Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet - a History of 42nd Street
The hit Broadway and West End musical 42nd Street opens in London's West End this evening on 4th April 2017. Director Mark Bramble and choreographer Randy Skinner both have a long history with the show, and are at the helm of this new West End production. Having co-authored the book for the original Broadway and West End productions and having directed the 2001 Tony Award-winning revival, Mr Bramble is a key ingredient in the recipe of the show's success. 42nd Street is set to delight audiences once again with its timeless tunes, spectacular dance routines and classic rags to riches story.
But how much do you know about this “Lullaby of Broadway?” As one of Broadway's long-running hits the show has only ever been presented twice on the West End, once at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1985 in an original production that starred James Laurenson, Georgia Brown, Clare Leac and Michael Howe, and in 1990 the UK tour launched following a brief run at the Dominion Theatre. This new production will introduce the show to a brand new theatre audience and rekindle the love and unmistakable charm for those who saw the show originally in London.
Billed as a 'song and dance fable', the lead character Julian Marsh puts it best when he describes musical comedy as “the most glorious words in the English Language.” The show brings together a backstage story where the underdog, Peggy Sawyer, steps in for leading lady Dorothy Brock, setting out on the stage as a youngster, and “coming back a star”.
The original Broadway production heralded the triumphant return of producer and impresario David Merrick in what was his 84th production on the Great White Way. Inspired by audiences reactions to revivals of No, No Nanette and Irene which looked back to the old fashioned musical comedies of the 1930s, he gambled the $3million production to cash in on the nostalgia phase which he saw on Broadway. Based on the 1933 Warner Brothers film of the same name, the show wasn't exactly a commercial title, and the musical went some way to being a jukebox show, recycling popular hits from the Dubin-Warren catalogue along with songs from the film. In that respect the show was ahead of its time, but in a season that also saw the opening of Kander and Ebb's Woman of the Year alongside revivals of Brigadoon and Camelot, 42nd Street offered a fresh look at the throwback trend.
42nd Street was by no means a smooth journey to the stage, and after opening for out-of-town try-outs at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C the show was already grossly over budget. The bill for costumes alone were totalling $370,000 with dresses for one number, “Dames”, costing over $50,000. Directed by Merrick's long-time collaborator and Broadway's best, Gower Champion, the two men hit heads over multiple issues within the show, particularly the leading lady Wanda Richert who had become Champion's mistress throughout rehearsals. Their power play came to a head as Champion had Merrick barred from the theatre, and continued to bill as Gower became sick with a virus that kept him away from vital rehearsals, unbeknown to the rest of the company and the press who were already circling the production like vultures.
The show received mixed-to-negative reviews in Washington, something that troubled the overly confident Merrick and kept him from opening the Broadway box office, much to the delight of his competitors. Tongues began to wag that the scenery was having to be rebuilt for the stage of the Winter Garden, costing even more money and delaying the opening further. Despite not being a hit with the critics, the Washington run set new box office records and delighted audiences taking in over $1million throughout its five week limited run.
Champion continued to rehearse and make changes to the show despite being diagnosed with a rare blood disease that meant his general health was deteriorating rapidly. He confessed his condition to Merrick and the pair decided to keep it a secret from the cast, company and more importantly for Merrick, the press.
On 12 August Merrick sent 400 tickets to the TKTS booth to fill the theatre for the first preview without fanfare in an attempt to get around the New York Times and the press who had slighted Merrick. Just as the selected audience was assembled, Merrick pulled the preview after spotting some undesirable reporters amongst the crowd. The cast, who meanwhile were getting restless at performing to no one, found themselves delivering a preview on August 13 to a row of stuffed animals. The Merrick machine was in overdrive.
The box office finally opened on 15 August, ten days before the official opening night, billed as an “All singing all dancing extravaganza with a cast of 54 (some younger)”. Merrick requested that on the opening night that the press remained in their seats rather than scurrying up the aisle to file overnight reviews, and invited camera crew to film the final curtain calls of the evening. Curiosity in the show had built to an unprecedented level, and many of the press didn't notice that director Champion was not present at the opening. As the curtain raised ankle level to display the rows of tap dancing feet fiercely moving in formation, audiences were won over, and the show was proving to be a usual Merrick style production.
With opening night under way, Merrick sat in the orchestra stalls knowing that he was one of few people who knew that Gower Champion had died a few days earlier. Having persuaded the family and the hospital to delay the release of the news, Merrick was planing one of his greatest press stunts to date. At the end of the show when the audience was on its feet and the press and cameras where whirling Merrick came onto the stage of the Winter Garden at the eleventh curtain call and announced to the cast, crew and audiences that Gower Champion had died earlier that morning. In total shock, he crossed the stage to embrace Wanda Richert, all in full view of the New York media.
Many in the cast were disgusted by his behaviour, which once it unravelled was confirmed as being a marketing move to overshadow what Merrick anticipated to be bad notices. The show made front page headlines, and after opening on 25 August 1980, ran for almost a decade to 8 January 1989, having moved theatres twice, to the Majestic and finally the St James. As the show moved to make way for Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, Broadway had changed significantly in both style and substance. As a new musical, it's interesting to put into context alongside shows that would open in the following season, namely Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, which shuttered after only 16 performances, Michael Bennett's original production of Dreamgirls and Tommy Tune's iconic staging of Nine – all musicals that are held up as defining moments in the development of the form. By contrast, Merrick's 42nd Street threw everything at the audience including dazzling sets, a cast of 54 performers and an opulent production that went on to run for 3,486 performances and 6 previews.
The original London production of 42nd Street opened at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 8 August 1984 where it ran to 1989, closing to make way for Miss Saigon in a similar situation as the Broadway production as a new age of musical theatre was born with Brit-Opera and the mega-musicals. The production was famed as introducing a young Catherine Zeta-Jones to audiences, who was the second understudy for Peggy Sawyer in 1987. In a truly ironic turn of events, Zeta-Jones found herself taking on the role full time, having impressed producers just like her plucky character. The musical won both the Evening Standard Award and Olivier Award for Best New Musical.
A Broadway revival opened on 2 May 2001 at the Foxwoods Theatre directed by Mark Bramble and choreographed by Randy Skinner following a successful run in Holland. The production featured new material and a fresh approach to the songs, bringing musical comedy back to New York where it sat in a season alongside the original production of The Producers as well as new shows such as The Lion King. It won the Tony Award for Best Revival, as well as a performance award for star Christine Ebersole and ran for 1524 performances.
42nd Street is, for many reasons, a true “lullaby of Broadway”. London audiences can look forward to seeing a spectacular new production back in the West End, offering escapism and classic musical comedy. Speaking at the opening of the original production of the show, actress Ruby Keeler summed up why the musical was so successful by saying “the little girl goes on and makes good. Everybody's waiting for that chance, whether it's on the stage or in the office. I think that's life.”
Theatre Royal Drury Lane