How ‘The Pajama Game’ Went From Broadway to Drama Club—and Back

Photo: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

(1.) Richard Bissell, the manager of an Iowa menswear factory, writes a novel, 71/2 Cents, about a love affair between a manager and a union leader. Published in 1953, it becomes a best seller. Elmore Leonard will cite him as a big influence, preferable to Hemingway and “the only American writer since Mark Twain to have a pilot’s license on the Mississippi.”

(2.) The following year, a team that includes 26-year-old first-timer Harold Prince adapts the book for Broadway, calling it The Pajama Game. George Abbott and Bissell do the story; Richard Adler and Jerry Ross write lyrics and music; Jerome Robbins co-directs, using unknown choreographer Bob Fosse. An instant hit, it gets raves from the likes of Marlene Dietrich, who kisses Adler at the opening, and Jean-Luc Godard, who calls it “the first left-wing operetta.”

(3.) The show wins three Tonys and launches one more career when star Carol Haney sprains an ankle and 19-year-old chorus girl Shirley MacLaine steps in. Alfred Hitchcock producer Hal Wallis is in the house, and casts her in The Trouble With Harry. (He’ll later call her “the most difficult and unpleasant star I have ever worked with.”)

(4.) The 1957 movie version, directed by Abbott and Stanley Donen, stars Doris Day and John Raitt (Bonnie’s dad, reprising his Broadway role). Bissell writes a book about putting up the show,Say, Darlingwhich itself becomes a successful Comden and Green musical in 1958.

(5.) In 1973, a Broadway revival stars Hal Linden and Barbara McNair. Featuring new, non-Fosse choreography, the production closes within two months. And a City Opera “reproduction,” in 1989, stars Judy Kaye and Richard Muenz; it doesn’t do much better—the Times calls it “poorly cast,” adding that “no known revivals have quite recaptured all that chemistry, and one wonders whether it is even possible.”

(6.) In the nineties, George Abbott begins working on a Broadway revival, before dying in Miami Beach—at age 107—in 1995. By then, it’s become the staple musical of regional theaters, netting more than 1,100 American high-school productions over a decade’s time. But it still doesn’t come back to Broadway.

(7.) In 2001, producer Jeffrey Richards—who’d been the press rep for the ’73 revival—decides it’s time. Richard Adler, now 78, writes two new songs, Kathleen Marshall agrees to direct, and Ice Age screenwriter Peter Ackerman punches up the script. In late 2004, Harry Connick Jr. agrees to star. The Roundabout picks it up and signs co-star Kelli O’Hara, fresh from The Light in the Piazza. And in a turn that’s likely to one-up Patti LuPone’s fine tuba work in Sweeney Todd, Connick will play the piano.

How ‘The Pajama Game’ Went From Broadway to Drama […]