When Harry Met Harry

When Harry Met Harry Harry Connick, Jr. talks with our likewise monikered reporter on the occasion of the star's Broadway debut in The Pajama Game.
Harry Connick, Jr.
Harry Connick, Jr.

First we got the name thing out of the way, Harry to Harry. "I didn't really like it so much as a kid, but I like it now," Harry Connick, Jr. maturely admits. It's a name that does half the social work for you - automatically making you seem easygoing and accessible - but, outside of "The Ipcress File" or "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," try to find a Harry who's the hero of his own story. More often than not, you'll find him at a party - the guy with the lampshade on his head. "I don't know about you," cracks Connick, "but that was me."

Hardly, Harry (and if so - well, time heals everything, because these days the Harrys of the world are proud to have one of our namesake number at last writ large on the marquee of a Main Stem theatre). Not only is Connick the star attraction of The Pajama Game, he actually gets the girl - no simple feat when he is Sid Sorokin of management and she is Babe Williams, head of the union's grievance committee.

Broadway is something I've wanted to do, from an acting point of view, for a long time - and couldn't because of touring or the show wasn't right or something," he says. "With this, all the pieces just fell into place. I'm really excited about the whole thing."

Not that he'd worked up a wish list, circling for his debut. "One of the things I didn't want to do was a show that's done a lot. Maybe, down the road, Guys and Dolls might be cool, but for my first Broadway role, I wanted it to be a little less obvious."

Although The Pajama Game has had its Encores! and City Opera reprises, it has been back on Broadway only once since it harvested Tonys right and left as the musical smash of the 1953-54 season. A fine 1957 film facsimile, with only two replacements to its original cast (Doris Day as Babe and Barbara Nichols as the squeaky-voiced "Poopsie"), stays in perpetual replay on television, co-directed by George Abbott (who helmed the Broadway show with Jerome Robbins and co-authored the book with Richard Bissell) and Stanley Donen (who Broadway-bowed for Abbott in the chorus of 1940's Pal Joey). The movie is what it is - a fun, 50's kind of comedy," concedes Connick, "and it's got some basic boy-meets-girl-and-has-problems-but-they-work-it-out kind of issues. John Raitt was just the perfect guy for that role. Obviously, I'm a completely different type of performer than he was, and I have yet to see exactly what I'm going to do with it."

Not to worry. Connick has the Raitt stuff. You can already hear the reigning crooner of his day dictating his love letter to Babe into the office Dictaphone ("Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes…"). Every major male singer in films wanted to do that 50 years ago. Harry Lillis Crosby priced himself out of the running. Frank Sinatra was the Warner Bros. candidate. Day favored Dean Martin or Gordon MacRae. Abbott's choices ranged widely from Marlon Brando to Stephen Douglass (the Joe Hardy of his next Tony winner, Damn Yankees). Howard Keel shot himself in the foot by having tried to have Donen removed from "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." Almost by default, the role went to the originator. Raitt did it for only $25,000 (a tenth of Day's salary and $5,000 less than what Tony-winning supporting player Carol Haney got) - plus it cost him Broadway's Bells Are Ringing with Judy Holliday - but it's his only star turn in film, and a robust testament it is!

"I met him once," recalls Connick, "at the Tonys or some celebration of Broadway. We actually sang together, among 50 other performers, the finale of Oklahoma! I didn't really know his history as I probably should have. And The Pajama Game wasn't even in my brain at the time. I wish I had had a chance to do this role while he was still alive, so I could pay my respects to him, because I thought he did such a wonderful job with it."

Based on Bissell's novel "7 1/2 Cents," the show is a lively fracas over fractions - a labor strike for a pay hike at a Midwestern pajama plant. Because of these blue-collar roots, the first choice to score it was Frank Loesser, but The King of Colloquial passed the assignment on to a pair of proteges, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, who really ran with it ("Hernando's Hideaway," "Steam Heat," "I'm Not at All in Love," "Racing With the Clock," "Small Talk," "There Once Was a Man," "Once a Year Day" and "Hey There").

This Game (now in previews) opens Feb. 23 at the American Airlines Theatre, two weeks short of what would have been Ross's 80th birthday. He never got to 30, dying of leukemia four months short of that mark - and six months into his second Broadway run, Damn Yankees.

But there are some "new" Adler-Ross evergreens in this revival. "They've added a couple of songs that were cut from the original production," says Connick. "There's one called 'The World Around Us' - a great song. It's actually the only song I get to sing to Babe. The other songs I kinda sing to myself or to a Dictaphone. This would be a chance for me to sing to her, and that's an important beat, I think. It's a great score - great melodies, great lyrics. My favorite is Sid's first song, 'A New Town is a Blue Town.'"

Excluding his soundtrack contribution to "When Harry Met Sally" that won him a 1989 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance by a Male, Connick has had only one chance to sing and act at the same time on screen, playing the ill-fated Lieutenant Cable to Glenn Close's Nellie Forbush in the small-screen 2001 "South Pacific." Now, switching mediums, he's getting his ducks in a row and making it happen.

Lots of Harrys are happy about that. The lampshades on our heads are off to you!