“This is April 2, 1933, and today we start work on a new show. We’re going to rehearse four weeks, then try out in Atlantic City. We’re going to rehearse 12 hours a day, seven days a week. You’re going to dance till your feet fall off and you aren’t able to stand up. But five weeks from today, Pretty Lady is going to be the best damned show this town has ever seen. You’re on your way to glory—and 32 bucks a week!”
Once more, the call to arms—and legs—is heard in the land of Broadway. Julian Marsh, the once-famous director in a voice raspy from a parched period of flop shows, is issuing marching orders to a fresh troop of chorines, whipping them into a frenzy of show-biz sell.
With pep talk like that, 42nd Street picks up precisely where A Chorus Line left off and perpetuates the archetypal Backstage Musical another round, all the way up to opening night. Broadway’s two longest running American musicals tell the same tale; it’s just that 42nd Street throws a wider net than A Chorus Line’s small camp of gypsies. Bradford Ropes created the cliche in a 1928 novel. Busby Berkeley crystallized it into geometric designs for the movies in 1933, to the timeless tunes of Al Dubin and Harry Warren. And David Merrick transplanted it in its original setting—Broadway—in 1980.
Now, 20 seasons later, director Mark Bramble and choreographer Randy Skinner are going for perfect symmetry by plopping their 42nd Street down right square on 42nd Street, of all probable places, at the massive Ford Center for the Performing Arts.
Both find the experience more than slightly deja vu. Bramble co authored the original book for the show with Michael Stewart; Skinner, along with Karin Baker, assisted Gower Champion in choreographing the show. They remember it well, very well. On Aug. 25, 1980, 42nd Street had one of the century’s most memorable openings—not because the cast had knocked the show over the balcony and out of the ball park (it would run eight-and-a-half years, for 3,486 performances) but because of the news that producer Merrick brought center stage after the curtain call: that Champion had died hours before.
Bramble and Skinner were among the few informed before the show of Champion’s passing (of a rare blood disease called Waldenstern’s Syndrome, a relative of leukemia). The cast and the customers were not informed until Merrick’s pronouncement, and, even then—given his famous flair of flashy showmanship—it was hard to take him at his word.
“For all of us involved in the show, that was a very hard experience to go through,” recalls Bramble. “We did not know that Gower was that ill. Later, we found out that his doctor had told him he would probably not survive the project. He had told Gower to return to California, walk on the beach and enjoy the rest of his time—but that just wasn’t Gower. He got his life in California all organized and moved east into a sublet apartment in New York, knowing that he might not survive—and, indeed, he didn’t.”
Skinner recalls gradually becoming aware of Champion’s illness: “I knew it when we got to Washington, D.C. because he was hospitalized several times during the out-of-town tryout. I could tell his energy level was down, but he didn’t open up and talk about any of that. Later [in previews], he said he’d been told his illness could be hastened by being up dancing a lot or expending energy or stress. And putting on a Broadway musical—is there anything more stressful in life?
“It was one of those double-edged swords where you try to do the thing you love yet you don’t feel well. We’ve all been there—not feeling good and having to go to work—so you can imagine what it’d be like to work on a big dance show and not feel at your peak.”
“Several months after the opening night,” says Bramble, “David Merrick and I were going to dinner, and David said—this is a direct quote: ‘Gower Champion staged his exit perfectly, and no one could have promoted it better than David Merrick.’ Which, of course, is true. He got the front page of The New York Times three days in a row. I don’t think that any show in the history of the American theatre has had that.”
Although he did go on to produce other shows, 42nd Street was basically Merrick’s last great hurrah, too. “He played it like a fiddle,” Bramble remembers with a smile. “He manipulated the New York press, the audience. He manipulated us all.
“He had been in Hollywood for a while at that time, and he told me, ‘I hate the movies. I can’t be in charge. No one person can be in charge on a movie.’ He wanted to come back to Broadway and throw his weight around. In fact, we had trouble raising money for the show. One day David said, ‘I’m tired of this,’ and he took the negative of a film he had just completed—a Burt Reynolds film called Rough Cut—to the Chemical Bank and said, ‘Here is Burt Reynolds’s next picture. I need $2.5 million’—and he got it! In financial circles, it’s unheard of for a bank to loan a theatrical producer money like that, but they thought they had gold with Rough Cut in the can. As it turned out, it was a bust—a big flop—and 42nd Street went on to become one of the most profitable musicals of all time.”