Stockard Channing remembers the moment she knew she had to become an actor. "I was 19," she says, sitting in her dressing room at Studio 54, where she is starring in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Pal Joey. "I was in an undergraduate production at Harvard of Threepenny Opera. A close friend was directing and had said he thought I could play Jenny Diver. I was married to a Harvard Business School person. I planned to be a very well-educated housewife and mother. But I said, 'Sure, why not?'"
It was, she thinks, a dress rehearsal. "I got on the stage and started singing 'Pirate Jenny.' And suddenly I knew how to do it. My imagination clicked into gear — my performance instinct, my intellectual capacity. All cylinders hit. And I was blown out of the water. I was blown out of my life. And, as it were, I ran off and joined the circus."
After more than 40 years in the circus that is the acting profession, Channing is best known for her roles as Rizzo in the 1978 movie version of "Grease," Ouisa Kittredge in John Guare's 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation and as first lady Abbey Bartlet in the long-running and highly praised TV series "The West Wing." She has five Tony nominations, including one Tony Award for her Best-Actress performance in Joe Egg in 1985. She was last on Broadway in 1999, in The Lion in Winter, for which she received a Tony nomination.
And now she is back on Broadway, as Vera Simpson in Pal Joey, the 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical about a heartless song-and-dance man who seeks to charm an older married woman (Channing) into bedding and bank-rolling him so he can fulfill his dream of opening a nightclub. The show is directed by Joe Mantello and has a revised book by Richard Greenberg, based on John O'Hara's original. Vera Simpson, says Channing, "really thinks she has her life well in hand. She's unhappily married to a rich guy in the 1930s, in a time when the world and the economy are in great flux. I don't think Vera was to the manner born. I think she married this guy because she wanted to have a rich, prosperous life. She was as hungry as Joey is, in her own way. She's a woman of the world. She's a little amoral. She acts out to spite her husband, who's not around very much, and she spends his money and takes lovers. And she takes another lover, who happens to be Joey, and she falls in love with him, although she's very much aware of his limitations. She thinks she can handle him. She thinks that her knowledge of him is going to be enough to keep her from having her heart broken. But it doesn't. She deludes herself in the name of love. That's the way it works in life."
Channing gets to sing not only one of the best known and greatest Rodgers and Hart songs, but one of the classic songs of all musical-theatre history: "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." Did she find the prospect daunting? No, she says, because Paul Gemignani is her musical director.
"I listened to about 20 renditions of the song that were never in the context of a musical play — Mel Tormé, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney — and I realized there's a massive amount of leeway in how you can approach the lyric and the music. I said the task for me is to be able to sing the song that's in my head."
She approached it as if it were a monologue. "It's about Vera's fears, her past, her desires, the joy of being reawakened. I love the context that she's doing it while she's in bed with this guy she's just had sex with, and I love the ambiguous, conflicting feelings she has. The song makes the audience aware of who she is inside. It's a classic monologue, like something out of Shakespeare. Paul said he wanted it to be sung as if people hadn't heard this song before, for people to listen to that lyric and understand the woman singing it, as opposed to it being a 'number.'"
When she is singing, Channing says, she is "riding this raging bull of a song. My job with every phrase is to show exactly what Vera's thinking and hope that the audience will be on the same page. It's a very interesting journey she goes through, from feeling she's on top of this, that she's had this great sexual experience, and then she starts thinking, 'I know what Joey is, what he really is.' And then what happens is that she's alone with herself. She goes for it. She decides to surrender to him, as opposed to just kicking him out in the morning. And she has no idea what lies ahead."