The song ‘I Got Rhythm’ and the composer George Gershwin are known by equally large numbers of people. It is a shame, therefore, that ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ is far better known than the name Harry Warren. This is because, irrespective of anyone’s personal preference, Warren’s standing and importance were very much the equal of Gershwin’s, and he was the first major American songwriter to compose primarily for film.
Gershwin’s An American in Paris is currently appearing at the Dominion Theatre, and now Warren’s 42nd Street arrives at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Despite the fact, however, that both pieces represent works that were movies first and stage musicals only later, the differences between them seem far greater than any similarities. The film An American in Paris originally came out in 1951, and Christopher Wheeldon’s 2014 stage version emphasises the story’s dark undertones as the brilliant dancing is actually quite measured and understated.
42nd Street came out a generation earlier in 1933 and, even though it was as a film, it was choreographed by Busby Berkeley and grounded in the tradition of rows of chorus girls dancing big numbers. The 1980 Broadway version, created by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble (who also directs here), did not do anything revolutionary with the piece, but rather focused on ensuring it was the epitome of the traditional feel-good, all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza.
It therefore seems churlish to dwell on the clichéd story of a young girl trying to become a Broadway star, or the frequently wafer thin characterisation. The show is aimed at lifting our spirits through its sheer spectacle and vitality, and if that is its goal then it is hard to picture this, or indeed any musical, succeeding to any greater degree. It is packed with exuberant dance numbers that are deliberately designed to build things higher and higher as they proceed. Every time a routine becomes so lavish that it seems as if it would be impossible for it to go any further, something is added to ensure that it does, and this process is often repeated three or four times in the same song.
Tap forms the backbone to the dancing and while, with new choreography from Randy Skinner, this is explored in a number of ways throughout the show, both the musical’s beginning and end hit us primarily through the sheer scale of the routines. The curtain opens on a fifty-strong cast all tapping together in an audition, and ends with them doing the same only now on the staircase of a Broadway stage. In both cases, the standard of execution is extremely high and there really could be no greater spectacle.
In between, ‘Keep Young and Beautiful’ sees the chorus girls lying on the stage in a large circle kicking Busby Berkeley-style, while a large diagonal mirror supplies us with the aerial view that a camera in the film provides. At the end of the song the mixture of bright colours spread across the various costumes gives our visual senses a treat, before the chorus line up in a semicircle that creates a rainbow by placing all the reds at one end and all the violets at the other. ‘We’re in the Money’ sees the girls tapping on giant dimes, ‘Shadow Waltz’ makes excellent use of silhouette to create its effects, while both ‘Sunny Side to Every Situation’ and ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ compartmentalise the stage, thus ensuring that the sets are spatially sound as they draw our eye towards the important details in the numbers.
The original film only included five songs (all with lyrics by Al Dubin), but this stage version has been augmented with others from Warren’s back catalogue. Thus, by including such classics as ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ and ‘Lullaby of Broadway’, we are treated to an evening full of excellent tunes as much as anything else. The eighteen-piece orchestra, under musical director Jae Alexander, is as large as one will ever find in the pit for a lengthy West End run, and the rich sound it produces in Philip J. Lang’s orchestrations ensures that both the music and the evening go with a swing.
The production values are very high and, although not all of Douglas J. Schmidt’s sets take us to places we would not expect to go, many create exceptionally striking images. The start of ‘We’re in the Money’ really creates the sense of four street urchins standing beneath a bridge, even though that massive object essentially exists on a backdrop. ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ takes place under the huge steel structure of Philadelphia’s old Broad Street Station, while ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ is performed on a set that conjures up an atmospheric, almost nourish, image of Paris.
From among the extremely strong cast, Clare Halse as Peggy Sawyer stands out as she displays some of the most impressive tap one is ever likely to see. She also reveals a highly pleasing voice, and proves a brilliant all-rounder in every way. For example, when at the start she must show in her first few moves that she has talent, spirit and determination, this requires strong acting and excellent comic timing as much as it does dancing skills. Sheena Easton also puts in an exceptionally polished performance as Dorothy Brock and succeeds in creating the impression of a caricature of a has-been, while actually delivering a sensitive performance in which her voice is deeply engaging. I certainly cannot recall many shows that have enjoyed a standing ovation before they have even reached their end.
For further information and tickets visit the 42nd Street Musical website.