Conversation: The Pals of ‘Pal Joey’

Stockard Channing, left; Martha PlimptonPhoto: Patrick McMullan

In the past few seasons, Martha Plimpton has played a female pope, a Shakespearean princess, and some Russian revolutionaries; Stockard Channing played First Lady Abbey Bartlet on The West Wing and, oddly, narrates Meerkat Manor. Now they’re both belting Rodgers and Hart classics like “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” in the Roundabout revival of Pal Joey, which, with a new book by Richard Greenberg, makes its debut on December 18. (Opening night has been delayed a week, after the planned Joey, onetime Jersey Boy Christian Hoff, hurt his foot and left the production.) The two women spoke to Jesse Oxfeld.

This production is so much darker than the classic Frank Sinatra–Rita Hayworth–Kim Novak movie, which has a happy ending.
Channing: The movie was very sanitized. The play, the original play, was funky. The play was about, you know, a married woman and a young guy. In the movie, Rita Hayworth was a widow. And, a little bit conveniently, an ex-stripper.
Plimpton: So she could do [the striptease song] “Zip.”

Which Martha’s character, Gladys—who’s barely a presence in the movie—now sings. Had you read the original John O’Hara stories the play is based on?
Channing: I’d read other stuff by John O’Hara, so I knew the tone. And then Joe Mantello, our director, gave me a copy of the original play, and it’s very close in tone to this—but it’s very choppy in the second act.

So Greenberg’s work was fixing the story.
Channing: Yes. But the language is very fair—the rhythms and the bleakness of it are very, very close to the original O’Hara. Neither of you is known as a musical star …
Plimpton: It’s my first singing role as an adult. When I was a child, I did downtown musicals with the Public, and then I didn’t do another musical for 25 years, until now. This is my first [Puts on affected British accent] big Broadway show!
Channing: [To Plimpton] You told me you were doing a cabaret thing.
Plimpton: I don’t call it cabaret.
Channing: I’m outing her act!
Plimpton: I have done, you know, evenings of song. I have some friends … I did a show with Lucy Wainwright Roche and Dan Lipton at the Zipper in August. But I haven’t ever done it, you know, for money.

Stockard, have you had a major singing role since Grease?
Channing: Well, yeah, I actually replaced Liza Minnelli in The Rink.

And were you trying to get back to it?
They definitely came to me. I thought it was the stupidest idea I’d ever heard—it seemed so far-fetched. I thought, don’t you want Christine Ebersole or Bernadette Peters? [Laughs] And they didn’t; they wanted me. I tried to take that as a compliment.

Well, Vera’s an urbane, arch, sexy woman of a certain age. You see her and think, that’s clearly a Stockard Channing role.
And then she opens her mouth and sings! [Laughs]

So you were nervous about that.
I was very much aware of the responsibility of singing these songs. I mean, “Bewitched,” for God’s sakes.
Plimpton: We were both terrified. Channing: We were sitting next to each other at the first reading going, “I can’t believe we’re doing this!”
Plimpton: I think I took a beta-blocker that morning.

You both played extremely well-known roles decades ago—Martha as Stef Steinbrenner in The Goonies, Stockard as Rizzo. What’s it like getting stopped on the street for those roles after so many years?
Plimpton: The conclusion I’ve come to is that I’m apparently aging quite well.
Channing: Exactly! As long as I’m physically recognizable, I think it’s probably not a bad day.

Stockard, from one smart, successful, takes-no-guff First Lady to another, any advice for Michelle Obama?
Channing: I don’t think Michelle Obama needs any advice from anyone, God love her.

Pal Joey
Roundabout Theater Company at Studio 54.
Opens December 18.

Conversation: The Pals of ‘Pal Joey’