PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Pajama Game: Broadway Beefcake ‘n’ Babe

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Pajama Game: Broadway Beefcake ‘n’ Babe
 
The buzz buzzing about The Pajama Game on its arrival Feb. 23 at the American Airlines Theatre was centrally located on The Harry Chest—maybe four minutes tops (that is, topless)—in the finale when the stars of the show, Harry Connick Jr. and Kelli O’Hara , split up (appropriately for a family audience) the same pair of pajamas in order to demonstrate the easy “Two can live as cheap as one” economics of Sleep Tite sleepwear.
Harry Connick, Jr.; Kelli O'Hara; Kathleen Marshall; Rob Marshall; Michael McKean; Ben Vereen; Nellie McKay; Mario Cantone & Denis O'Hare; Hunter Foster & Jennifer Cody.
Harry Connick, Jr.; Kelli O'Hara; Kathleen Marshall; Rob Marshall; Michael McKean; Ben Vereen; Nellie McKay; Mario Cantone & Denis O'Hare; Hunter Foster & Jennifer Cody. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Such exposure made John Raitt, the original Game player, a hunk for the rest of his days, but Connick has gone on record he’s embarrassed by the press play given his impeccable pecs. He is buff but bashful, and his grin-and-bear-it granite resolve is almost palpable.

When he returns to the stage a minute later for a pretty tumultuous curtain call, he is wearing—as he is in the ads—an undershirt, effectively undoing everything Clark Gable did when he took his shirt off in 1934’s It Happened One Night and revealed a bare chest.

Undershirts and the more unmentionables made a sales comeback 20 years later when The Pajama Game reached Broadway. It was, after all, the repressed ‘50s, and the show’s take on sex was fairly feisty for the time. Like the great musicals (My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, The King and I , you know who you are), it all comes down to a battle of the sexes, pure and not-so-simple. The basic he-she business is here complicated socioeconomically by the fact that he is Sid Sorokin, new to the management side of the ledger, and she is Babe Williams, the curvaceous head of the grievance committee.

Considerable chemistry is called for to make the show percolate, and the two stars deliver the goods in that department. Much of the fun of this revival is watching how well-matched they are—very flinty team-playing, enough to warrant co-star billing.

O’Hara, who won critical cheers for her “breakout” performance, has the right attitude about the billing inequity. “Well, if they want to see that match, they’ll have to come inside,” she says sweetly, and she’s quick to concede that Connick has a lot to do with keeping her on her mark. “He’s wonderful to work with, just what you’d think.” There is a good 180-degrees of separation between her Babe and the Tony-nominated performance that she is coming directly from—the brain-damaged, child-like Clara Johnson in The Light in the Piazza —night and day! And she delights in the contrast.

“I think I’m just finding my way. I think this is very appropriate for me, this role, and I’m living in it. I’m loving it. I am a strong woman, c’mon, and I want to show it. I play ingenues a lot, and I love it, but it’s important to show some underbelly once in a while.”

No underbelly showing on Mr. Nice Guy from N’Awlins, who, in fact, made a mensch of Himself—and certainly a lot of points with his new theatre family—at the after-party in one of the massive ballrooms at the Marriott Marquis. He took the mic on stage and thanked the folks who got him through his first Broadway role—starting with director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall , “everybody on the crew” and “the best cast on Broadway.”

In particular, he praised his leading lady, crediting their on-stage click with regional fumes (he’s from Louisiana, and she’s from Oklahoma). In fact, lest she forget, he gave her a very unique opening-night present he acquired on the Internet from her hometown of Elk City, OK—a tumbleweed!—“so you never forget where you come from, baby.”

They’ll be tumbling along until June 11 and not a day longer. “That’s it!” Connick says emphatically. “I gotta get back to my day job.” His day job is concert-touring and making money. “Well,” he says with That Smile, “you can write that. I didn’t say that.”

Connick’s killer smile was much in evidence as first-nighters arrived at the party. A gigantic ear-to-ear gleam shined down on them from a Longines ad at the ballroom entrance. It seems he is the ambassador and “Icon of Elegance” for the Swiss watch company so they footed the bill for the bash and the branded VIP pre-show cocktail hour. The ad triggered ideas of elegant, expensively stuffed goodie-bags, but none materialized.

The Pajama Game is just Connick’s first time on Broadway as a performer . He was here before— as a composer-lyricist of Thou Shall Not , a New Orleans-jazzed-up retelling of Therese Raquin . On the books, it was not a success. In his head, he’s still euphoric about the experience. He even got Tony-nominated for his efforts, and, like a well-brought-up Southern lad, he wrote notes to the Tony voters, thanking them, turning quite a few jaded heads. Furthermore, he’s not heeding that title commandment.

Fact is, he’s 15 songs along into his next Broadway adventure. “I’ve written just about all the music for another show. It’s called Ben Invention . Now, we have to get the stage play written and move from there. I’ve got the whole thing mapped out in my head. I just have to get it down on paper with the writer, so we’re looking around for one. It’s way, way in the embryonic stage right now. As I say, I have to get a writer to do the book for me.

“It’s about a guy named Ben Franklin, who was raised with no social surroundings, kind of in the middle of a forest, but he happens to be the greatest mind that ever lived. He’s a great inventor. He’s invented everything from an airplane to the piano to the telephone. Anything that you can imagine he has invented. He is just unaware all that was already invented so he’s sorta the ultimate loser in that way—always just a little bit too late.

“We wanted it to be a feature film, but I think I would rather it start on stage. There’s something more organic about that to me. There’s something that’s stronger about that.”

If O’Hara comes across as a woman of strength, consider her director-choreographer. One wonders which act was harder for Marshall to follow: the career-making choreography of Bob Fosse or the indelible co-direction of George Abbott and Jerome Robbins. Whew!

