Dancing Toward Your Dreams
Director's notes by Gary Griffin
42nd Street, the quintessential backstage musical, is a surprisingly accurate depiction of what people go through to get a new show onto Broadway. The characters' struggles are very similar to ones I've experienced or observed. There's so much that conspires against a new musical ever getting to the finish line, yet you see the incredible collective will of all these people working together to get it there. That's one of the things I find inspiring about this show.
There's an old saying that when the characters in musical theatre can't speak any more, they sing; and when they can't sing any more, they dance. That's very true of this piece. At the beginning, when the characters are auditioning for Julian Marsh'sshow, they're doing more than just performing for him. There's areal desperation behind their dance: they need to get a job inorder to survive. All the way through, dance is the show's mosteloquent form of expression. And I can think of no better way ofcommunicating joy through dance than tap; you just can't be unhappy watching tap.
42nd Street is one of what I call the "noisy" musicals- and I mean that in the best possible way. It has a certain brash energy that befits its subject matter, and because of that I didn't want the music to come through a sophisticated sound system from aninvisible source up in the orchestra loft. I wanted the audience to see and feel the presence of the musicians.That's why, in what I think is a first for the Festival Theatre,we've put the entire orchestra on stage. It was important to me to put the musicians into the world of the play.
This is a story about reawakening your dreams. Most of the characters have become jaded in one way or another: their dreams have been jaundiced by the Depression, by disappointment, by failure. Julian Marsh, for instance, has lost money on Wall Street, he's broke, he needs a hit. And then along comes Peggy Sawyer, this girl from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who has a very simple dream: she wants to dance on Broadway. And she reminds Julian that he got into theatre in the first place because he loves it, because to him"musical comedy" are the two greatest words in the English language.
By making people remember their own dreams, Peggy transforms thespirit of everyone she encounters. I hope this show will remind usall of any dreams that we too may have lost along the way.
Leaving the Line
Program notes by James Magruder
In the annals of the Broadway musical, there are the hits thatwin awards and turn a profit. There are the monster hits that runand tour internationally for years. And then there are themega-hits: the must-see, standing-room-only, impossible-ticketphenomena that do all of the above and provide a seismic jolt tothe self-esteem of the industry and its practitioners, as if tosay, "See, even one hundred years after Kern and Wodehouse andBolton revolutionized the form, Broadway can still steal thespotlight away from television and YouTube memes and Twitter andwhatever else is waiting for us on our iPhones." These events -which, according to my timetable, come along about three times adecade - prove that there's a dance in the old dame yet.
The twenty-first century has given us The Book of Mormon, Jersey Boys and The Producers. In the 1990s there were The Lion King (still running) and Rent (currently in revival off-Broadway). In between the groundbreaking A Chorus Line (1975) and the British Invasion of the eighties (Cats, Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera), there was 42nd Street, which opened in August 1980 and closed after nine years and 3,486 performances. Its original producer, the controversial “Abominable Showman” David Merrick, declared it the musical for patrons who were allergic to Cats.As a class, these blockbusters have several things in common. Spectacle is one, whether it’s a falling chandelier or a puppet elephant lumbering down the centre aisle. Nostalgia – for the songs of The Four Seasons, for Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s – is another. In the cases of Rent and 42nd Street, extra-theatrical tragedy intensified the roar of approval that greeted their premières. Composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson died of an aortic dissection the day before his East Village riff on La Bohème opened in 1996. In the midst of the cheers at the opening-night curtain call of 42nd Street, Merrick hushed the audience to announce that Gower Champion, the director-choreographer whose dazzling work on the “Song & Dance Extravaganza” represented a culmination of his art, had died that same afternoon of a rare form of blood cancer.But let’s return to nostalgia. Americans have always fallen hard for the lure and the lore of show business: instant stardom on the Great White Way can happen to anybody with the dream, the drive and the talent. This was