How could it miss, really, with all those terrific Dubin-Warren songs and that breath-taking backstage story about the little nobody who becomes an overnight star!
The "42nd Street" that came to the Winter Garden Monday night is a miracle of Broadway energy. Thanks to the inspired dances and overall staging of Gower Champion, to a splendid cast and to an absolutely stunning scenic investiture, sitting before this "42nd Street" is a little like having the classic 1933 movie musical burst from the screen into glorious new stage life, and in color as well as three dimensions.
"42nd Street," in other words, is a dazzling Broadway eyeful.
It moves with scarcely a letup, and with more singers, dancers, brilliant costumes and striking scenery filling the stage than you've seen in 25 years or more.
This reconstruction is, of course, an exercise in nostalgia. The songs, culled from the "Golddiggers" films and other sources, as well as the picture "42nd Street" itself, tickle the memory, but they have been given fresh, bright orchestral arrangements by Philip J. Lang.
And, wonder of wonders, Champion has succeeded both in evoking memories of the original Busby Berkeley dance routines while improving upon them - as dances rather than the geometric exercises that exceeded the boundaries of any stage.
The driving force of the show is established as soon as the curtain rises and we watch the large ensemble executing an irresistible tap routine.
In between the clatter of feet, of course, there is the fond, foolish, indestructible story of Julian Marsh, played to perfection by Jerry Orbach, saddled with the experienced but over-the-hill leading lady, Dorothy Brock, performed with enjoyable flair by Tammy Grimes.
The miss from Allentown, Pa., Peggy Sawyer who, ambitious but sweetly lacking in the murderous instincts of an Eve Harrington, suddenly is the right girl in the right place when Dorothy comes up lame the day before the opening of "Pretty Lady." A winsome blonde, Wanda Richert, who can tap madly and gracefully, did indeed come out on the Winter Garden stage a nobody and go off a star.
Other winning performances are contributed by Lee Roy Reams, who sings and dances his way through the Dick Powell juvenile lead (who can forget the movie, familiar today to kids of 20?); by Carole Cook as a songwriter; by Danny Carroll, a fleet tap dancer who is in charge of chorus rehearsals; and Karen Prunczik who, in the Ginger Rogers part of Anytime Annie, makes an utterly delightful Broadway debut.
Robin Wagner has dreamed up some enchanting and very functional scenery (see how neatly and simply the "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" routine is carried off in a scene that is a tribute to the original yet has a trick finish).
Theoni V. Aldredge probably has depleted the entire stock of fall fabrics with her gorgeous costumes.
Perhaps the most striking number in an evening full of delights is "Dames," Champion's marvelous staging of the unfamiliar title song of the Warners musical whose hit song, not included here, was "I Only Have Eyes for You."
In this number, Champion's direction, Wagner's scenery and Aldredge's astonishing spectrum of costumes for the indeed lovely ladies of the ensemble achieve a perfect blend.
And those girls! Charmers and sex symbols, every one. Why, of course, they support ERA and are all taking their masters in philosophy and technology on the side. But it's this side we're interested in here, and a kiss must go out to every flouncing beauty and for the bending of every shapely leg as, in their nighties, they peep, naughty but nice, from their bunks on the Buffalo express.
There is one curious and unnecessary production number, with flowered hoops, in the reprise of a ballad, and at least one of the new songs (remember, movie musicals boast far fewer songs than Broadway ones), "Sunny Side to Every Situation," is extremely weak in itself. However, clever staging and its pointed reference to the story help make it acceptable.
But I'm not here to carp. "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me," "The Shadow Waltz," the magnificent use of the Dubin-Warren Oscar winner "Lullaby of Broadway" and the rhythmic tribute to one of the city's sorriest areas since its legit houses gave way to grind movies and worse almost a half-century ago have never been employed to finer advantage.
And, above all, with this show, unhappily his last, Champion lives up to his name as never before, not even in "Hello, Dolly!"
This "42nd Street" is, in a strange way, a Broadway throwback in which Broadway surges forward with renewed gaiety.
Life should never try to imitate art. It is too painful.
Last night at the Winter Garden Theater, Gower Champion had what was perhaps the biggest success of his considerable career with the David Merrick musical 42nd Street.
Champion was not around for the applause. He had died that afternoon, and a crumpled, virtually inaudible Merrick had to squelch the ovation with the announcement of his death.
It all seemed more like show business than life, or, for that matter, death.
For Merrick, this is a most formidable triumph - indeed, it may even be the first time an American show is actually better than its publicity.
