It is New York City in the Swinging Sixties.
As the last bold, brass chords of the overture die away, a spotlight picks out a girl with a shoulder bag and a heart tattooed on her left arm. Charity Hope Valentine is meeting her boyfriend in the park (“Charity’s Theme”). While she tells him how great he’s looking (“You Should See Yourself”), the silent Charlie preens himself. Then he grabs her bag, pushes her into the lake (usually the orchestra pit) and runs off. The passers-by discuss the apparent drowning but do nothing, until a young Spaniard finally hauls Charity out and the police arrive, asking questions.
An electric sign lights up, announcing ‘The Fandango Ballroom’, where Charity works as a taxi dancer. In the Hostess Room, Charity explains to the sceptical girls how Charlie tried to save her – ‘He made a grab for me but all he got was my handbag.’ The manager, Herman, arrives to tell them it’s time for work.
A railing rises across the front of the stage, and we are in the seedy Ballroom. The girls drape themselves over the rail and proposition the audience (“Big Spender”.) Helene and Nickie try to comfort Charity about Charlie’s absence (“Charity’s Soliloquy“).
On a New York Street, after work, Charity gives to every beggar who approaches her until she realises, she has no money left. Just then, film star Vittorio Vidal rushes out of the smart Pompeii Club, in pursuit of his beautiful mistress, Ursula. He bowls Charity over in more ways than one. Ursula refuses to go back inside with Vittorio, who promptly takes the only-too-willing Charity instead.
Inside the Pompeii Club, the dancers are dancing the latest craze – “The Rich Man’s Frug”. To everyone’s astonishment, Charity sits down with the famous Vittorio Vidal. She tries to steer him away from the subject of Ursula and, finally, he wants to dance. Not having eaten since breakfast, Charity faints. There is general agreement amongst the dancers that she needs to be ‘laid down’. ‘But where?’ asks Vittorio. Charity opens her eyes, ‘Your apartment?’
Lying down on Vittorio’s bed, Charity suddenly isn’t hungry any more. She admits she’s a dance hall hostess, putting it down to ‘the fickle finger of fate’ – a favourite expression of her’s. Vittorio is struck by her humour and honesty. Totally starstruck, Charity asks for a signed photograph to prove to the girls she was really in his apartment. While Vittorio fetches props from his old movies for further evidence, Charity sings excitedly one of the show-stopping numbers, “If My Friends Could See Me Now“. Then Ursula arrives to apologise for her jealousy. Charity is swiftly bundled into a wardrobe before Vittorio opens the door to his fiancée (“Too Many Tomorrows“).
The scene switches to farce. Vittorio sings romantically to Ursula while passing a beer to the wardrobe-hidden Charity. Puffing a cigarette, she watches through the keyhole as Vittorio and Ursula make love. ‘Gee,’ says Charity, impressed, ‘… talk about your foreign movies!’
In the Hostess Room of the Fandango Ballroom, the following night, the girls are disgusted that Charity didn’t get more out of Vittorio. Nickie says she’s not going to stick this crummy job for the rest of her life but Herman brings them back to down to earth (“There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This“).
An electric light announces Charity’s ‘Big Decision’. She’s going to get some culture from the YMCA on 92nd Street.
At the Y, Charity gets stuck in the lift with shy, panicky tax accountant, Oscar Lindquist. While trying to calm him down, Charity finds out he isn’t married. ‘Oh, Oscar,’ she declares. ‘You’re gonna be all right.’ (“I’m the Bravest Individual“). The lights go out and Act One ends with them yelling for help.
Act Two finds them still in the elevator, but not for long. Finally released, Oscar invites Charity to go to church with him. It turns out to be The Rhythm Of Life Church, a hippie culture which is holding its unorthodox meeting in an underground car park (“The Rhythm of Life“).
A police raid breaks up the meeting. Afterwards, Oscar proposes another date. On the subway home, he tries to guess Charity’s job – it’s in a bank. Unlike with Vittorio, Charity lies: ‘You guessed it. First National City, Williamsburg Branch.’ As they part, another sign lights up ‘The First Kiss’. Oscar kisses her hand, and dubs her ‘Sweet Charity’ (“Sweet Charity“).
Two weeks later, Oscar and Charity are still seeing each other and she still hasn’t told him what she actually does for a living. Out at Coney Island Amusement Park they get trapped again – this time on the parachute jump. But now he is the calm one and she is scared – scared that she is starting to depend on him. Once again, Charity loses her nerve about telling him what her real job is. It’s far too pleasant just listening to Oscar, who has turned manly and protective since meeting her. As the crowd look on, the couple kiss.
On a slow night at the Fandango Ballroom, Charity is beaten to one of the few customers by a new girl. Finally disgusted by the whole business, she quits. But on Times Square she wonders what the alternative is (“Where Am I Going?”).
At Barney’s Chile Hacienda, Charity meets Oscar to have it out. She admits that she’s a dance hall hostess. But he knows. He followed her one night and watched for an hour. He doesn’t care and wants to marry her. Charity leaves on cloud nine and packs a suitcase on which is printed ‘Almost Married’ (“I’m A Brass Band“).
After a farewell party at the Fandango Ballroom (“I Love to Cry at Weddings“), Charity and Oscar walk in the park when Oscar drops the bombshell. He can’t marry her. He’s been thinking about the men before him. ‘Marry me and I’ll destroy you, Charity,’ he says. ‘That’s okay,’ says Charity, ‘I’m not doing much now, anyway.’ Urging her to run away, Oscar pushes her into the lake. Then he leaves.
Charity emerges. ‘Did you ever have one of those days?’ she asks the audience. But at least she still has her bag. She is just thinking that maybe things are looking up when, right on cue, the Good Fairy appears. ‘Dreams will come true tonight!’ she promises, scattering stardust. She turns to go. On her back is a sign saying: ‘Watch “The Good Fairy” Tonight … 8 o’clock … CBS.’ Charity shrugs, and begins to dance, alone again as at the start (“Finale”). Three fluorescent signs appear in turn, reading: ‘And So She Lived’ … ‘Hopefully’ … ‘Ever After’.