7 1/2 CENTS
May 17, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
When the musical The Pajama Game opened at the St. James Theatre on May 13, 1954, its creative team (many of them novices) were supremely grateful for the participation, wisdom, and even a bit of financial backing, from the grand old man leading the company: George Abbott. As the show’s co-librettist and co-director, Abbott had, by 1954, already been an experienced playwright, director and actor on the New York stage for forty-one years. He was the perfect choice to ably steer the first book musical for the songwriting team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (thirty-two and twenty-eight respectively), same as he had done ten ten years earlier for the trio of Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green with On the Town. Abbott also took a chance on a young dancer-turned-choreographer to stage the musical numbers for Pajama Game, marking the first official credit on a Broadway musical for Bob Fosse.
The budget for the show had been painstakingly raised by two stage managers new to producing. One was the forty-seven year-old Robert E. Griffith; the other, his younger apprentice, the twenty-five year-old Harold S. Prince. On opening night, Prince didn’t watch the show from out front like any producer ordinarily would, because he was working backstage instead. He had no choice but to take his usual job as an assistant stage manager on the production, in order to pay himself a salary, since by that point there weren’t enough advance tickets sold to guarantee The Pajama Game would run beyond a second week. Of course that all changed when it received excellent reviews, complete with the proverbial line at the box office that went around the corner the next morning, very much a thing of the past now, what with Telecharge and Ticketmaster putting the need for all that out to pasture.
The musical’s source material was 7 1/2 Cents, a novel by Richard Bissell, based on his own experiences by way of a family-owned garment business in his hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. With George Abbott as co-librettist, they took the book’s fictional story of pajama factory workers going on strike after being denied a 7 1/2 cent raise and interweaved an array of engaging musical numbers throughout. And in the days when Broadway was a feeder for hit songs that played on the radio and in juke boxes, it shot “Hey There,” recorded by popular song-stylist Rosemary Clooney, to #1 on the Billboard charts only a short time after first being introduced by John Raitt in the show. In addition, “Hernando’s Hideaway” spent time at #2 (recorded by bandleader Archie Bleyer), and Patti Page’s “Steam Heat” made it to #9.
The Pajama Game won three Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Choreography (Fosse’s first of nine in his career), and Best Featured Actress in a Musical to Carol Haney (who played Gladys and danced and sang “Steam Heat”). The original company of the show also featured two future Tony recipients (Rae Allen and Peter Gennaro), and one Academy Award winner (Shirley MacLaine). The twenty-year old redhead with the pixie haircut stepped into Carol Haney’s role of Gladys on a moment’s notice, which led to her being discovered and offered a Hollywood contract. MacLaine debuted the following year, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, which established her as a film star for the next few decades. The famous story of MacLaine’s going on for Haney, embellished over the years by Shirley herself, led to perennial re-tellings that helped keep it lively and fresh (and just the slightest bit different each time). In a column I wrote last year, I did my best to tell it the way it really happened:
I’ve left out two names who were integral to the success of The Pajama Game. One was Hollywood film producer Frederick Brisson, who came to the rescue when backer’s auditions weren’t going well. And though he had never worked in the theatre before, he had a leg up on big money due to connections via his movie-star wife, Rosalind Russell. He came through and was elevated to above-the-title status alongside Griffith and Prince. The three went on to produce Damn Yankees and New Girl in Town together, before Brisson went off on his own, with varying degrees of success.
The second name, heretofore gone unmentioned, is that of Jerome Robbins, who with Pajama Game, got his first Broadway credit as a director (albeit as co-director). In the 1950s, it could have been said there was no one in any aspect of the theatre more in-demand than Robbins. His choreography chores in only the first four years of the decade included the musicals Miss Liberty, Call Me Madam, The King and I, Two’s Company and Wonderful Town (with uncredited assists on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Wish You Were Here). His participation in Pajama Game came about when Abbott had chosen the untested Fosse to choreograph. Surprisingly, Abbott’s protégé, Hal Prince, balked. “How do we know he can do a Broadway show?” he asked about Fosse. “He’s never done one.” Abbott then went to Robbins, with whom he’d worked on a number of shows, and asked if he would help out — just in case Fosse couldn’t cut it. Robbins agreed to what amounted to a sort of standby gig, so long as he got credit as co-director and a better-than-usual share of the royalties — which he did.
Most of the creatives involved with Pajama Game immediately re-grouped for a new musical based on a book by Douglas Wallop, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. Smartly retitled Damn Yankees, it opened 53 weeks after Pajama Game — no small feat — and in so doing won back-to-back Tony Awards for Abbott, Prince, Griffith, Brisson, Adler, Ross and Fosse. How about that?
But sadly, good luck ended abruptly in November, 1955 when Jerry Ross died from a lung disease (bronchiectasis), shortly before turning thirty. “I was devastated,” Adler told Terry Gross in 2006 on her NPR broadcast Fresh Air. “I’m still devastated.” The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees were the only two musicals Adler and Ross composed; a two-of-a-kind team, as they wrote both the words and music together for their sexy, funny, hummable tunes. And even though he went on to compose (and produce) other musicals, and live until the age of ninety, Richard Adler never found another soulmate like Jerry Ross for a partner.
Not to end on a sad note, here’s a pick-me-up from the classic sitcom Cheers, in an episode where a Karaoke machine is installed at the bar. Enjoy:
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.