Randy Skinner, the onetime dance assistant to director choreographer Gower Champion on 42nd Street, graduated to full choreographer status in the years since the 1980 smash opened, but few people knew how important he was on the original staging. Champion would come up with big picture ideas and the twentysomething Skinner would experiment and provide the taps. With the surprise new revival of the tap-happy musical comedy, coming a decade or so after the original closed, Skinner finally gets bold Broadway title-page credit for "musical staging and new choreography" for the tuner based on the classic movie musical.(The original Playbill listed Karin Baker & Skinner as "dance assistants.") His sweat, guts and longtime history with the property paid off May 7 with a 2001 Tony Award nomination for Best Choreography. Sure, there have been other choreographic credits — such as Broadway's State Fair — but 42nd Street is as much a part of the Columbus, Ohio-raised tapper as a top hat is to Astaire. He spoke to Playbill On-Line about 42nd Street then and now.
Playbill On-Line: Does it seem like 20 years ago, or does it seem like yesterday that you were helping to realize Gower Champion's vision on the original production of 42nd Street?
Randy Skinner: Both. I never expected to be working on a major revival 21 years after. I thought, maybe 40 years later. That was a surprise. But we got a call to do it in Holland last summer. [Director] Mark [Bramble] and I went over in July and August for Joop van den Ende, the Dutch producer. It was the first time it had been done there — it actually was the first time they ever had a true American musical comedy. They had the darker musicals, but never a real Broadway American musical. And they'd never had a tap dance show. They weren't too sure whether it would be the hit it was. It was an enormous hit over there and that prompted the revival here. I had been told that if it worked over in Holland that Joop, with the Dodgers, wanted to produce it here. I've work on it in so many different versions over the years: I've done small productions all over the country and the big tours. It's just been an ongoing part [of my life].
PBOL: Is it the major part of your career?
RS: Well, it's brought in a lot of money, that's for sure, because it's one of those shows that people love. No, I can't say that. It's been a nice balance.
PBOL: Is it your pension?
RS: Yeah, I suppose. I guess if you're lucky to have one of those shows connected to you, you look at it that way. But for the revival there was no reason to do it unless you could bring something new to it. I kind of equate it with what they did to Chicago, what Ann [Reinking] did, by paying respect to the past. Of course she paid enormous respect to Bob [Fosse], but then she brought something new for today's audiences.
PBOL: Is this production a sweeter experience for you, with your name in bold as choreographer. Many people in the industry know you created the tap work for the original production, but Gower Champion's name was on it.
RS: It was a real collaboration. Again, I look back, and I was so young. It was a wonderful time. Gower would talk about what the numbers were to be, and we would sit and have all these pow wows and then, of course, I had the vocabulary. I was a trained tapper from age four. It was real lesson in collaborating: Watching someone be able to theorize and talk about numbers — and also smart enough to hire people around you who had the vocabulary to achieve what he [imagined]. Knowing the show as well as I did, having the challenge of being able to put the new numbers in, but also make it blend with the old, it's been a great prospect to head the show. It's kind of some full circle. Gower and I were very close. I think there were a lot of layers going on. He had a son my age. He was truly a mentor and teacher and friend. It's like completing the journey. PBOL: Is there a downside? Do people think Skinner can only do tap?
RS: No, I didn't think so because every show I do, I always have other numbers in it. That's why I'm thrilled to have the ["I Only Have Eyes For You" reprise] number in Act 1 with the girls in it, because it really is ballet. I'm trained in ballet. I'm very trained in ballroom. "Getting to Be a Habit" has much more partnering in it than it did.
PBOL: What did you and director Mark Bramble talk about when reapproaching the show?
RS: Bringing an element of sexuality to the show that was so there in the movies, in the early '30s, before the production code. We didn't approach that in 1980 because it really wasn't the right time. Theatre was a little more pristine, a little more wholesome. With what's going on now in today's climate, in today's society, you actually can bring more of a reality, as the movie did, to the stage. The girls are more revealed, more skin is showing. There's more of a sexuality in the numbers, in the costuming that [designer] Roger [Kirk] came up with. [In "We're in the Money"], they're in two-piece costumes, and in "Keep Young and Beautiful," they're all in the one-piece, very revealing body stockings. And the gowns that they wear are much more form-fitting.
PBOL: You added a couple of new numbers: "Keep Young and Beautiful" in Act 1 and "With Plenty of Money and You" in Act 2.
RS: Peggy Sawyer never really got to show off a lot in the original show, so when we were in Holland — we didn't get to do it over there because of a lack of time — we talked about putting another number in for Peggy to really show this girl has the goods you talk about all night. About two thirds of the show is new choreography, as far as new steps and new patterns. We made "Go Into Your Dance" a much harder number than it has ever been because these four girls are wonderful tap dancers, plus Mike Arnold, the guy playing Andy Lee, is a terrific hoofer.
PBOL: There is a signature move I recall from the original production's opening "Audition" number, where the dancers flap their forearms wildly. You do it again here and it's so thrilling to watch.
RS: We call that the paddle step. That's always been there. I actually made that step up, I remember exactly where I was, the time and the place.
PBOL: It's not some traditional step?
RS: That's just something quirky that I did one day. Little did I know it would end up in five-eighths at the end of the number. I was up dancing, bouncing off the walls — my God, I was in my mid-twenties back then. Gower looked at that step. I don't even know how I arrived at it. I was just goofing off. He loved it and it ended up in that number.
PBOL: The title number, the finale, is a bigger number than ever before, and it includes a massive lighted staircase. I knew the old show so well, I didn't think this one could surprise me, but it kept doing it.
RS: When we were in Holland, Joop came to me one day and said, "For New York, I really want a bigger number for the end of the show." And he's absolutely right. It's very hard to keep topping the numbers in 42nd Street because they are so big. My goal was to try to make each number so different. When that staircase comes out, nobody expects it. The mirror number [recreating Busby Berkeley's overhead film shots] is totally new and that brings an element that is so period. And when we added the new number in Act 2, I said, "We've got to do something new if it's gonna be a tap number." I'm a rhythm tapper. I've been trained very much in rhythm tap, which is what Ann Miller was famous for, and Eleanor Powell — that very close to the ground, fast tap dancing. When I knew that Kate [Levering] could do that kind of stuff, I made the choice to make that number what I call a "rhythm tap number" and have her be able to be on those piano, making those sound and doing fast turns. When you have talent like this, a person like Kate who can pull off turns clear across the stage, then you put them in! Turning is one of the most exciting moves in dance and you don't get to see it very often on a Broadway stage. [The dancing] much more what I call "movie-like." I try to put movie dancing on stage.
PBOL: Wasn't there talk of a 42nd Street sequel, called Golddiggers?
RS: Yeah, Mark [Bramble] and I were involved in that for a while. David Merrick was going to produce it and we were all set to do it in London. Chita [Rivera] was going to star, we had it all cast. An then David went through that terrible period where he was freaking out about a lot of things — I don't know what was going on, and the whole thing just totally fell apart.
PBOL: Was it a sequel to 42nd Street or new?
RS: It was all new, but I think a lot of people looked at it as a sequel because of all the "Golddigger" movies [with music and plot elements similar to the film "42nd Street"], but it really was a whole new thing based on the different "Golddigger" movies, using the Henderson-Brown DeSylva catalog of music. It never materialized after that. David really disappeared from the scene from the scene for quite a while. Chita and I got the call a week before we were to get on the plane and they said, "Don't get on the plane."
PBOL: Could we see this in the future?
RS: I don't know, I haven't really asked Mark about it, where it lies.
— By Kenneth Jones