Everyone has their own idea of what makes a great musical!
Pal Joey (1940)
With a heel for a hero, its smoky night-club ambience, and its true-to-life, untrue-to-anyone characters, Pal Joey was a major breakthrough in bringing about a more adult form of musical theatre. The idea came from writer John O’Hara, who suggested to Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart that they adapt a series of New Yorker short stories about Joey Evans, a small-time Chicago entertainer. Rodgers himself later wrote that, “The idea of doing a musical without a clean-cut juvenile in the romantic lead opened up enormous possibilities for a more realistic view of life than theatregoers were accustomed to.”
The first run of the musical got a mixed reaction from audiences and critics. In the opinion of Broadway historian David Ewen, “In 1940, nobody else would have dared to populate the stage with such disreputable characters or to point up the seamy side of life – blackmail, illicit love affairs, hypocrisy, skulduggery and crass opportunism.” Two songs became instant hits: “I Could Write a Book” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”.
The classic of American music theatre, Oklahoma! opened in New York on 31 March 1943 and closed more than five years later. Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs (born on a farm near Claremore, Oklahoma, and whose mother was 1/8 Cherokee), it blends memorable lyrics with wonderful tunes and an unusual setting. It also delves into the darker side of one of its characters and introduces a dream sequence in the form of a ballet – something only previously done in films.
Location was one of the things that attracted Rodgers and Hammerstein: the play had a “background rich in native music and dances… We wanted to keep the gaiety, freshness, poetry and humour of the people.” Even so they threw out the folk songs of the original in favour of their own mid-Western style. They also added Will Parker and built up the parts of Ado Annie (a plump shy girl in the original) and the peddler, Ali Hakim.
Mary Martin was invited to be the first Laurey, but turned it down. Next in line was Shirley Temple, whose parents turned it down. And Ali Hakim? Groucho Marx – quickly vetoed by Rogers and Hammerstein. First named Away We Go! (alternative titles were Swing Your Lady, Cherokee Stripe and Yes-Siree), the new musical had its try-out in Boston before more tinkering and a change of name led to its premiere in New York as Oklahoma!