In the heart of the theater district, a handful of limber dancers are working on synchronized hip shaking, flirtatious fan-kicks and sexy shoulder shimmies while belting out “You Mustn’t Kick It Around.” Broadway jazz choreographer extraordinaire Graciela Daniele calls out stage positions while sitting on the edge of her seat, hands clasped. Just three days into dance rehearsals, the revival of the classic musical Pal Joey, a production that had its last showcase 32 years ago, looks extremely promising.
“I always loved Pal Joey as a musical. I loved the dark story. I love dark musicals more than happy ones,” says Daniele. “It’s wonderful and the characters are so unusual, so progressive for the time they did it.” Because of this obvious admiration, she says the artistic team approached the revival production “with a lot of respect for the original. But one has to look at the piece from our eyes of today.”
Set in the zoot suit, flapper dress and speakeasy-filled Chicago of the late 1930s, Pal Joey has music by Richard Rodgers (before he teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II) and lyrics by Lorenz Hart. But it isn’t the usual happy tale with a lead man you love to love. Instead it’s about Joey Evans, a sketchy schemer who wants to open a nightclub. He sets his sights on a rich, older woman, Vera Simpson, to woo her into supporting his dream.
On top of the music, Pal Joey has a legacy of über-star lineups, including none other than the jazz god himself, Bob Fosse; he played Joey in the 1963 revival and garnered a Tony Award-nomination for his work! To reestablish the wow factor of the older versions, the 2008 cast is studded with Broadway veterans, like Christian Hoff of Jersey Boys in the title role. Even better, the show is filled to the brim with phenomenal dancers. The ensemble includes Bahiyah Sayyed Gaines, a former dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, who recently appeared in The Little Mermaid on Broadway, and Hayley Podschun, who lit up the stage in Hairspray—and our cover in July 2007!
Dame- and Diva-style Dancing
Daniele describes the dancing as a blend of many different styles, from Charleston to burlesque, and the movement always has a character’s point of view at its root. Her favorite dance scene in the show is the sultry “That Terrific Rainbow,” when the girls dress as men. “It’s very Jack Cole—my homage to the master,” she says. “I learned jazz from Matt Mattox, who was a disciple of Jack Cole, the father of jazz. What he did was strong and masculine and warriorlike. I thought I’d love to have my six gorgeous women doing this Jack Cole man with the sexuality and strength that he had when he choreographed.”
Podschun gets into the style by looking at pictures and online materials of pin-up actresses and showgirls from that time (like the beautiful Rita Hayworth, who was in the movie version in 1957!) for inspiration. “There’s that simple elegance they had back then,” she says of her findings. “Grazie’s very aware of that. She’ll say, ‘See how they use the shoulders?’”
“My dancers are so superb,” says Daniele. “They have such fantastic technique and on top of that they have unique personalities. They bring their own individualities to it, which I always like. I don’t like chorus lines. I don’t like people looking alike.”
The respect is mutual: “Graciela is so smart,” says Podschun. “She’s been in the business forever, and worked with all the wonderful choreographers as a dancer. She knows how dancers work—if we need a break she’ll give us a break. And she’ll get up and dance with us. Her choreography is great. Her spirit is wonderful.”
A Classic Looks Forward
So how will a musical from the 1940s fair onstage this modern season? Daniele says, though it’s set in the late ’30s, Pal Joey will speak to audiences today: “The theme of somebody who dreams about great things but can’t realize them; the dream of somebody who will do anything to achieve what they want to do. It has a universality, which is eternal,” she says.
Podschun thinks that Pal Joey can bring some old-school charm back to the Great White Way. “I hope it’ll show people that old Broadway can still exist,” she says. “I want people to remember there still is this wonderful music and they don’t all have to be giant movie musicals. Pal Joey is what theater is all about.”