News Column

Getting cozy with 'The Pajama Game'

September 7, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 07--At the news that a musical about a pajama factory was in the works, the smart money scoffed.

With that drab setting, the show came in from out-of-town tryouts with a miniscule advance sale. Without ecstatic reviews, the producers realized, this one wouldn't last a week.

But when "The Pajama Game" premiered on Broadway in May 1954, critics and audiences cheered.

"Fortunately, the people who manufacture pajamas are wonderful company in the theater," wrote Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times, leading a pack of rave notices.

"A kind of lighthearted adventure in industrial folklore," wrote Walter Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune. "Bright, brassy and jubilantly sassy, (it) has a fresh and winning grin on its face from the outset."

The show won the Tony as best musical and became one of the decade's biggest hits, running more than 1,000 performances, spinning off single hits such as "Hey There" and "Hernando's Hideaway," spawning a popular 1957 film with most of the Broadway cast and enjoying a critically lauded, Tony-winning revival in 2006.

"The Pajama Game" makes a long-overdue return to Houston Thursday with a production by Bayou City Concert Musicals -- inexplicably, the city's first professional mounting of this golden-age classic since Theatre Under The Stars' 1975 production.

Based on Richard Bissell's novel, "7{ Cents," the show cleverly combines boy-meets-girl with capital-versus-labor. At the Sleep-Tite factory in a Midwestern town, Sid, the new superintendent, and Babe, who heads the workers' grievance committee, find their budding love affair derailed by an impending strike. It all hinges on the 7{-cent per hour raise that owner Hasler refuses to give his workers, even though all others in their industry have received it. While hard-headed Sid and strong-willed Babe stick to their guns, eccentric efficiency expert Hines and his girlfriend, Gladys, who's Hasler's secretary, power the subplot with her harmless flirtations and his insane jealousy.

George Abbott, who co-directed (with Jerome Robbins) and co-authored the book (with Bissell) was the veteran of the show's creative team, a hit maker as both writer and director since the 1920s.

Otherwise, "The Pajama Game" boasted a flurry of notable debuts. It was the first show co-produced by Harold Prince, the first choreographed by Bob Fosse and gave the young songwriting team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross their first crack at a full score.

Proteges of the great Frank Loesser, Adler and Ross were an unusual team in that each wrote both music and lyrics, plying a vernacular vein comparable to their mentor. In 1955, they scored a second huge hit with the Tony-winning "Damn Yankees." Alas, the team's promise was cut short just months later when Ross died of a chronic respiratory ailment at age 29. Working solo, Adler wrote other scores, including the ambitious "Kwamina," for which he earned a Tony nomination. But he never had another hit.

Bayou City -- Houston's answer to New York's Encores Great Musicals in Concert series -- presents one musical in concert each year and two cabaret revues. Having devoted the past four years to celebrated 1940s titles, artistic director Paul Hope is launching a series of 1950s shows with "Pajama Game." After last year's production of Kurt Weill's comparatively unknown "One Touch of Venus," Hope felt it was time to program a more famous show.

"One reason this is such a beloved show," Hope says, "is that it's very easy to have great affection for these characters. If you met them in real life, you might not have anything to talk about. But as written in the show, they are so endearing and entertaining, we wind up rooting for them. Babe is a strong working woman who stands her ground. When she tells Sid about how important her union role is to her, the being part of a team, she has the interest of workers at heart and that makes her sympathetic. Sid, too, is very conscientious about what his job requires him to do. ... But he still strives to save their relationship. You know, we don't even hate Mr. Hasler, the boss; he's so ridiculous you can't hate him."

Hope attributes much of the show's appeal to the songs.

"The score is great," he says. "It's tuneful, varied, punchy. The lyrics are smart and funny. They aim for and achieve that colloquial sound. Every song lands. What a musical's songs need to be about, and where the songs go, is so important -- the difference between success and failure. That a new team did so well here also is a tribute to Abbott's leadership as director, asking the right questions. That's the expertise of the golden age, which we don't see so much in musicals today."

With its working-class milieu, "The Pajama Game" also evinces more casual, perhaps more realistic attitudes about human behavior.

"It's one of the first shows," Hope says, "to imply the hero and heroine have gone to bed, without being married. And the way some of these characters carry on at the company picnic -- it's the way we've all seen our co-workers act at office parties."

Melissa Pritchett is choreographing the production, with Kristine Richmond re-creating Fosse's original, emblematic choreography for the famous "Steam Heat" trio.

Bayou City will be doing the show as originally written, without the changes in both book and score that were made for the revival. They're not in the version leased for production and, Hope feels, not necessary anyway.

"But for those who know the show from the film," he adds, "they're in for a pleasant surprise because the stage score has a few songs the movie dropped -- and they're all terrific."

___

(c)2013 Houston Chronicle

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