JOEY is a master of ceremonies in a dingy night-club in Chicago's South Side. He is hard-boiled, cynical, double-dealing, but also a fellow of considerable charm. He meets lovely Linda outside a pet shop and proceeds at once to reveal to her that she might prove an inspiration to him ("I Could Write a Book"). He invited Linda to his night-club where he impresses her with his songs and entertainment. Another guest that evening is Vera Simpson of the Chicago Social Register. She is considerably taken with Joey and invites him to her table. There Joey proves so brash and impudent that Vera leaves the night-club agitatedly; but Joey, with is usual self-confidence, is certain she will be back. He is, of course, right. Nobody has had the nerve to treat Vera the way Joey did, and for this reason Vera is fascinated by him. She fits him out with handsome clothes and is ready to pamper and pet him because, as she confesses freely, she has gone wild over him ("Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"). Vera proves excessively generous. She sets him up in a magnificent apartment ("In Our Little Den of Iniquity"), then buys him a night-club of his own, the Chez Joey.
After the club has opened and has become a success, Linda visits Vera to warn her of a plot she had overheard. An agent and singer at the club plan to blackmail her: to reveal to Vera's husband her affair with Joey if she is not ready to pay a handsome price for their silence. Vera asks Linda if she has come to her with this warning out of her interest in Joey. Linda shrugs her shoulders and insists she has no use for the cad ("Take Him"). When one of the blackmailers arrives for his money he finds that Vera has summoned the police, and makes a hasty and undignified retreat. At this point Vera informs Joey she has grown tired of him and sends him on his way. Having lost not only Vera but also Linda, Joey decides sadly to leave town for good.
Pal Joey was a forceful and uncompromising presentation of unpleasant characters and situations; and it offered a seamy side of life in a disreputable neighborhood. This was strong medicine for American theatre audiences in 1940, so long accustomed to only sweetness and light in their musicals. They rejected it. "How can you draw sweet water from a foul well?" inquired the critic Brooks Atkinson, reflecting the general reaction to this unusual production. But when Pal Joey was revived on Broadway in 1952 it found both critics and audiences more ready to accept an unorthodox musical that avoided the hackneyed and was willing to treat its audiences as adults. Richard Watts, Jr., and Robert Coleman both described the musical as a masterwork. Pal Joey then achieved the longest run of any revival of a musical in the history of the Broadway theatre at that time. In addition, it received the New York Drama Critics Award as the best musical of the season and became the first musical ever to gather as many as eleven Donaldson Awards.
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