One of the most famous opening images in Broadway musical history will get cheers and applause May 2, when the curtain slowly rises a foot or two to reveal an army of 37 hoofers tapping and stamping their feet in 42nd Street at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts on Broadway.
The curtain ascends to reveal the entire stage picture, of course, but the striking first image — a Broadway chorus audition in 1933 — reveals everything that's to come in the backstage musical: Sweat, drive, hard work, enthusiasm, rhythm and precision. In short, "those dancing feet."
The new revival, directed by the show's co-librettist, Mark Bramble, began previews April 4 at the Ford Center, which has entrances on both 42nd Street and 43rd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. The May 2 opening marks the final day of eligibility for the 2001 Tony Awards and thus is the end of the 2000-2001 Broadway season.
Fans of the smash musical, 42nd Street, can rest easy that director Mark Bramble is not tearing up and repaving the 1980 musical comedy in a way that will make the upcoming Broadway revival dark, brooding or conceptual. It has been rethought, and slightly revised, however. Choreographer Randy Skinner said about two-thirds of the choreography is all new, and there is a tap-dance curtain call finale. The title number has a number of surprises as well, including the use of a massive lighted stairway that gives height and drama to the precision hoofing.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the new staging is the use of a massive, tilted mirror that descends (during the "Keep Young and Beautiful"/"Dames" sequence) to show an overhead view of the chorus girls engaged in the sort of precision floor ballet that Busby Berkeley made famous in his old Warner Bros. films. Bramble told Playbill On-Line the show has always been "a true valentine to musical comedy," and it can't support the sort of dark vision of, say, Cabaret or Chicago. "We're not making it dark," Bramble said. "The film is a melodrama, and the novel is darker yet. In fact, it will be more colorful."
Still, Skinner notes, the show offers more flesh than in the past — designer Roger Kirk has two-piece costumes for the girls in the "We're in the Money" sequence, for example.
Bramble co-wrote the book with Michael Stewart (who died in 1987) and directed the London premiere. He also staged a reconceived version in Holland in 2000. That show was the template for this production, though there are new bells and whistles for this staging. The Holland producer Joop van den Ende is one of the producers of the New York revival and encouraged the creative team to think big.
"Everything technical has changed in these last 20 years," Bramble said. "We have an entirely new physical production, using all of the modern technology available today."
Bramble said the standard-packed Harry Warren-Al Dubin score of the show is intact (though some songs are assigned to different characters) and two songs ("Keep Young and Beautiful" and "With Plenty of Money and You") have been added. "I Only Have Eyes for You" is also part of the score, as it was on Broadway ("I Know Now" was also part of the original run, before it was replaced by "I Only Have Eyes For You").
The company includes Christine Ebersole (as aging diva Dorothy Brock), Copenhagen's Michael Cumpsty (as gruff producer Julian Marsh), Kate Levering (as Peggy Sawyer), Mary Testa (as writer-actress Maggie Jones), Jonathan Freeman (as writer-actor Bert Barry), Mylinda Hull (as jaded chorine Anytime Annie), Billy Stritch (as pianist Oscar), Richard Muenz (as Brock's love, Pat Denning, and understudy to Cumpsty) and David Elder (as tenor-tapper Billy Lawlor).
David Merrick produced the splashy original production in 1980, and it ran more than eight years. It won the 1981 Tony for Best Musical. The revival of 42nd Street is produced by Dodger Theatricals, Joop van den Ende and Stage Holding. The original run played 3,486 performances.
When the revival was announced, choreographer Randy Skinner was initially billed as "recreating" Gower Champion's Tony Award-winning choreography, but the musical staging and choreography are, in fact, almost all new here, and the work is Skinner's. Insiders have always known it was Skinner who was responsible for the tap dances in the original show; Champion's strength was more athletic work and larger stage pictures. The role of Billy Lawlor is more athletic now, because actor David Elder can do both taps and gymnastic moves.
The design team includes Doug Schmidt (sets), Roger Kirk (costumes), Paul Gallo (lighting). Todd Ellison is musical director, Donald Johnston is dance arranger and wrote additional orchestrations. The original film was based on a novel by Bradford Ropes.
42nd Street was a surprise smash when it opened in August 1980, directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, who died hours before the opening curtain. Drawn from the film of the same name, and fueled by a score culled from various Warner Bros. movie musicals, the tuner told of young Peggy Sawyer, the chorine from Allentown who steps in for the ailing Broadway star — and becomes a star herself.
The score includes "Lullaby of Broadway," "We're in the Money," "You're Getting To Be a Habit With Me," "Young and Healthy," "I Only Have Eyes For You," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "Dames" and more.
The revival cast includes Michael Arnold, Allen Fitzpatrick, Tamlyn Brooke Shusterman, Catherine Wreford, Megan Sikora, Michael McCarty, Brad Aspel, Mike Warshaw, Shonn Wiley, Jerry Tellier, Becky Berstler, Randy Bobish, Chris Clay, Michael Clowers, Maryann Myika Day, Alexander deJong, Amy Dolan, Isabelle Flachmann, Jennifer Jones, Dontee Kiehn, Renee Klapmeyer, Jessica Kostival, Keirsten Kupiec, Todd Lattimore, Melissa Rae Mahon, Michael Malone, Jennifer Marquardt, Meredith Patterson, Darin Phelps, Wendy Rosoff, Megan Schenck, Kelly Sheehan, Jennifer Stetor, Erin Stoddard, Yasuko Tamaki, Jonathan Taylor, Elisa Van Duyne, Erika Vaughn, Merrill West.