already a shopworn cultural notion when the Warner Brothers film version of 42nd Street, based on Bradford Ropes’s original novel, came out in 1933. The story: Peggy Sawyer heads to New York from Allentown, Pennsylvania, with a cardboard suitcase, her lucky scarf and forty cents to her name. She hopes to land a spot hoofing in the chorus of Pretty Lady, 42nd Street’s show-within-the-show produced by Julian Marsh, a larger-than-life impresario attempting a Broadway comeback. When the tough-as-nails leading lady, Dorothy Brock, breaks her ankle in tryouts, it turns out that only Peggy can save Pretty Lady – and the fortunes of an entire company trying to scrape through the Great Depression. In its famous climactic moment, Marsh pushes Peggy onto the stage with the command: “Sawyer, you’re going out there a youngster. But you’ve got to come back a star!”And so she must, and so she does. A big dream coming true, to such catchy Harry Warren and Al Dubin tunes as “Young and Healthy,” “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” embellished by Berkeley’s dizzying dance routines, made for tremendous entertainment. The success of the movie in 1933 saved Warner Bros. from bankruptcy and ignited a run of backstage film musicals.That the screen-to-stage transfer of 42nd Street took nearly fifty years to happen isn’t so mysterious when one recalls that before the videocassette era, old movies could be seen only in revival houses and on late-night television. Book writers Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, in the midst of trying to save their flop The Grand Tour, caught a screening of the film in Manhattan and decided that it must be their next show. They enhanced the five-song film score with more items from the Warren and Dubin catalogue – including “Lullaby of Broadway” and “We’re in the Money” – and took their revised script to David Merrick.In 1980, 42nd Street was far from a sure bet. The nostalgic material was dicey. The cast and physical production were enormous. Gower Champion hadn’t had a hit in years. Like Julian Marsh, the hubristic (and notoriously tight-fisted) David Merrick couldn’t find investors and wound up breaking one of the cardinal rules of show business by bankrolling the show with his own money. By all accounts, its birth on the road in Washington D.C. was as troubled as Pretty Lady. Merrick put “show doctors” (replacement directors) in the audience to intimidate Champion, who was secretly getting blood transfusions in his hotel room. In New York, sets were rebuilt, previews were cancelled, the opening date kept changing. . . .Well, America loves an underdog, and comebacks, and stars being born. When 42nd Street finally opened, it had one last weapon, a nearly forgotten technical weapon. Tap. More specifically, 42nd Street had an ensemble of forty dancers who could hoof in glorious unison or tease with a slow soft-shoe or rat-a-tat-tat in delirious contrapuntal rhythms. Tap hadn’t completely disappeared. In the 1970s, the revival of No, No, Nanette brought back Ruby Keeler (the original cinematic Peggy Sawyer) for a couple of smashing routines; Debbie Reynolds did the same in Irene; Wayne Cilento had a short tap break in A Chorus Line. But there hadn’t been a show that moved almost exclusively to the beat of the shuffle-step-kick-ball-change since the thirties.Ballet is rarefied and really hard to do. Modern dance and its floor rolling can look silly. Jazz dance can be fruity. What is it about time steps repeated over and over that makes audiences so happy? The sound? The sight of a community working patterns in utter precision? Perhaps because it primarily involves the feet and the dancer remains upright throughout, tap feels closer to movements and sounds that anyone can make. (The same might be said of kick lines, another time-tested Broadway weapon.)Today, eighty years after the movie, thirty years after the musical, in a global culture more obsessed than ever with show business and how to break into it – So You Think You Can Dance?, Smash, The Voice, Glee – we have learned that the dream, the drive and talent aren’t enough. Luck, training, connections and a cutthroat character will come in handy. Personal attributes like heart and class are old-fashioned and not very good TV.In 42nd Street, Peggy Sawyer triumphs the old-fashioned way. Unlike Dorothy Brock, she came out of the chorus and can hoof with the best in the line. And instead of attending the glittering opening-night celebration at the Ritz, Broadway’s brand new star tells Julian that she’s headed to the party at Lorraine’s put on by the kids in the chorus. She hasn’t forgotten where she came from and who helped her along the way. Peggy is the whole package, the real deal. The moment is completely corny, utterly American and deeply moving. As is any lullaby of Broadway, old or new.James Magruder is a novelist, translator, theatre scholar, professor and dramaturge.