…On the avenue I’m taking you to, forty-second street.
I first saw 42nd Street in London’s West End sometime around the mid-1980s. We had a family outing to the “Big City” and caught a Saturday matinée followed by dinner at an Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse (which was pretty much considered the height of dining chic back then).
The original London cast included a certain Miss Catherine Zeta-Jones. In a remarkable case of life imitating art, 17-year-old Catherine was plucked from the chorus to fill in when both the actress playing Peggy Sawyer and her understudy fell ill. Producer David Merrick caught Catherine’s performance and she was soon permanently cast in the role of Peggy. The rest, as they say, is history.
I can’t recall whether or not we actually saw CZJ all those years ago. My abiding memory is the feeling of anticipation as the orchestra struck up, the curtain slowly rose and a long row of tap-dancing feet came into view. With that in mind, I jumped at the chance to get a ticket when the current UK tour of 42nd Street hit Glasgow last week. And I certainly wasn’t disappointed. The new production managed to perfectly recreate my distant memory of the opening moments of the show.
With songs by Harry Warren and Al Durbin and dance routines by Busby Berkeley, 42nd Street started out on celluloid in 1933. Almost 50 years later, David Merrick took the risky step of re-imagining 42nd Street for the stage. His musical – which deftly marries the age-old mantra of “the show must go on” with the fairy tale of “a star is born” – went on to fill seats and win awards on both sides of the pond.
One reason for the continued success of 42nd Street is that it’s literally bursting at the seams with memorable songs: Lullaby of Broadway, Dames, Go into Your Dance, Young and Healthy, Shuffle Off to Buffalo, I Only Have Eyes For You, We’re in the Money, Getting Out of Town, You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me, There’s a Sunny Side to Every Situation. And of course, the eponymous number, which provides the jaw-dropping finale to the show.
The second factor that differentiates 42nd Street from competitors currently doing the rounds of the West End and provincial theatres is its exhilarating celebration of the medium of dance. Good old-fashioned tap dance, to be precise. If you don’t go home and start high-kicking up and down the stairs while wearing an imaginary gold top hat after seeing this show then there must be something wrong with you.
Finally, 42nd Street has very high production values. The costumes are amazing: it’s just like seeing one of those classic black and white Hollywood movies suddenly burst into glorious technicolour. The light bouncing off the massed ranks of sequins during the curtain call was practically blinding.
The UK tour features Jessica Punch (as new girl Peggy Sawyer), Marti Webb (as ageing prima donna Dorothy Brock) and David Willetts (as director Julian Marsh). I’m loathe to single out just one or two performers as everyone in the cast – from chorus girl to headline star – was excellent. But if I must, then Jessica Punch deserves the nod for her all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting performance as the small-town girl turned Broadway star.
It seems fitting that a show born in the misery of the Great Depression has now been revived in these recessionary times. A trip to the theatre may not seem a cheap night out but the chance to escape – if only for a couple of hours – to a more optimistic and glamourous world is surely priceless. At the end of the evening, my friend succinctly summed up the whole 42nd Street experience. As we were making our way out of the theatre, she simply turned to me and exclaimed, “That made me feel so happy!”
For more information about the UK tour: http://www.ukproductions.co.uk/theatre-productions/42nd-street-2012/