The production is directed by Mark Bramble, who co-wrote the original production with the late Michael Stewart, and the show has been made bigger and better with Champion's routines added to by choreographer Randy Skinner. Oddly enough, the book has been the last thing to be revised so is still as thin as ever - 42nd STREET is definitely the last musical to go to if you want 3-dimensional characters -and the book literally jumps from song to song like a tapping mountain goat.
But the show knows it's strengths and the songs - and the thrilling dance routines that accompany them - just keep on coming. The Harry Warren and Al Dubin songs might not be the best songs of the 1930s but boy, they have tunes and Bramble has inserted three extra ones into the original score - remarkable to think that the original 1933 musical film only had five songs!
From the famous opening moments - when the curtain rises and pauses so you can focus on the ensemble's furious tapping feet - the show just picks you up and whirls you through it's classic backstage tale of Broadway director Julian Marsh, desperate for a hit to put him back on top, having to rely on untried chorus girl Peggy Sawyer to take over the lead role when his temperamental star Dorothy Brock breaks her ankle.
The show's genesis is now Broadway legend: producer David Merrick, trying to reclaim his King of Broadway crown, decided on produce 42nd STREET that was adapted by Bramble - his ex-office boy - and Stewart. Michael Stewart had written the lacklustre book for MACK AND MABEL which Merrick produced and Gower Champion directed. The show flopped and Champion swore he would never work with Merrick again. But six years later, and with two more flops to his name, Champion agreed to work on 42nd STREET but again producer and director clashed during pre-production. Aware that word was reaching New York that the production had problems in it's tryout in Washington, the paranoid Merrick cancelled all the Broadway previews to stop the press sneaking in but insisted the actors still perform to the empty auditorium. One of them even suggested that they all bring in any cuddly toys they had one night and played the show to them sitting in the front rows!
The non-previews also covered up the sudden absence of Champion, but he was in hospital having succumbed to a blood disease that he had been fighting. Opening night finally arrived and Merrick had to let the press and public in - but that morning, Gower Champion died. Merrick only told a couple of people and, after acknowledging the standing ovation at the end of the show, announced to the stunned cast and audience that Champion had died. The next morning 42nd STREET was front-page news and Merrick had his hit. There is still conjecture that he made the announcement this way knowing it would make any bad reviews redundant.
It's a show where the ensemble is the real star - the leads are played pleasantly enough but some of the supporting performances are pitched so high as to be like fingernails on a blackboard. Sheena Easton - Sheena Easton!! - can never be accused of being an actress but she sang well enough - it's not her fault that she does not have the pure star heft of the late and great Georgia Brown. Tom Lister as Julian Marsh was a surprise as I felt he had a real presence on stage, but the one who dazzled - as she should - was Clare Halse as Peggy Sawyer.
Halse twirled, whirled and fired off machine-gun tapping riffs and, in particular, in two interpolated numbers - WITH PLENTY OF MONEY AND YOU and an extended finale with just her and the chorus - she resembled a young Debbie Reynolds. Julian Marsh famously sends Peggy out on the opening night of PRETTY LADY with the phrase "You are going out there a youngster but you've got to come back a star" - suffice to say, Halse is one now!
Oddly enough, what stuck me with this version is the desperation behind it all, Marsh faces a bleak future with no hit shows, Peggy has only her no-hope existence in Allentown if she fails, the dancers all face the breadline and the score is peppered with songs like WE'RE IN THE MONEY, WITH PLENTY OF MONEY AND YOU and THERE'S A SUNNY SIDE TO EVERY SITUATION (the pithy lyrics are courtesy of Johnny Mercer) which make light of the lack of money. It's odd that I never really noticed it in the 1980s.
As I said I was in two minds about seeing 42nd STREET but I'm glad I did, there is really no other show like it at the moment which is so resoundingly optimistic about the joy that a Broadway musical can bring and puts all that money on the stage. Randy Skinner's additional choreography really works, fleshing out the title number with the ensemble thundering down a huge staircase - a reference to the original staging of "Lullaby of Broadway" in the film GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 - and the joyous extended finale danced by Clare Halse and the chorus.
Oh and on the subject of money...
Here is the reverse of the 42nd STREET flyer that I picked up at that preview all those years ago - bear in mind Owen's £35 Grand Circle tickets was upgraded to Royal Circle seats that ordinarily would have cost £125...
I guess it was 33 years ago...