A dastardly diva, conniving chorus girls, the spikey director and the talented young ingenue with little experience who just wants to be a star – it can only be a classic Hollywood musical. The 1933 film of 42nd Street became a bone fide Broadway musical in 1980 and is currently enjoying a glitzy run at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Maybe it’s the long years of austerity, maybe the political polarisation that led to Brexit, but the West End is a pretty nostalgic place to be right now with An American in Paris, Dreamgirls and even Love in Idleness transporting us back to a mythical time when all that mattered was love, music and dancing. Any night of the week you can be swept away by showtunes, glitter and misty sentiment, and it’s no bad thing.
There is a darker side to all this of course which most of these shows choose to gloss over; for someone to be the star they have to push someone else aside first, and Hollywood loves to explore the, predominantly female, battle between the established luminary and the bright young thing snapping at her heels. It’s a trope used in All About Eve, as Bette Davis nurtured a calculating young fan who sets about stealing her life – a much anticipated stage version will arrive in London next year starring Cate Blanchett – we saw it too in Phantom of the Opera as diva Carlotta must make way at the Paris opera for the more innocent Christine, in Black Swan as Natalie Portman replaces old hand Winona Ryder as prima ballerina, and even Dreamgirls is the story of supressing one band member’s dream to sell another. Showbiz is a brutal world and the next big thing is waiting in the wings wearing your costume.
42nd Street takes a slightly gentler view of this process of replacement, but the outcome is the same. At an audition for a new show called Pretty Lady hardnosed director Julian Marsh is putting the chorus through their paces when Peggy Sawyer arrives late. Initially sent away, Marsh reconsiders when he sees Peggy dance and invites her to join the troupe who head to Philadelphia for tryouts. Meanwhile, unable to dance as well as she sings, star of the show Dorothy Brock’s poisonous attitude and arrogance manages to rankle with cast and crew alike, especially as her private life threatens the show’s finances. On opening night in Philadelphia, Peggy accidentally scuppers Dorothy’s performance, paving the way for a new star to take her place. As Peggy tries to hide from the responsibility and pressure, will the show go on in New York?
The choreography in 42nd Street is what you’ll remember and, as with the balletic style of An American in Paris, this tap-focused show is at its best when all 50 dancers are on stage delivering one stunning routine after another. Like many shows of its era, we get to see both behind and in front of the curtain as song and dance numbers from ‘real life’ are mixed in with ones from the fictional show they’re creating, which means the plot is essentially paper thin, and don’t ask me what the point of Pretty Lady was meant to be, but you do get a range of sequences that take in everything from 30s Busby Berkeley and Vaudeville to 50s MGM classic musicals with their everyday singing-in-the-street charm.
As the start, the curtain goes up just a few inches to show a line of tap-dancing feet, and from here on in it’s a riot of sound, colour and cartoon-like characters, painted backdrops, gold lamé and good wholesome fun. The very best sections come from the faux musical including the Busby Berkeley-inspired Keep Young and Beautiful in which the dancers lay in a circle on stage, like synchronised swimmers, using their arms and legs to create a series of intricate patterns, while a large mirror is lowered from the ceiling so the audience can see both the stage and aerial view which is a lovely touch – although if you’re sitting higher than the Royal Circle you won’t see the full reflection.
Equally delightful is the I’m in the Money section as chorus girls dance on with their own round podia made to look like coins which they place on the floor and tap on top of, while the male dancers fill in the gaps in top hat and tails. It’s a dazzling spectacle of white, silver and gold that showcases the increasing complexity of Randy Skinner’s choreography that builds on the original work of Gower Champion, which the cast executes with faultless precision.
But it just gets better and better, building up to the final scene in Pretty Lady, the title song 42nd Street which references the fantasy sequences in several Gene Kelly films. Beginning on a black stage with a spotlight on Peggy, it rapidly becomes the street itself with neon theatre signs advertising shows up and down the famous street while mini-stories of New York life are told around the stage; the sailors, the party girls, the Park Avenue set. The pace and movement build frantically until a gunshot clears the stage and a set of steps unfolds. If you’ve seen enough classic musicals you know what happens next, a show-stopping tap routine with steps that light-up as the full ensemble delivers a rousing finale.
Just like An American in Paris, there is so much joy in the dance sequences that any other problems the show has – including its somewhat old-fashioned and sexist instance on youth and beauty – just evaporate, and with so many musicals really focused on the singing, it’s refreshing to see two in quick succession that remind audiences what a great choreographer can do, and, in our pared back times, the effect of a stage full of people performing completely in sync.
Given that this is essentially a caricature, outside of the musical numbers the characters haven’t much personality of their own which gives the performers very little to cling on to. Clare Halse’s Peggy is perky and talented with no malice in her. She aches to be a star but the slightest knock has her scampering back to her small-town home. Still it’s hard to dislike her and Halse’s tap talent is genuinely impressive. Stuart Neal as Pretty Girl’s male lead Billy sings and dances beautifully but has little to do backstage but make an early pass at Peggy that goes unremembered for the rest of the show.
Tom Lister finds depth in the second act as scary director Julian Marsh, and although he has no chemistry with Peggy, his discovery of her talent and growing affection for her is well charted, while Lister’s voice is delightful. Stealing the show musically is Sheena Easton as Dorothy Brock, relishing every sneering put down and hissy fit as the diva, but finding real emotion and sympathy in her love songs as she aches for lover Pat in tunes like I Only Have Eyes for You and You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me which are as touching as they are melodious, and prevent her from being a two-dimensional villain.
The pros and cons of a particular show may seem trivial in light of this weekend’s events, and the previous attacks in Westminster and Manchester, but arts and culture have an important social role; they bring us together and reflect our communities back at us, they create empathy, understanding and the ability to see things from another perspective – not just of people half way round the world but sometimes also the ones right next door – and the more we know about something, the less we fear it. So, shows like An American in Paris and 42nd Street may not have any searing political insight to offer, but they tell us that right now we’re missing something, something we almost certainly never had – sometimes we want to escape to a world in which love, singing and dancing is all that matters. And, honestly, what’s so wrong with that?
42nd Street is at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane until 10 February 2018 and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1