BWW Preview: 42ND STREET at Broadway Theater League
Coming to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts from the Broadway Theater League is the penultimate American backstage musical, "42nd Street." The time is 1933 in the depths of the "Great Depression." America needs cheering up. Hollywood responded with Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell in Busby Berkeley's filmed valentine to Broadway, the tap dancing extravaganza "42nd Street."
Forty-eight years passed and David Merrick made an expensive bet. He ordered a full retooling of "42nd Street" and a transition from film to stage. He hired the legendary director and choreographer Gower Champion. Broadway legends Tammy Grimes and Jerry Orbach starred as the featured actors. Wanda Richert and Lee Roy Reams became Peggy and Billy, the romantic leads. At this point, a movie has yet to make a successful transition to stage.
The story of "42nd Street" is a stage cliché. Because its tongue is so firmly planted in its cheek, audiences love experiencing this show. "42nd Street" is big, brassy, and festooned with over the top tap dances. "42nd Street" audiences smiled so broadly, it spawned an entire catalog of musicals based on the same premise. The best example is the hilarious tiny musical "Dames At Sea."
Peggy Sawyer arrives in New York City literally just off the bus (suitcase in hand) from Allentown PA. She is determined to become a Broadway star. Working actor Billy Lawlor is immediately smitten with Peggy. Billy promises to help Peggy get an audition for "Pretty Lady," the play that Billy is now rehearsing. The star of "Pretty Lady" Dorothy Brock, a fading prima dona name on a marquee, past her prime, and currently involved with the show's producer.
On the strength of her dancing, Peggy is hired into the "Pretty Lady" chorus, but loses her job after an accidental tripping incident with the star. Peggy is crushed and decides to return to Allentown in defeat.
Dorothy has fallen and broken an ankle. The show can't go on and the company faces unemployment. "Pretty Lady" chorus members convince director Julian Marsh that Peggy is the only choice to replace Dorothy.
Julian rushes to the bus station and convinces her to relent and star in the show with a huge production number "Lullaby of Broadway." Peggy has only two days to learn the lead part. She struggles. On opening night, Billy encourages Peggy to success with a line so iconic it ranks up there with "Houston, we have a problem." "You're going on there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star," he says.
The score, mainly by Al Dublin and Harry Warren, includes classics like "You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me," "We're In The Money," "I Only Have Eyes To You," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," Shuffle Off To Buffalo," and "42nd Street."
Sadly, but appropriately, the excellent Gower Champion is ill. He dies of a blood cancer on the morning prior to opening night in New York. Producer David Merrick keeps the news of Champion's death private. The cast does not know. Merrick makes the announcement after the final curtain call. Everyone in the theater is stunned.
As a part of ethos of the Broadway fable it is, the sad death of director Champion somehow extends the story. Four years later, The London company loses its leading lady to illness only to be replaced by teenage chorus member Catherine Zeta Jones. "42nd Street" is her big stage break.
"42nd Street" ran north of 3486 performances before closing at the Majestic Theater to make room for "Phantom of the Opera" which continues to play there. There have been numerous Broadway, London, and traveling revivals.
This particular production is coming to the end of a six month tour from Troika Entertainment. Mathew Taylor stars as Julian Marsh with Kara Gibson Slocum at Dorothy Brock. The young lovers are played by Clara Cox as Peggy and Connor Coughlin as Billy.
42nd Street plays at the Kauffman Center beginning on May 2 and continues through May 7. "42nd Street" is one of those shows you attend for just plain fun. Tickets are available through the Broadway Theater League on line or by telephone at 816.421.7500
Photo courtesy of Big League productions and photographer Chris Bennion.