Added to the revival is "Keep Young and Beautiful," a section within the "Dames" number. Mary Testa (who plays the Betty Comden-like writer of the show-within-the-show, called Pretty Lady) sings it with the chorus girls. Annie Lennox recorded "Keep Young and Beautiful" a few years back.
"With Plenty of Money and You" has also been added, as a new dance section for Peggy (played by Kate Levering) in Act Two, before "Shuffle Off to Buffalo." Bramble said it was a chance to "deliver the actress as a star" before the major tap ballet, "42nd Street," at show's end.
"In 1980, we had always intended that opening night of Pretty Lady on Broadway would be a sequence of three numbers," Bramble said. "It was always our intention, structurally." Schedules and timing didn't allow that to happen, but Bramble and choreographer Randy Skinner have rectified that in 2001.
The book has some "nips and tucks" this time around ("I'm never opposed to adding another wisecrack," said Bramble), and characters such as Oscar, the rehearsal pianist, have been enhanced. He's now played by the gifted cabaret pianist-singer arranger, Billy Stritch.
But the director knows not to fix what isn't broken. "This is American mythology, these are mythological characters," he said.
Bramble enthuses, "I think it's so neat at the beginning of the 21st century to have a show called 42nd Street playing on the reinvented 42nd Street — that the audience goes into the Ford Center on a journey back in time, 68 years ago back into the last century, to see a world of Broadway that no longer exists."
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"Come and meet those dancin' feet," goes the line from the famous title tune of the Broadway musical, 42nd Street. Never mind meeting the feet. At a March 7 press preview of the new Broadway production of the classic show within-a-show, you could feel the dancin' feet, as 40 plus tapping hoofers literally shook the seventh floor of Radio City Music Hall.
Director and co-author Mark Bramble said that 42nd Street would boast the biggest cast on Broadway: 55 people in all, most of them armed with tap shoes. Bramble emphasized that the new mounting — which comes roughly two decades after producer David Merrick's original version opened at the Winter Garden Theatre — would have a completely new look and be "the most beautiful and sexiest show on Broadway."
It will certainly be the loudest and dancing-est. The preview began with the "Audition" number, in which a crowd of hopeful tappers, tested by dance captain Andy Lee (played by Michael Arnold), try to make the cut for the big new show to be directed by the powerful Julian Marsh. The number segued into a comic scene introducing Mary Testa and Jonathan Freeman (in owlish Alexander Woollcott glasses) as Maggie Jones and Bert Barry, the writers and producers of something called Pretty Lady.
Soon after, actress Kate Levering, in a brief mint-colored dress and carrying a suitcase bigger than herself, entered as wishful and naive starlet Peggy Sawyer. She and David Elder, as Billy Lawler, one of the theatre's "better juveniles," then sang "Young and Healthy." Though Sawyer is late for the audition, Lawler coaxes her into singing her way into Lee's heart. But she only succeeds in running smack into Julian Marsh (Michael Cumpsty, imperious in a leather jacket, and a long way from the physics and moral quandaries of Copenhagen).
Accompanied by Billy Stritch (who is Oscar, the on-stage pianist), Christine Ebersole, the show's leading lady Dorothy Brock, sang a quiet, understated rendition of "I Only Have Eyes for You."
After that, however, it was back to tap-dancing and more tap dancing. Bramble talked about the production of 42nd Street he opened in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, last year. "One problem in that show is that at the end the audience wanted more dancing and more tapping. We decided to put in a number, which [choreographer] Randy [Skinner] has created. We called it the Tap Mega-mix." Levering proceeded to lead the cast in an extended bout of hoofing. After that, the cast sang a few bars from "The Lullaby of Broadway."
For Ebersole — who, between The Best Man and Encores!' A Connecticut Yankee, has worked consistently this season — 42nd Street marks her first Broadway musical since 1985's Harrigan and Hart. Much of the reason for that gap is her departure for Los Angeles six months after the latter show. Recently, however, she and her family moved to New York after 14 years on the West coast, and she's happy to be back. "There's nothing like a musical," she enthused, "the overture and the kids out there tapping. Musical theatre is really 'its-ville.'"
Asked if it was difficult going from the high drama of Copenhagen to the show-biz histrionics of 42nd Street, Cumpsty observed that the characters of physicist Werner Heisenberg and Julian Marsh are "not that different. [Marsh] is insanely passionate about what he does, often to the detriment of the people around him."
Cumpsty saw the original 42nd Street many times and was excited about being part of the new mounting. He admitted to some nervousness about the singing requirements, but found, to his surprise, that Copenhagen had partially prepared him for his new role. "There was so much text [in Copenhagen, and we had to do it fast. I think I retrained my diaphragm in a way singers have to train their diaphragm."