42ND STREET COMES TO YOUR STREET by Peter Filichia
You’ve either been enjoying the original cast album of 42nd STREET for a while – or you still have that pleasure in your future.
Whatever the case, you’ll now have a chance to enhance your 42nd STREET experience by catching The Broadway HD broadcast of the recent London revival.
You can stream it (as well as plenty of other Broadway properties) through www.broadwayhd.com. The picture that comes on your screen will be sharper than Sweeney Todd’s razor.
This broadcast’s Dorothy Brock is Bonnie Langford, who was Baby June in the first Broadway remounting of GYPSY. One can surmise or at least imagine that June would have turned into 42nd STREET s diva Dorothy if she’d been allowed to study with Mr. T.T. Grantziger.
Langford gets so many cheers and so much applause after doing “Shadow Waltz” that you might worry that the crowd won’t be happy when she’s injured and unable to perform in PRETTY LADY.
That’s the musical-within-this-musical that Julian Marsh is producing and directing.
Hearing those cheers and applause on the Broadway HD broadcast reminds us of the excitement of live performance. Good as that original cast album is, it can’t and doesn’t give us those vivid full-house reactions. And just as people say that they like to put a name to a face, you’ll be able to put feet to the taps that you’ve only thus far heard.
In a way, seeing the opening of 42nd STREET is like watching A CHORUS LINE after those who’d auditioned had landed the parts and have now started rehearsals. No – that’s not right, for Zach, you may recall, was merely looking for “four boys and four girls.” In the ‘30s, when such a show as PRETTY LADY was produced, choruses were Big. When Julian’s musical looks doomed after Dorothy’s accident, he says the closing will “put half a hundred kids” out of work. Well, looking at this superb broadcast, we can see that he’s not exaggerating by much.
In the summer of 1980, many associated with 42nd STREET thought they would soon be out of work. When 42nd STREET was being readied for Broadway, my, was there trouble out-of-town and a lack of enthusiasm from crowds and critics. Producer David Merrick was so disappointed with the book that Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble had concocted that he wouldn’t even allow them to call it a “book.” He demoted their contributions as “lead-ins and crossovers” in order to suggest that the dialogue was just treading metaphorical water until the next song.
Few would have then predicted that there’d be a substantial Broadway and London run and that there’d be major revivals in both places as well. And if you’re wondering how a show that didn’t seem to be working well for weeks suddenly struck gold, remember that Broadway is peppered with stories of shows that seemed mediocre all through tryouts and previews and yet righted themselves into hits by their opening nights.
What everyone who was around in 1980 and had even a passing interest in 42nd STREET will always remember is what happened after the opening night curtain calls. Following the triumphant reaction from first-nighters, David Merrick took to the stage and said “I’m sorry to report” which got laughter and applause because everyone assumed the notorious stunt-prone Merrick was joking.
Even after he said “No, no – this is tragic” the cast and audience laughed, thinking it was another one of Merrick’s wry jokes – until he added “No, you don’t understand – Gower Champion died this morning.”
Many have wondered if 42nd STREET would have been a smash without the nationwide news attention that the death gave the show. No – the audience had gone crazy for it before Merrick took the stage.
One must wonder how much Merrick identified with Julian Marsh, a producer who hasn’t had a hit in a while. Merrick, once Broadway’s pre-eminent impresario, hadn’t had a true blockbuster since PROMISES, PROMISES – which by 1980 meant nearly a dozen years. No one knew it at the time, but 42nd STREET would run for far many more performances than all nineteen of Merrick’s previous hits, semi-hits and flops from 1968-1980 put together. So all was forgiven with Stewart and Bramble, who again got the “Book by” credit they’d originally had.
A show that features a song called “Getting out of Town” certainly has: 42nd STREET has enjoyed productions in Europe, Asia and Australia.
The broadcast allows us to see visuals that of course can’t be found on the original cast album. “Shadow Waltz” does a great deal of impressive shadow play behind a white scrim. Note the detail of the backstage “No Smoking” sign. Yes, that was a necessity back then.
Best of all, you’ll also see the number that inspired original costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge to come up with one of the greatest ideas that any of her profession has ever dreamed up. A parade of chorus girls emerges from an upstage doorway, one in front of the other, each in either a red, yellow, blue or indigo dress. Not until they line up from stage right to stage left do we realize that there was more to the design that our eyes could take in – for all those reds, yellows, blues and indigos are in different shades, from light to dark, giving us a graded spectrum across the stage. Here’s something else you don’t get on the cast album.
That comes in the production set to the spritely tune “Dames” which had lyricist Al Dubin decree “Who wrote the words and music for all the girly shows? No one cares and no one knows.” He was undoubtedly writing from experience, and as time went on, he was unfortunately right. By the time 42nd STREET opened, Dubin had been dead for thirty-five years, dying in 1945 at a mere fifty-three 53.
Composer Harry Warren, though, was around for the opening of 42nd STREET (although he died only thirteen months later). He was born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna and you have every right to assume that Sal changed his surname to Warren when he started in the music business. Surprise! His father Antonio had engineered the name –change not long after he’d arrived in Ellis Island.
(Perhaps Warren’s Italian background helped him to write “That’s Amore.”)
And when the rock era left behind so many songwriters of yore, Warren found himself remembered in the ‘50s via The Flamingos cover version of “I Only Have Eyes for You.” It got even Rolling Stone magazine to put it in 157th place as one of the greatest songs of all time. That may be one of the reasons why it has been interpolated into revivals of 42nd STREET – including this one.
Warren was well represented in the Swinging ‘60s, too. Chris Montez introduced “The More I See You (the More I Want You”) to a new generation.
And while Warren didn’t have a surprise retro hit in the 1970s, the 1980s made up for it, with 42nd STREET running on Broadway for almost the entire decade.
When it opened, the top ticket price (via Liza Minnelli’s THE ACT) was $25, which had stayed in place for nearly three years. Once 42nd STREET ’s raves came in rolling in from every side, Merrick upped the best seats to $30 – and not long after, $35. 42nd STREET was the first show to raise prices twice during the early days of its run; until then, only a new incoming show dared to raise the established price that everyone was getting.
The show’s most famous production number “We’re in the Money” –which the Broadway HD broadcast will show you has everyone dancing on oversized dimes – must have been one that Merrick hummed on his numerous trips to the bank. Many assume that HELLO, DOLLY! – with no fewer than 2,844 performances – was his biggest hit. No – at 3,486 performances, 42nd STREET outran DOLLY by 642 performances – or more than eighty weeks.
Given that the original 42nd STREET had a cast of forty-seven, $35 for what was then a premium seat today feels like a steal. So is Broadway HD at $8.99 a month or, better still, $99.99 a year. Even if you’re not in the money, that’s affordable.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.