‘42nd Street’: A classic taps its way into your heart
By Jim Lowe
“42nd Street,” the ultimate insider feel-good song-and-dance musical that opens at Weston Playhouse next week, actually had a somewhat tawdry opening on Broadway in 1980.
“On the day the show opened, (director) Gower Champion died,” explained Tim Fort, who is directing the Weston production.
“David Merrick, who was the big producer at the time and known as the ‘abominable showman,’ didn’t tell the cast,” Fort said. “Then, in the middle of the applause, at the curtain call, Merrick came out and announced that Gower Champion had died.
“This was Merrick’s way of guaranteeing there would be headlines everywhere.”
Weston Playhouse Theatre Company will present “42nd Street” Aug. 1-24, at the Weston Playhouse. And, with the show’s
huge tap dance numbers, the intimate theater promises a unique experience.
“Our proscenium arch is 23 feet wide, which is half the normal for a spectacle like that,” Fort, one of Weston’s three longtime producing artistic directors, said. “The challenge at Weston is to turn that into a virtue. We can therefore bring both the story and the people out in front a little bit better. These dancers have to be very precise. It’s a challenge — but the payback is so rewarding.”
“You’re just a few feet form these kids.”
With book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, lyrics by Al Dubin and music by Harry Warren, “42nd Street” was based on the novel by Bradford Ropes and subsequent 1993 Warner Brothers film. As “Gigi” had been a stage flop in 1974, Merrick took a $3 million chance in turning a hit film into a stage musical.
“I saw it very early in the run — and it was spectacular and beautiful — with lots of tap dancing,” Fort said. “It was based on a movie that had four popular songs in it — and they added eight more. It became an unstoppable hit.”
The plot is a familiar one. Starry–eyed Peggy Sawyer gets off the bus from Allentown, Pa., hoping to find a place in a Broadway chorus. Through a series of adventures and misadventures, she gets the opportunity to replace the show’s star who has broken her foot.
“There’s a famous line in the show and the movie that says it all: ‘You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star,’” Fort said.
“The second story behind all the backstage stuff is that ‘Pygmalion,’ ‘My Fair Lady,’ story,” he said. “The mentor, in this case the stage director, helps the young woman find her voice — but falls in his love with his own creation.”
Fort feels another attraction to this musical is that it takes the audience behind the Broadway curtain.
“That’s as interesting as anything that happens within the narrative itself,” he said. “People like to think they’re inside — it puts them on the inside.”
The show also harkens back to a bygone era of genuineness.
“It’s not sophisticated in a cutting edge way, but it’s sophisticated in what it’s trying to do,” said Larry Pressgrove, the Weston production’s music director. “People want to be cynical about it, but when it opens up with all those people tap dancing, it just makes people smile.”
This applies to the singing style as well.
“There’s no irony in the show,” Pressgrove said. “Every person sings full-out passion. People have to sing out — and we’ve got full-throated singers.”
Tap dancing, of course, is the other element — a huge one.
“There are five or six tap numbers and they’re all part of the storytelling of the show,” Fort said. “That’s very exciting. We happen to have a choreographer (Michael Raine) who teaches tap dancing in New York.”
The cast includes Weston veterans David Bonanno and Susan Haefner, among others, but also one who gives the production a sense of authenticity.
“Dottie Stanley started here in the ’70s with me,” Fort said. “She has since done 18 Broadway shows, including the original 1980s ‘42nd Street’ — and the revival that ran four years.”
“42nd Street” is a song-and-dance extravaganza, but it’s also simple storytelling
“That’s why, rather than just being a successful musical, it’s one of the top 10 musicals,” Fort said. “It has more going for it than great tap dancing and music. It has all the right ingredients.”