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42nd Street: The musical coming back a star

Clare Leach and Michael Howe in the original West End production of 42nd Street at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1984. Photo: Featureflash
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It is probably the most famous line in showbiz. The fearsome Julian Marsh, the abrasive Broadway director, towers over quivering chorine Peggy Sawyer and exhorts her to do her understudy duty now that the leading lady is indisposed.

“You’re going out there a youngster,” commands Marsh. “But you’ve got to come back a star.”

The dialogue comes, of course, from 42nd Street, the 1933 backstage musical that has returned to its ancestral home at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, where it played for several years from 1984. Co-librettist Mark Bramble, who has been associated with the show for more than 30 years, has become the man responsible for recent productions of what has to be the ultimate backstage musical. Bramble’s involvement with 42nd Street began innocently enough with a visit to the cinema.

“Mike [Michael Stewart, co-librettist] and I were working on a musical and not enjoying the experience and quite by chance, we went to see the film of 42nd Street at a cinema in the basement of Carnegie Hall. At the end of the screening, we turned to each other and said that 42nd Street would make a stage musical. So we asked Jerry Herman and he gave me what is the best piece of advice I have ever been given. ‘If you are going to adapt 42nd Street for the stage,’ he said, ‘then you must use the songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.’ ”

The cast of 42nd Street at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
The cast of 42nd Street at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

42nd Street is probably the best-known piece in a cycle of musicals that issued from Warner Bros in the first half of the 1930s. It contains lavish and eye-popping choreo-graphy, courtesy of Busby Berkeley, it has the winsome duo of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler as the resident young lovers, supported by a number of character actors, and a contagious score from composer Warren and lyricist Dubin.

Warners was a studio that had a gritty, streetwise character and it was best-known during the 1930s for the tough guys it featured on its screens, notably James Cagney (Public Enemy) and Edward G Robinson (Little Caesar). Yet at the other end of the spectrum were the escapist fantasy musicals such as 42nd Street, Footlight Parade or the various Gold Diggers films. Designed to give the public some respite from the grinding Depression, they were just as much part of the Warner Bros brand as the Cagney and Robinson gangster chronicles.

“42nd Street was the first in this genre of musicals and I’d argue that it was the grand-daddy of them all,” says Bramble. “The project was always going to focus on 42nd Street, although we have transferred some songs from other Warren and Dubin scores. It is a celebration of the theatre, but even back in 1980, when the show opened on Broadway, it was never about nostalgia. Both in 1980 and now here in London, we are looking at the show through the prism of modernity.

“And theatre can still discover new talent when there are unforeseen circumstances. Look what happened when Catherine Zeta Jones had to go on here at the Theatre Royal in the 1980s. It is still possible to do a Peggy Sawyer.”

Bramble and Stewart’s first task was to track down the holders of the rights to the original source novel, written by Bradford Ropes, a lengthy process involving an appeal for his relatives published in magazines all over the US. Finally a woman in New Mexico came across the advertisement while accompanying her friend on a shopping trip. She called to the second woman. “Bess, isn’t this your cousin?” Bess confirmed it and the job was done.

Jill Gascoine and Catherine Zeta Jones in the Drury Lane production in 1987. Photo: Conrad Blakemore

By now David Merrick, the legendary producer, dubbed ‘the abominable showman’ by Broadway regulars, had entered the story. Bramble had to use his considerable diplomatic skills in reconciling Merrick with Stewart and the production’s director Gower Champion, whose wounds were still smarting after the failure of Merrick’s production of Mack and Mabel six years earlier.

There was a somewhat sticky lunch in Hollywood, but once Merrick had agreed to Stewart’s demands regarding the size of the cast and indeed insisted on a larger contingent of girls than Stewart had initially demanded, then the team was in place.

42nd Street faced further financial problems, however, as Bramble recalls.

“Everybody told us that it wouldn’t work and that there was no appetite for nostalgia. We just couldn’t raise the money. Even the woman who ran Warner Bros’ theatrical division told us not to bother. Eventually David, who had been producing films in Hollywood for the past decade, took the negative of his latest film with Burt Reynolds, the biggest male star at the US box office at the time, to a bank in New York to use as collateral. Now we had $3-5 million, which was a lot of money in the days when most musicals were budgeted at $1 million. Ironically, the Reynolds film flopped.”

In the face of such overwhelming negativity, why were Bramble and his colleagues so convinced that 42nd Street would succeed?

“We were out of town on the pre-Broadway tour in Washington DC,” recalls Bramble. “Washington in July has the steamy heat of a swamp. At the theatre there was no audience, no advance and no interest and David kept cancelling the previews. Eventually he decided that we should put the show on stage and we managed to get an audience of about 300 in a theatre that held 2,000. Then, when the audience heard the overture, they tittered through the first number then they giggled at the second and were laughing at the third.

“We eventually realised that it was not the laughter of scorn but of recognition. Warren and Dubin’s songs had been popular but they had somehow fallen off the radar and the audience was telling us how happy they were to hear those numbers again. We knew we had something and by the fourth or fifth week, we were selling out.”

42nd Street went on to confound the naysayers by scoring on Broadway and in the West End, but even in the team’s hour of triumph, the untimely death of director Champion on the very day of the Broadway opening night cast an understandable pall over proceedings. Reflecting on the state of the world, Bramble is sure that the show will resonate with the public in the way that it cheered them during the dark days of the Depression.

“This show is needed more than ever today, what with Brexit and President Trump,” he argues. “In the story Julian Marsh begins his journey at the bottom of the heap. His last show cleaned him out and he is banking every-thing on Peggy Sawyer and Pretty Lady. It’s a life-affirming tale and if Ruby Keeler can do it then everyone can do it. I also think that the songs in the score are the greatest collection of American songs written in the 20th century. Thank goodness I like the show. I never tire of the music.”

42nd Street runs at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, booking until October 14. 42ndstreetmusical.co.uk

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