“YOU’RE going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”
With these words from a director to a quivering chorus girl, just before she is thrust into the lead role in a major Broadway production, 42nd Street ensured its place in musical history and spawned a string of imitators.
Most people’s first experience of the show was probably the memorable 1933 movie. With its songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, snappy dialogue, and dazzling Busby Berkeley production numbers, the film is a classic of its kind and a tough act for any stage version to follow.
The writers, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble (who also directs), tackle it by expanding the story considerably and adding more songs, such as I Only Have Eyes For You and Lullaby of Broadway.
As a show about putting on a show, audiences effectively get a “buy one, get one free” deal. The first half tells the story of wide-eyed ingenue Peggy Sawyer (Jessica Punch), who arrives in New York from the sticks and gets a part in the chorus line of a new musical being directed by the legendary Julian Marsh (Dave Willetts).
While 42nd Street deservedly has a reputation as one of the finest feel-good musicals, it doesn’t gloss over the hard graft involved in staging a major Broadway show in times of economic hardship.
The director, driven by the need to make the show a success to recoup the financial losses he suffered in the Wall Street crash, is constantly on edge as he tries to lick his cast into shape by a mixture of bullying, threats, and cajolery.
He also has to deal with a temperamental leading lady, Dorothy Brock (Marti Webb), her “sugar daddy” Abner Dillon (Bruce Montague), who is financing the production, and the fact that Brock is two-timing Abner behind his back with her former vaudeville partner Pat Denning (Stephen Weller).
With all this on his plate, it is not surprising Marsh is a twitchy nervous wreck. But it’s about to get much, much worse. His leading lady breaks her ankle just before the show’s opening night! It is this which provides the famous fairy-tale ending of Peggy Sawyer’s elevation from chorus line to star.
The cast perform the song-and-dance routines with great charm and enthusiasm, especially the show-stopping 42nd Street number itself.
The art deco sets emphasise the 1930s setting, a time when putting on a show had as much to do with economic survival as artistic pride.
Perhaps the biggest compliment one can give is that it was a show of which Julian Marsh himself – “the world’s greatest musical comedy director” and ultimate hard taskmaster – would have been proud.