What with weakened unions and all, labor conflicts in the U.S. don't happen as often as they did in the 1950s, when the workers-vs.-management musical The Pajama Game was written. So you had to marvel at the good fortune (marketing-wise) of the new Roundabout Theatre Company revival of the Richard Adler-Jerry Ross show when the New York City transit workers went on strike during the revival's rehearsal period.
"It was funny," said Kathleen Marshall, the director and choreographer of the production, which begins previews Jan. 19 at the American Airlines Theatre. "I was driving the cast crazy because every day I was saying 'Did you see the news? Did you see the paper?' Everything that happened in the transit strike happens in the course of our show. They have a rally, they have meetings with management, they have a slowdown, a vote to strike. All those processes are in our show."
"It couldn't have been better timing," agreed Kelli O'Hara, who plays Babe Williams, the union rep at the Iowa-based Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory. "We talked about it every day, about the kind of feelings [the workers] were having and what effect it had on everyone else. In this musical, they want their quality of life, they want what they deserve, they want nice things."
So, did she sympathize with the subway and bus workers, the way Babe probably would have? O'Hara—who once grabbed a ride to rehearsal with the stage manager during the three-day December strike—flashed a tight grin. "I had mixed feelings." She laughed. "[Babe is] talking about their company in the pajama industry. We're talking about the business and financial capital of the world being stopped and put into chaos." Marshall, too, let go with a knowing laugh when asked about her loyalties. "It's hard. Let's face it. Most people who work in the city are underpaid. I'd love to see the MTA workers get more money. But I'd love to see the policemen and the firemen and the garbagemen and everybody make more money. You feel it needs to make sense compared to other industries."
Pajama Game is Marshall's third assignment as director-choreographer, following Broadway's Wonderful Town and Central Park's Two Gentlemen of Verona. As with those two shows, she's been lucky enough to work with one of the musical's original creators—in this case composer Richard Adler. The production will feature three songs not heard in the original 1954 staging. One, "The World Around Us," was cut from the show during an out-of-town tryout, according to Marshall. She first heard it as a bonus track on the CD reissue of the original cast recording. Sid Sorokin, played here by Harry Connick, Jr., sings it in Act Two. "Oddly enough," said Marshall, "the way the show was written there was no song for Sid in the second act until the reprise of 'There Once Was a Man'."
"When You Lose," a second act ballad for Babe, meanwhile, has been used in other productions, but never on Broadway. The third new song, "The Three of Us," was written by Adler for Jimmy Durante in 1960s, but never recorded. It is being employed as a reconciliation song for Hines (played by Michael McKean) and Gladys (Megan Lawrence). "Those characters don't have a song together otherwise," said Marshall.
Among the already extant songs in the score, "Steam Heat" presented Marshall with the biggest challenge. Original choreographer Bob Fosse turned it into a showstopping specialty showcase for dancers Carol Haney, Buzz Miller and Peter Gennaro (and, not incidentally, his own emerging skills as a choreographer). "'Steam Heat' is probably the most famous piece of theatre choreography ever created," explained Marshall. "But I don't think anyone is really familiar with what the other choreography in the show was. What was 'Hernando's Hideway' like? Who knows? So, on the one hand you have a blank slate, because there is no expectation for the rest of the choreography; and on the other hand you have this famous 'Steam Heat.' What we decided to do is start with the iconic image of a trio in bowler hats and suits, a woman and two men. I looked at a lot of '50s jazz dance, from other movies and other sources. So it's based more on '50s jazz than on Fosse—that sort of contraction [of the body], hunched over and turned in and dragging the feet. That was throughout '50s jazz, not just Fosse. He sort of took that and crystallized it into something really unique. The number takes the style of that era [rather] than his specific style."
Connick, for his part, is happy he doesn't have to make such large artistic decisions this time around. The author of the 2001 Broadway show Thou Shalt Not, this is his first acting gig on the Rialto. "It's amazing," he said. "There's such great musical talent working on this show. When I come to rehearsal, I don't have to think about anything but singing. It's bizarre. I'll hear them working out musical things. My inclination is to go and be a part of that. It's almost like a great freedom."