“You have the three titans of musical theatre so, of course, it’s horrifyingly intimidating,” she concedes, “but, in a way, when the masters have been there and paved the way for you, all you have to do is recreate it and make it fresh for a modern audience. You know the show works. You know the songs work, you know the story works, you know the characters are compelling. You have that confidence.”

Still, “she’s got a lot of guts,” marvels her brother, Rob Marshall , no underachiever himself (he directed the Oscar-winning Chicago and the currently Oscar-contending Memoirs of a Geisha ). He flew in for the opening to be in his sister’s corner, and he didn’t demur to the press on that score. “Revivals are the hardest things in the world to pull off”—Broadway’s last Little Me got him to Hollywood—“but what’s so great is that Kathleen was able to do it with such freshness. She created for the cast . There’s a company feel to the show. I love coming to see something like this because it reminds you of what theatre is supposed to be. One’s supposed to be touched by the performances, and Kathleen lets the performances breathe. Harry, Kelli, everybody—they're just great.

“Also, I feel this Pajama Game has such a sleekness to it. I’ve seen revivals of it that are pretty tricky because the book feels very creaky, but this has such a nice, fresh approach.”

Jeffrey Richards , with whom, by special arrangement, Roundabout is producing the show, echoes the same sentiments. “There are two unsung heroes of this production I hope don’t go unsung,” he says. “I think Kathleen Marshall leaps to the forefront of directors and choreographers with this show—she has done an absolutely brilliant job—and I think Peter Ackerman did wonders at streamlining this book—a very good book to begin with [by Richard Bissell and the multi-hatted Mr. A]—and making the material even better and stronger.”

The Pajama Game is the first show that Richards ever worked on (he was publicist for the Hal Linden revival of ‘73), and he worked originally as a publicist on Glengarry Glen Ross , which he revived with Roundabout last year to Tony-winning effect. He’s pushing the envelope May 7 by opening (at the Lyceum) a show he has never publicized— The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial ; like The Pajama Game , a big hit of 1954. Herman Wouk ’s dramatization of a portion of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Caine Mutiny , will star David Schwimmer, Zeljko Ivanek, Tim Daly, Joe Sikora and Geoffrey Nauffts .

“Herman Wouk is 90 and a half and working on a new novel that will be out next year,” says Richards. “David went down to see him in Palm Springs and brought a copy of Marjorie Morningstar . He said, ‘Mr. Wouk, would you sign this because it’s the book that changed my mother’s life? She became a lawyer as a result of reading that book.'”

Ackerman and Marshall gave the original book some serious second-thoughts, causing them to reassign lines and reshape characters. One noticeable change is that Gladys—the big boss’s zany secretary who is, by turns, loved and terrorized by the overly jealous time-study man, Hinesy—no longer dances the torrid “Steam Heat” number at the union rally, and Marshall can make a convincing case for this: “Gladys is always being falsely accused by Hinesy of being a flirt, so why should she go out there and strut her stuff in front of the whole union? Also, she works for management. She’s not union. Why would she be at a union meeting in the first place?” The answer to these questions is simply because Carol Haney could dance up a storm and, four days into the production, when she broke her leg, Shirley MacLaine could to (albeit, briefly, just long enough to be spotted by a Hollywood talent scout for Hal Wallis and whisked off to the movies). So, does Megan Lawrence who plays this rethought, more grounded Gladys have regrets she missed the “Steam Heat” boat? “No,” she shoots back. “Have you seen me dance? God, no! Oh, my God, whattanightmare! When I found out I had an audition for Gladys, I said, ‘Oh, you must be mistaken.’ But I went in, and there were all these dancers, and I thought, ‘There’s no way I can do ‘Steam Heat.’ And they kept calling me back, and they kept rethinking the character.” In time, they rethought it down to less demanding dancing.

But the energetically daffy Lawrence does manage to work up some compensatory “steam heat” with Connick in and around and down under a piano that has hilariously been worked into “Hernando’s Hideaway.” “Not so bad for a day’s pay, huh?” she cracks.

Another carrot is the charming little soft-shoe number which Hinesy and Gladys get to execute called “The Three of Us (Me, Myself and I),” one of two trunk songs that have been dusted off and inserted into the revival. It was written in 1964, the year that Michael McKean did not land the role of Hinesy in his high school production of The Pajama Game , so there was a measure of poetic justice that the number got to fall to him.

“It was written for Jimmy Durante,” says McKean, “and Durante used to do it in his act, but he never recorded it, so it’s kind of an orphan. Kathleen heard it and said, ‘Wow! That would be a great song for Hinesy and Gladys at the end of the show.” It works melodically quite well with Hinesy’s earlier number, “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” when the songs are integrated. “That’s David Chase , who’s our musical director, and his arrangers. It’s a phenomenal bunch of musicians. There are only 12 people in the pit, and they play like 30.”

"The Three of Us" was also sung—by the original Hinesy, Eddie Foy Jr.—in a Donald O'Connor television special called "Olympus 7000." Another song cut from The Pajama Game that Marshall briefly considered putting into the revival was "The Man Who Invented Love." Words and music for these two song and for the other new addition—“The World Around Us,” which Connick gives his Sinatraesque best—are the work of the show’s composer, Richard Adler , 84 and beaming to beat the band about the show on opening night.

His original lyricist, Jerry Ross, died at age 29 on Nov. 11, 1955, of complications related to the lung disease bronchiectisis, a few months after the opening of the second Adler & Ross smash, Damn Yankees . He would have been 80 on March 9. One can only ponder what might have been, but the legacy of these shows lingers on so sweetly and solidly.

The cast gives their opening night curtain call.
The cast gives their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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