Come and meet those dancing feet

The West End revival of 42nd Street is a musical for the Strictly generation, says Viv Wilby

42nd Street London

The curtain rises to reveal 40 pairs of candy-coloured tap shoes all drumming away on the vast stage of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the audience cheers. This is one noisy show.

Based on the 1933 movie, 42nd Street found new life as a stage musical at the start of the 80s and became a permanent feature of that decade, expressing something of its brash, go-getting spirit. Frankie Vaughan and Company doing Lullaby Of Broadway; green and silver clad dancers shuffle ball-changing on top of enormous fibreglass dimes to We’re In The Money; those routines seemed to be at every Royal Command Performance of my youth. All that spectacle and optimism; was it an attempt to escape the cynicism and snark of Kander and Ebb and A Chorus Line, or the rock opera weirdness of Lloyd Webber?

The original movie is a gem and, final sequence excepted, not much like its gaudy theatrical offspring. It follows the company of Pretty Lady from auditions through to opening night. The director is Julian Marsh (played by Warner Baxter, one of the first Best Actor Oscar winners), a desperate, driven man who has been ruined by the Wall Street Crash. An authoritarian and a perfectionist, he drills his dancers over and over until they collapse with exhaustion. Disaster strikes when leading lady Dorothy Brock breaks her ankle at a pre-opening party and naive hoofer Peggy Sawyer is plucked from the chorus and instructed to carry the show. Just before she’s due to go on, Julian gives Peggy one of the great movie speeches of all time. Here’s the whole thing:

“Sawyer, you listen to me, and you listen hard. Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It’s the lives of all these people who’ve worked with you. You’ve got to go on, and you’ve got to give and give and give. They’ve got to like you. Got to. Do you understand? You can’t fall down. You can’t because your future’s in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you. All right, now I’m through, but you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours and go out, and Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!”

The movie is also notable for Ruby Keeler (Mrs Al Jolson) as Peggy, charming despite not being terribly good at either acting, dancing or singing; an early, scene-stealing turn from Ginger Rogers (who unlike Keeler is the real deal and hilarious as wise-cracking chorine Anytime Annie); and Busby Berkeley’s dance numbers, which present the Pretty Lady “show”. There’s the sprightly and comic Shuffle Off To Buffalo, set aboard a sleeper train which opens up to reveal its many compartments. Young And Healthy, in which Dick Powell serenades a Jean Harlow-esque blonde followed by a series of Berkeley’s signature camera moves, looking down on the chorus girls as they form a series of geometric patterns, swooping through their perfect legs. It all finishes with the title song and sequence, a haunting paeon to the seedy charms of New York’s entertainment district (“side by side, they’re glorified, where the underworld meets the elite”), which opens out into a kind of social realist ballet and ends up with the dancers transforming themselves into the city skyline. Its influence rings down the decades from The Band Wagon’s Girl Hunt Ballet to Fosse.

42nd Street London

If the movie has dark notes and minor keys, and interesting reflections on the intersection between entertainment and economics, these are all absent from the stage revival. It tries, but not very hard. A subplot involving the menacing of Dorothy’s lover by mobsters falls flat; references to the Depression are there, but the cast speak their lines as if they don’t really understand them. Anytime Annie’s timing is all off, and her zingers don’t land. Casting is a problem. Julian Marsh, who should be a charismatic, ambiguous figure at the centre of the drama, is played by lanky Emmerdale alumnus Tom Lister, who is adequate but lacks presence. An older actor would have worked better. Henry Goodman, maybe. Even Paul Nicholas.

There’s another 80s throwback in Sheena Easton as Dorothy Brock. She gets stuck into the comedy – this Dorothy is much more a silly, haughty ham than sad, disappointed Bebe Daniels in the movie – and her husky voice suits the 1930s songs quite nicely, in a kind of Rod Stewart does the Great American Songbook way.

Of the three principals, the standout is probably Clare Halse as Peggy, who taps her heart out and leads the company with great confidence and aplomb. There’s a lot of stage-school eager-to-pleaseness about this show, as if it’s terrified we might get bored. The musical numbers come thick and fast (there are just five in the 1933 movie, there are about 18 here), giving the cast barely time to catch their breath between costume changes. Speaking of which, the 80s are again hard to forget as the costumes zip between pink and lemon pastels and silver and gold glitz. And in another instance of the show ignoring the movie’s occasional subversiveness, there’s not an inkling that anyone understands that You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me has a drug abuse metaphor (google the lyrics). Instead, the interpretation is insipid, set at a beach resort, with twirly rainbow-coloured parasols.

Like the show 42nd Street is supposed to be presenting, this is probably the closest thing we’re going to get to something like a Ziegfeld-style follies. No one thought to do a book musical (basically a play with songs about characters in a particular time and place) until Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote Show Boat in 1927. Before then, and for some time after, stage musicals were little more than revues filled with songs, dancing and comedy, sometimes accompanied by a skimpy narrative. So don’t expect a love song, or an “I want” song, and don’t expect to be moved. But you can expect to be entertained. This is a musical for the Strictly generation. A lightning tour through a few musical genres and styles, some family-friendly comedy and a frenzied number of crowd-pleasing dance routines. I wouldn’t be surprised if Anton du Beke turns up as Julian.

42nd Street is playing at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane

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