The idea of doing 42nd Street originated with Michael Stewart, who saw the old Warner Bros. classic 1933 movie and felt that nearly 50 years later, Broadway was perhaps ready for it.
He enlisted the help of Mark Bramble with the book - called here, oddly enough, Lead-Ins and Crossovers - got the rights of the movie and the original novel upon which it was based, went ahead and presented it to Merrick. The rest will probably be Broadway history, or at least a wildly tapping footnote to it.
This is not a nostalgia musical in the manner of No, No, Nanette or Irene. They were, in their ways, knowing contemporary commentaries on old musicals. 42nd Street is much more of a genuine re-creation, not especially of a Broadway musical, for it is much more a homage to those great Busby Berkeley movie musicals.
The story could be written on the back of a large postage stamp, with scarcely disturbing the gum. Broadway star gets sugar-daddy to back musical. Director is making comeback. Rehearsal scenes. Gorgeous ugly duckling in chorus. Love complication. Star breaks ankle just before first night. The ugly duckling, earlier fired, returns to take over the lead, and swans it in one night.
Not a Hollywood/Broadway cliche is either forgotten or left unused. With the climax coming with that classic line from the original film (it was Warner Baxter to Ruby Keeler) "You're going out as a youngster, you've got to come back a star." There was not a wet eye in the house, but the audience roared.
The music by Harry Warren and Al Dubin has that quintessential Broadway beat and brass. It is not particularly elegant, but it is certainly sassy, and as memorable as your nursery rhymes.
The original film had only about five numbers in it, though here there have been copious additions from other Warren/Dubin sources.
And the result is a hit parade perfectly in period, perfectly adjusted to what there is of a story, and absolutely delightful. The huge heartbeat rhythms of Warren's music seem to call out for tap-dancing, and here the clicker-clack of 40 happy hoofers becomes, as it must, part of the musical fabric.
The staging, and particularly the choreography, is Champion's homage to the fantastic wizard of the tap-spectacular, the film choreographer, Berkeley. Of course, Champion cannot reproduce the typical Berkeley mass effects - effects that are for film alone - but what he does do is to provide a most entrancing and almost filigree-brash stage translation of pretty girls, tapping feet and a dance conception that carries all before it with the inevitability of its own energy.
Helped all the time by Robin Wagner's flashy and flashing art-deco decors, and Theoni Aldredge's (she has never been better) fantastic mix of rack and couturier costumes, and Tharon Musser's sympathetically gorgeous lighting, the show does not put any of its many feet in its corporate mouth.
The cast could scarcely be better. As the star popping from the chorus line like a chicklet from its shell, Wanda Richert, looking rather like a young Celeste Holm, is adorably right. In her Broadway debut (she has spent months and months on tour, however, with Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line) Miss Richert is totally winning, a charmer from tip to tap, who sings, dances, acts, and makes all her talents so modestly credible that she is the ingenue of an ingenue's dreams.
Tammy Grimes is superbly acidulated as the leading lady with a tongue so wicked that you suspect a jokewriter in the wings, a mordant wit and manner distant enough to offer a new dimension to hauteur. Jerry Orbach looked a little bit dour as the director (in retrospect, one cannot help wondering whether he knew something the rest of the cast did not) but his portrait of the celebrated Broadway toughie/softie, with his sad eyes and permanently ruffled attitude proved nicely done.
Lee Roy Reams as the tenor, Joseph Bova and Carole Cook as Orbach's lieutenant, were all splendid, and look out for - she is easily spotted - the chorus line's second banana, a dizzy girl called Karen Prunczik.
The real triumph of 42nd Street which gets the new season off in a blaze of applause, belongs however, to Merrick and Champion. It's great to have Merrick back - what was the man doing all those years away, gardening? - but here let us hear it for Gower for one last time. Not because the guy is dead, but because he is still, gloriously, gloriously, alive, somewhere between 42nd Street and the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway. No one has to say: "Bye, Bye, Gower." He has left a permanent mark.
If anyone wonders why Gower Champion's death is a bitter loss for the American theater, I suggest that he head immediately to the Winter Garden, where "42d Street" opened last night. This brilliant showman's final musical is, if nothing else, a perfect monument to his glorious career. Indeed, "42d Street" has more dancing - and, for that matter, more dancers - than Mr. Champion has ever given us before. As it fortunately happens, this show not only features his best choreography, but it also serves as a strangely ironic tribute to all the other musicals he has staged over the past two decades. Here and there in "42d Street," one happily finds witty homages to such memorable past Champion show stoppers as the opening telephone number from "Bye Bye Birdie," "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" from "Hello, Dolly!," and "When Mabel Comes Into the Room" from "Mack and Mabel." See Mr. Champion's work in "42nd Street" and try not to weep.
