In 1905, small-town physician Joseph Taylor and his wife Marjorie
celebrate the birth of their son (“Joseph Taylor, Jr.”). As Dr. Taylor
returns to work, he imagines his son Joe growing up to become a doctor
like himself. Grandma, sitting with baby Joe, anticipates the joy of
watching another baby boy grow into a man (“I Know It Can Happen
Baby Joe has all of his first sensory experiences: eating, playing with a
rattle, creating a distinction between his mother and father, seeing
his father leave with his bag every day as his mother kisses him
goodbye. Grandma notices Joe standing up by himself for the first time
and excitedly calls Marjorie over to witness the boy’s new conquest.
Together, they watch Joe take his first steps, and celebrate his
momentous accomplishment (“One Foot, Other Foot”).
A dance sequence takes Joe Jr. through his childhood, including an
introduction to Jennie Brinker, a businessman’s daughter and friend of
the Taylors, who loses her nerve when trying to emulate feats of the
tomboy girls. At the end of the dance, the children say good night to
one another. When Joe’s grandmother dies, Jennie keeps Joe company at
home instead of going out to play.
Years pass (“Winters Go By”), and Joe is now in high school and dating
Jennie. Bewildered and nervous about interacting with the opposite sex,
Joe cannot find the confidence to kiss her (“Poor Joe”). Now 17, Joe is
college-bound and hoping to become a doctor like his father. Just before
he leaves, he listens to his parents from his bedroom, dreaming about
what he’ll become and the girl he will marry (“A Fellow Needs A Girl”).
At college, Joe attends the Freshman Get Together dance in the gym
(“Freshman Dance”). While others around him seem to thrive, Joe, in awe
of college life on campus, remains a bit of a loner (“Darn Nice
Campus”). At a pep rally, the students sing “The Football Song.” Joe
embarrasses himself by noticeably falling behind on the customary
call-and-response portion of the song (“Wildcats”) and leaves disgraced.
Later that day, the freshman star of the varsity football team, Charlie
Townsend, approaches Joe, noticing they share a lot of the same classes
and are both on the pre-medical track. Charlie asks if he could borrow
Joe’s notes and invites him to his fraternity house, leaving Joe elated.
Jennie reads a letter from Joe to her friend, Hazel (Reprise: “A Darn
Nice Campus”). Jennie and her father, Ned Brinker, are both concerned
over how long it’ll take Joe to become a doctor after school, and Hazel
pities Jennie for courting a boy whose mother has such an influence on
As Charlie, now Joe’s roommate, makes his way out for a date, Joe
declines to join so he may focus on homework. He thinks only of Jennie
back home, the only girl he’s ever dated. Charlie leaves after telling
Joe to leave the homework out for him to copy.
As time goes on at school, Joe balances Chemistry, English, Biology,
Philosophy and Greek, all while maintaining letters from Jennie, who
continues updating him on other couples their age who are already
married and having children in their new homes. She goes to Europe with
her father and meets a new man named Bertram. As their relationship
progresses, Joe decides it’s time to “break loose” from Jennie and asks
Charlie to set him up with his girlfriend’s sister, Beulah.
After a double date with Charlie and his girlfriend Molly, Joe and
Beulah find themselves alone together. Beulah is charmed by Joe’s soft
and romantic qualities, and the two get to know each other (“So Far”).
When they start to kiss, Joe can’t stop thinking about Jennie. He
eventually falls asleep in the middle of their date, offending Beulah.
The next day, Joe receives a letter from Jennie explaining that she’s
through with Bertram and will be home in July waiting for Joe to return.
Eager for the passing of May and June, Joe is determined to focus again
on marrying Jennie. When they reunite, Joe confesses he’s never stopped
thinking about her (“You Are Never Away”). But when Joe begins to talk
about his passion for helping sick patients get better, Jennie seems
disappointed by the prospect of waiting for Joe to become a doctor. Joe
says they could marry before then, but Jennie mentions a high-paying job
her father has at his growing coal and lumber business. Joe must make
up his own mind (Reprise: “Poor Joe”).
Over lemonades, Mr. Brinker hints that Joe might have higher ambitions
than supporting his father’s dream of running a small hospital. Marjorie
and Jennie have conflicting views over what they want for Joe, leaving
Marjorie thinking Jennie is the wrong girl for him. Then, Marjorie
suffers a fatal heart attack. Despite both families disapproving, Joe
and Jennie get married (“What A Lovely Day for a Wedding”), and the
unhappy ghosts of Joe’s grandmother and mother bear witness (“Wish Them
In the Great Depression, Mr. Brinker’s business has failed, and he is
living with Jennie and Joe, who makes a bare living as assistant to his
father. Jennie is hanging their laundry, unhappy as a poverty-stricken
housewife (“Money Isn’t Everything”). When she learns that Joe turned
down a high-paying job as a partner to Charlie’s uncle, a successful
Chicago physician named Bigby Denby, Jennie rages at him. Eventually
changing her strategy, she convinces Joe to take the job under the
notion that it could help pay for his father’s hospital and allow them
raise a child (Reprise: “Poor Joe”).
Though sad to leave his father’s practice, Joe accepts the job working
with Bigby Denby in Chicago. In planning his exit from the family
business, Joe shares compassionate details for continuing care of his
patients with his father. Just before Joe leaves, the voice of his
mother tells him to stay if his heart is so heavy, and the voice of
Charlie tells him people would think he’s nuts for not going. He
explains to his father that he’s taking the job for Jennie, and leaves.
In Chicago, Joe finds himself catering to an unfamiliar class of
cosmopolitan hypochondriacs (“Yatata, Yatata, Yatata”). Pressured to
keep the practice’s high-earning client list happy, Joe must attend
parties and participate in their social lives, which leaves less time
for caring for the patients who actually might need it. In her new role
as socialite wife, Jennie enjoys keeping Joe in line for all his
engagements. Due to these distractions, Joe becomes careless, and his
nurse, Emily, catches a significant mistake (“The Gentleman is a Dope”).
In a meeting, Dr. Denby congratulates Joe on the mark he’s made on the
practice so far, both medically and socially. When an important hospital
trustee, Mr. Lansdale, demands the quashing of a nurse’s labor protest,
Denby instructs Emily to fire the oldest nurse who’s worked at the
hospital for 30 years. Joe, Emily and Charlie commiserate with each
other about the exhaustingly dizzy pace one must maintain to work among
the Chicago metropolitan elite (“Allegro”).
Over time, Joe becomes increasingly disillusioned by his job in the big
city and thinks often about his patients back home who, to him, are more
worthy of a doctor’s time and knowledge. He learns Jennie is having an
affair and realizes that he stopped loving her long ago, but was too
distracted to see it. As Joe takes in this development, his mother and a
chorus of his friends from home make an appeal for him to return (“Come
Joe is off to the position of Physician-in-Chief at the Chicago
hospital, replacing Denby, who is being “kicked upstairs.” At the
dedication of a new pavilion at the hospital, Joe publicly declines the
position, deciding instead to return to his small hometown to work with
his father. Accompanied by Emily and Charlie, Joe sets off, leaving
Jennie in Chicago (Finale: “One Foot, Other Foot”).