Goldwyn insists. “Joey is not a perfect individual; he hurts people, he hurts himself, choices blow up in his face, and yet his drive is always in service to something bigger. Ego and uncertainty lead him to some poor choices, but at his root, there is a transcendent force. This spirit in him, this movement in him, this song in him. It’s the artist in him.”
Brittani Samuel (she/her) is a Caribbean-American arts journalist, theatre critic, and the co-editor of 3Views on Theater.