Way back in 1932, Depression-weary moviegoers had overdosed on a lethal cocktail of mindless musicals that existed for no reason other than to take advantage of the relatively recent arrival of sound. By 1933 most Hollywood studios imposed a moratorium on the genre, ruthlessly excising all or most of the songs from those still in production. At Warner Bros., head honcho Daryl F. Zanuck was persuaded to have one last crack at a musical. The result was 42nd Street.
The film was a humongous hit and overnight revolutionised the movie musical, bringing it back into vogue. There is nothing revolutionary, however, about the 1980 stage version adapted by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble from Bradford Ropes’ novel and (uncredited in the programme) the screenplay by Rian James and James Seymour.
With an augmented score by the great (and under-appreciated) Harry Warren and a clutch of politically incorrect lyrics by Al Dubin, the spirit of the film’s original choreographer – the legendary Busby Berkeley, also not credited in the programme – looms large in this absolutely sensational revival. This is vintage Broadway glitz and pizzazz on a scale rarely encountered in today’s more probing content-driven musicals – and for lovers of unfashionable tap, a guilty pleasure from the moment Drury Lane’s imposing red velvet curtain rises until it falls to deservedly frenzied applause.
The backstage story could not be more familiar and is dispensed with on the back of a postcard: Unknown chorus girl Peggy Sawyer lands the leading role in a new Broadway musical called Pretty Lady when the show’s leading lady, Dorothy Brock, sprains her ankle. Peggy famously goes out a “youngster” and comes back “a star.” Top-billed Sheena Easton, still in commanding voice, is the impossibly demanding diva Brock, and Claire Halse the fleet-footed ingenue who nimbly taps her way from obscurity to fame.
Helping Peggy in her quest for stardom is Julian Marsh, Pretty Lady’s long-suffering director, excellently played and sung by Tom Lister, along with the show’s smitten tenor Billy (Stuart Neal) and an ensemble of supportive chorus boys and girls, notably Emma Caffrey as Anna and Billie Kay as Diane. There’s also terrific support from the hearty Jasna Ivir and Christopher Howell as the show’s composers.
Of course you’ve seen it all before. But as directed by Mark Bramble with such non-stop unalloyed panache and energetically choreographed by Randy Skinner with good old-fashioned Broadway know-how, this is one musical that could have danced all night – and does.
Apart from the mood-setting opening number, particularly eye-catching is "Stay Young and Beautiful," in which the inventive use of an overhanging mirror helps recreate one of those kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley images that became his trademark. "We’re in the Money" – one of the most endemic of all Depression songs – is another show-stopper, as is the sumptuous finale (to the tune of "42nd Street") in which the full chorus, glitteringly costumed by Karen Short, walk down a Ziegfeld-like staircase festooned with golden light bulbs.
All the sets by Douglas W. Schmidt are an extravagant eyeful. Clearly no expense (or talent) has been spared in the mounting of this rapturous, blissful monument to the golden age of both the Hollywood and the Broadway musical. It deserves to run forever.