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By Sylviane Gold
Pal Joey is that rarest of Broadway musicals: a show unequivocally, indelibly linked to male dancers.
Gene Kelly was the first to inhabit its title character, in 1940, and it made him a star. The musical itself, however, had only a middling success, despite a heavenly Rodgers and Hart score and dazzling Robert Alton dance numbers. It wasn’t until the hit revival in 1952 that the show was hailed as a classic, with Harold Lang—ex-San Francisco Ballet, ex-Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, ex-ABT—playing the crummy Chicago nightclub entertainer at its heart.
After Kelly and Lang, Joey Evans was portrayed by Bob Fosse, Edward Villella, and Christopher Chadman. If you ignore the 1957 miscue of a movie with Frank Sinatra, which mangled Frank O’Hara’s tough original book, you could logically assume that Graciela Daniele, the choreographer of the Roundabout’s new revival, would be working with someone familiar with a plié.
But since when is Broadway logical? The latest in that long line of dancing Joey Evanses is the actor-singer Christian Hoff, who won the 2006 Tony for his charismatic performance as Tommy DeVito in Jersey Boys and who has no discernible background in dance.
Problem? Not for Daniele. “I’m madly in love with him,” she says. In fact he came off very well in the pop-group choreography Sergio Trujillo devised for Jersey Boys. And the jaunty magnetism he brought to the cocky, ambitious bad boy who organized the Four Seasons made him a first cousin to Joey. A cold-hearted charmer, Joey’s energies are directed to owning his own nightclub no matter who or what gets in the way. Still, when Hoff told her he was concerned—“a little,” Daniele says—about the dance requirements of the role, she told him not to worry: “I’m not going to give you my own steps. I’m going to take my ideas and translate them into your body.”
She found that the vocabulary that worked best for him was hoofing, which played right into her concept for the dance numbers. She hadn’t been around to witness Alton’s original choreography, but she did go back to look at Gene Kelly’s dancing in the movies—“with eyes of today,” she hastens to point out in her musical accent, a legacy from Argentina by way of Paris. “We cannot do what was done then,” she says.
Her inspiration was not the steps per se but the persona. “Gene Kelly’s human quality—a kind of street, working-class style—lends itself very much to the character of Joey,” she says.
That character is part of the reason Pal Joey has always been a kind of risky musical. Writers tend to describe Joey as “a heel,” and a critic once called John O’Hara’s original book—reworked for this production by Tony-winning playwright Richard Greenberg—“corrosive.” “So ahead of its time,” Daniele says. “That’s the reason it didn’t make it like the other Rodgers and Hart musicals did. It was very daring for a musical to have a main character who is an antihero.”
Daniele was thrilled to have a crack at Pal Joey “before I’m too old to choreograph,” she says. Joe Mantello is the director, and they have found common ground in the notion that even though the story is specifically anchored in 1939, the character of Joey is universal and eternal. “I empathize a lot with Joey and his dream,” she says. “It’s the reality for every creative person. Like Joey, you can never quite can realize your dreams. I understand that. He dreams about so much beauty, and what he gets is a tacky result. It’s sad—really sad.” she says.
Pal Joey’s dark streak has a particular appeal for her: She was introduced to Broadway musicals when, as an Argentine ballet dancer living in Paris, she caught the final performance of one of the darkest, West Side Story.
“It changed my entire life,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I have to go to New York just to learn how to do this.’ ” Speaking no English, she arrived in 1963; by 1964, she was playing Rio Rita in What Makes Sammy Run?, thanks to the influential jazz teacher Matt Mattox . She then sailed into other shows, into assisting Michael Bennett, and into choreographing and directing. “That’s how it went,” she says. “The transitions were so easy and natural.”
She’s earned 10 Tony nominations, on shows running the gamut from Pirates of Penzance to Once on This Island to Ragtime. It’s hard to believe it was all as painless as she makes it sound, but her favorite word seems to be “fun,” and it’s clear she makes an effort to find it. An early rehearsal finds her working through “Red Hot Mama”—“my homage to Jack Cole,” she calls it—in which the chorus girls in Joey’s club are dressed as men behind the femme fatale of Martha Plimpton. Demonstrating for Plimpton, Daniele lowers herself seductively into the lap of a guy playing a male customer at the club. Having made her point, she then proceeds to joke around, miming a fleeting but hilarious series of sexual innuendos as she gets back on her feet.
“It helps to be Latin,” she says. “I always feel that if I make fun of myself, the dancers will laugh and their defenses will come down. Then they can give 110 percent. That’s how choreographers always got the best out of me.”
Sylviane Gold writes for The New York Times and other publications.