The excuse for the dances, of course, is the 1933 film that started Warner Brothers on its binge of backstage movie musicals during the Depression. In truth, the screen version of "42d Street" did not have that many musical numbers, but David Merrick, the show's producer, has solved that problem by outfitting his stage extravaganza with a whole crop of other hits from the Harry Warren-Al Dubin song catalogue. With the aid of the best Robin Wagner sets, Tharon Musser lighting and Theoni V. Aldredge costumes that Mr. Merrick's money can buy, Mr. Champion has been given an unparalleled opportunity to let his considerable imagination go berserk.
You name it, this choreographer does it. For "The Shadow Waltz," he has sent his uncommonly graceful legions of chorus people gliding gaily in silhouette across a nearly empty stage. (It's the "Dancing" number from "Hello, Dolly!" with an added layer of wit.) For "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me," he's done his own, showbiz version of Jerome Robbins' ballet, "The Concert." There's a chorine-filled castle of mirrors for "Dames," the requisite larger-than-life silver dollars for "We're in the Money," a breakaway train (shades of "Sugar") for "Shuffle Off to Buffalo." That tribute to the jungle-jim opening of "Bye, Bye Birdie" opens Act II: singers occupy three stories of backstage dressing rooms to deliver "Sunny Side to Every Situation." And, impossible as it seems, Mr. Champion goes on to top it all with the title song. When the whole cast comes on to do "42d Street" on the musical-within-the-musical's climactic opening night, we are treated to a tap-and-blues fantasy that simultaneously joshes and celebrates such an unlikely duo as George Balanchine and Busby Berkeley.
Unfortunately, as has frequently been the case for Mr. Champion in recent seasons, nothing else in his latest show comes close to matching the style and sheen of his handiwork. In adapting the film script to the stage, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble have written a curious non-book; it's not for nothing that the Playbill describes the libretto simply as "lead-ins and cross-overs." The writers have kept most of the original's plot about a chorus girl who steps in for a Broadway star. They have even kept many of the most famous punch lines intact. Nonetheless, the gritty, slambang rhythm that gave the movie its charm is almost completely lost.
Part of the problem is the addition of all those numbers, which are so good and plentiful that they make the story seem an unwanted intrusion into the action. But an even greater difficulty has to do with the simple matter of tone. Mr. Stewart and Mr. Bramble have not really spoofed the old Warners musicals in the winning manner of such latter-day parodies as the Off-Broadway hit "Dames at Sea" or the recent film "Movie, Movie." And yet they haven't exactly played the old clichés straight, either. When we watch their characters overcome quintessential showbiz adversities to bring their musical to Broadway, it's hard to know whether we are to laugh or to cheer or merely to float off on a cloud of nostalgia. For the most part, we simply grin and bear the forced gaiety of the plot-advancing scenes while waiting for Mr. Champion to get his dances tapping once more.
Given the show's uncertain attitude, the evening's stars are often left stranded. Jerry Orbach, in the Warner Baxter role of the sardonic, desperate director, fares the best: In Act II, when he must get his show on the road, he delivers his knock-'em-dead speeches with raucous relish. His final reprise of the title song is so full of unexpected sarcasm and melancholy that for a brief instant he even summons up the bittersweet spirit of the original film.
Tammy Grimes, as the impossible leading lady who fatefully breaks her ankle, is a forceful, blowzy-voiced grande dame; she sings in the same fetchingly gutteral manner one recalls from her musical comedy debut in Molly Brown in the early 60's. And yet, even when she lands in a wheelchair for her long awaited bitchy farewell, the writers deprive her of a big comic scene. Wanda Richert, as the overnight star who becomes Miss Grimes's nemesis, is a precise, mad-cap dancer with an appealing belter's voice. No doubt she has charm, too, but the show's short-changing of the movie's romantic subplot gives her little chance to show it off.
Then again, perhaps no performers can be expected to compete with this show's dance numbers or with the tragic real-life drama that surrounded the opening at the Winter Garden last night. The flaws of "42d Street" are undeniably real and damaging. But, for now at least, they are nothing next to Gower Champion's final display of blazing theatrical fireworks.