Putting In My 7½ Cents
Thoughts on the changes that were and weren't made to The Pajama Game for the current Broadway production.
Alas, what's always bothered me apparently didn't bother Peter Ackerman, who rewrote the book for the Roundabout, or director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall. I'd hoped that Sid would merely touch the aforementioned worker to get him out of his way and that the guy would make a big deal out of nothing, falsely claiming he'd been shoved and injured, but no; Sid still angrily sends him sprawling on the floor. And, minutes later, Sid is leering at Babe.
"But the show remains set in 1954," some may say, "and that's the way people were back then." So why hire a new book writer if he's not going to fix these problems? Marshall might just as well have staged the original George Abbott-Richard Bissell libretto with no rewrites. And, if it's still 1954, why did Ackerman include such anachronistic bits of dialogue as "He had the hots for her" and the lament "Tell me about it?"
My biggest disappointment, though, is that Ackerman didn't make Sid smarter once he and Babe begin dating. Abbott and Bissell had Babe worry that his being management and her being labor would come between them, but they wrote Sid as too dense to see that she's right. In fact, one reason we're so interested in Babe is that she's an accomplished career woman. From Mrs. Anna to Misses Hannigan and Mona, not to mention Nellie Forbush, Dolly Levi, and Sally Bowles, female characters with occupations have always been more interesting to us than those who are mere love objects. Ironically, Abbott and Bissell characterized Sid as the one-dimensional love object. In Ackerman's script, Babe is still smarter than he; when she says there may be trouble ahead, he still pooh-poohs her valid points with a "love conquers all" attitude. Ackerman should have had Sid say, "Yes, Babe, we are in for a tough time," and rue their situation as much as she does. Each should acknowledge -- and fear -- that they'll have to stay true to their disparate principles. That'd make for stronger drama.
Ackerman has wittily augmented a joke that Abbott and Bissell wrote about baked beans and potato salad. He also scores in making more of Mae, the meek-and-mild worker who now spends much of the first act desperately trying to get someone to notice her. When Prez finally does, she blossoms. That's why the idea of featuring her (rather than Gladys) in "Steam Heat" is a good one; the confidence Mae has gained from being loved has given her the courage to get herself on stage and do a number.
But I would have liked to have seen Ackerman use Prez's introduction to "Steam Heat," the second-act opener, to better advantage. Let's recall what happens to Sid and Babe at the end of Act I: Just as in The King and I, where we see the King and Mrs. Anna at their happiest (in "Shall We Dance?") seconds before differing principles divide them, so too does this happen to Sid and Babe. Soon after they exuberantly let themselves go in "There Once Was a Man," she commits sabotage at the factory, and he fires her. It's a wonderfully dramatic first-act closer, but Abbott and Bissell lost momentum by starting Act II with Prez telling us at a union meeting that there'll be a "little entertainment." This was the best they could do to shoehorn Adler and Ross's 1950 trunk song "Steam Heat" into the show. Wouldn't it be better if Prez established that what we're about to see is a benefit performance, with all the proceeds to go to the recently fired Babe? That would remind us of what we need to remember.
As for the new overture, it stresses the show's three smash hit songs -- but it could have included all the others from the original overture, for the Richard Adler-Jerry Ross score is still terrific. (It's one of the best of the 1950s, in fact.) Of the three Adler songs that have been added to the show for this production, "The Three of Us" functions best, for it gives a nice resolution to the Hines-Gladys relationship.
When The Pajama Game was first produced, many said that the show merged the Tin Pan Alley sound with show music. Now, a half-century later, it's happening again. When Harry Connick, Jr. begins singing, he ceases to be Sid and becomes -- well, Harry Connick, Jr. But though he's not a natural actor, he does his job in creating the Sid that Abbott, Bissell, and Ackerman put on the page. (It was smart to include his expert piano work in "Hernando's Hideaway," which I'm sure we'll see as the opening number of this year's Tony Awards. It'll get the broadcast off to an exciting start.)
Most of the cast is quite wonderful, though at times Jennifer Cody (Poopsie) and Megan Lawrence (Gladys) are over the top -- and their top is presumably Mount Kilimanjaro. I wish there were more people in the cast; this union doesn't seem to have much support with only a dozen or so folks lobbying for 7½ cents. But I liked Derek McLane's set. (Admit it: When you saw those 96 file cabinets in the office scene, you thought of In My Life!)
What did I like most of all? The sounds of so many young thatergoers laughing, whooping, and paying rapt attention all night long. Harry Connick, Jr. is bringing in a new audience, and that's worth $7½ million in theatrical good will.