Friday, 2 March 2007

The Pajama Game Is The Game We're In

Seven and a half cents doesn’t mean a hell of a lot….Well that may be so, but to the employees of the Sleep-Tite factory, the setting for “The Pajama Game” (this weeks essential musical) it was very important indeed.

Based on the New York Times bestseller (“Seven And A Half Cents”) by Richard Bissell, “The Pajama Game” was one of the big hits of the 1954 Broadway Season. After previously writing songs for a revue this was the first time that writers Richard Adler and Jerry Ross wrote for a fully fledged Broadway show and they collaborated on a lively score with many numbers that became hits. Legendary producer/director George Abbot shared the directorial role with Jerome Robbins, and Abbot’s protégé Harold Prince was amongst the producers. The show was also an early success for choreographing wunderkind Bob Fosse.

Very much a blue collar musical, the show dealt with a pay dispute between the factory workers and the bosses. Focussing on the colourful employees of the factory, it isn’t long before new superintendent Sid Sorokin is at loggerheads with the grievance committee – lead by the attractive Babe Williams. The girls on the factory floor are quick to accuse Babe of falling for Sid but she deals them the reposte “I’m Not At All In Love” . Sid’s feelings are expressed merely to himself, but in an engaging manner, as he sings “Hey There” to his Dictaphone before rewinding the machine and responding to himself and harmonizing. The pair finally get their act together amid the jubilation of the firms “Once A Year Day” annual picnic and their fate seems sealed. The raucous “There Once Was A Man” provides a further energetic number for the pair but it is only a matter of time before the relationship breaks down when Sid sacks Babe for interfering with one of the factory’s machines after he had successfully stopped a “go slow” by workers. As the dispute unfolds the union hold a fund raising rally, where Gladys and a couple of boys deliver the outstanding dance number “Steam Heat” (amongst Bob Fosse’s finest work and rightly included in the “Fosse” retrospective of a few years ago). Sid has a plan to resolve the action , which involves a clandestine meeting with secretary Gladys at “Hernando’s Hideaway”, when they accidentally bump into Babe and Hines (Gladys’s fiancé) this causes some embarrassment, however Sid successfully manages to find a resolution to the strike, and at a rally shortly afterwards he is able to announce that the staff will indeed get their seven and a half cents. A happy ending for Babe and Sid as well? You bet!

The stage production of “The Pajama Game” featured a superlative cast lead by Broadway legend John (father of Bonnie) Raitt, who had previously been “Carousel’s” first Billy Bigelow. Janis Paige appeared as Babe, with Carol Haney as Gladys and Eddie Foy and Reta Shaw rounding out the principal cast. When it came to the Tony’s “The Pajama Game” won outstanding musical as well as an outstanding supporting musical actress win for Carol Haney and best choreographer for Bob Fosse. A successful London production starred Edmund Hockridge, Joy Nichols and Max Wall – all big stars of the fifties.

When Hollywood came calling for the 1957 screen version, unusually, it retained almost all of the original Broadway cast. Unfortunately, for her, Janis Paige was not lucky enough to re-create her stage performance and, needing a star, the producers re-cast with Doris Day. This was no great tragedy as Doris was beautifully cast and “The Pajama Game” rates amongst her finest performances, her tom-boyish energy and warmth lending itself perfectly to the role. Although, naturally, the film has dated a little it does stand up pretty well after half a century. It’s not often that we get to see Broadway performers re-creating their roles as we do here. Set at a similar time to “Grease” , although with a slightly older set of characters, it shares much of the movies exuberance and, of course, many similar fashions! All in all you can do much worse than getting the DVD and spending an afternoon in the company of Doris Day and the Sleep-Tite crew!

The partnership of Adler and Ross was not to be a long lasting one sadly as, after writing a second big hit, “Damn Yankees”, Jerry Ross died at 29. Bob Fosse of course went on to become a Broadway legend, Harold Prince became one of the pre-eminent director/producers of the twentieth century and George Abbot continued working right up until his death – I believe he was something like 108! Writer Richard Bissell went on to write another book, based on his experiences with the show, this was entitled “Say Darling!” and inevitably also ended up as a musical!

“The Pajama Game” continues to be an oft performed part of the musical theatre canon until this day, and, as well as being produced by the New York Metropolitan opera, it had a West End Revival just a few years ago in the wake of the Bob Fosse mania we had for a while after “Chicago”. Last year saw a very successful Broadway remounting of the show at the Roundabout Theatre where jazz performer/actor Harry Connick Junior played Sid.

Well the Broadway Cast recording has been beautifully re-mastered and is easy to obtain, as is the Doris Day Soundtrack which provides a truncated version of the score (twinned with “Calamity Jane”). Even the London Cast recording has been recently released although I have yet to hear it. However, knocking all of these out of the water is the Broadway Revival recording from last year. Everything about it is brilliant, the orchestra, the completeness of the score, and of course the performers - lead by Kelli O’Hara and Harry Connick Jr. A few years ago the late John Raitt released an album called “Broadway Legend”, although his voice was that of a much older man by this point, the album provides some lovely version of songs from the shows he was identified with. On “Hey There” (as well as a couple of other numbers) he is joined by duet partner, and daughter, Bonnie Raitt. Doris Day has only just recently been back in the charts with yet another “best of” compilation, however its far more interesting to discover her back catalogue. Most of her early albums have been paired up in Columbia’s “Two For One” series and these contain many gems that are less well known than her greatest hits. Bing Crosby apparently rated Doris alongside Ella Fitzgerald as one of the two greatest female voices, and certainly when it comes to the great American songbook the praise is much deserved. A particular favourite Doris album of mine is “Duet” where her vocals are complimented by Andre Previn’s jazz piano…their version of “Close My Eyes” is marvellous!

In Closing
Helen Mirren (The Queen)
Forest Whitaker (The King)
Cheryl Wilkin (DBE)

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