Naughty, Bawdy, Gaudy, Sporty 42nd Street

I love 42nd Street.

You can go ahead and pick your jaw up off the floor now. People think I only like really dark subject matter, and while I do love that, what I love most is truthfulness. I love shows that tell the truth about people and human relationships, about love and other emotions, about how people conform, or don't, to the world around them. If you don't know 42nd Street, you may be surprised to learn that the central plot has virtually nothing to do with romantic love; this is a story about the love of theatre, and even more specifically, the love of musical theatre.

How could I not love this show?

I first saw 42nd Street on Broadway with the original cast when I was a junior in high school. It was my first trip to New York, and I saw six shows that week, also including The Pirates of Penzance, Barnum, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, Evita, and A Chorus Line (all original casts except for A Chorus Line). 42nd Street was the last one, and it blew me away. The cast was amazing – Jerry Orbach, Lee Roy Reams, Tammy Grimes, Wanda Richert, and it was directed and choreographed by the legendary Gower Champion.

Experiencing this old-school musical in the beautiful old Majestic Theatre, it was like I had gone back in time to the 1930s to see a quintessential musical comedy at the peak of the form, almost as cool as being able to see opening night of Anything Goes or No, No, Nanette. Gower Champion was my Way Back Machine, the link between Then and Now, and though he had died by the time I saw the show (he died the afternoon of opening night), he did me one of the greatest favors of my life. I really understood old-school musical comedy for the first time after seeing that show – not the caricatures and spoofs of musical comedy, like Dames at Sea, but the real thing, the pure American art form created by George M. Cohan at the turn of the last century, perfected by George Abbott, and today in this new century, being reinvented by a new crop of brilliant, adventurous writers as the neo musical comedy.

42nd Street was old-school but it wasn't stupid or empty-headed. It wasn't trivial. It was smart and (for the 1930s) street-wise, with the Depression and unemployment hovering over everything. Now, having written a musical theatre history book, I know that many of the most successful musical comedies of the 1920s and 30s were not the idiotic stereotype we now think of as old-school musical comedy. Many were very clever, very original, very insightful in their subtle (and not so subtle) social satire, a quirky blend of cynicism and romanticism. No, No, Nanette can be taken as pure cotton candy, but if you want to see it, there's plenty of social commentary there about America's increasingly unhealthy relationship with money in the 1920s. In fact, that relationship with money related directly to the causes of the collapse of the economy four years later in 1929. It was a "light" musical comedy and also a clear-eyed, sharp-witted satire.

Admittedly, 42nd Street on stage wasn't complex in the way most contemporary musicals are; it was more like the 1930s shows it was imitating. But it was also a fable about accepting the path in front of you and throwing yourself into it with all your might. It was a hero myth, though I didn't know what that was when I first saw the show. And that original cast took it seriously. Far from the stereotype of blissful (and phony) naivete, a lot of these early shows were street smart, tough, and a little horny. George M. Cohan's early musical comedies offended a lot of people because they were brash and aggressive and slangy, in a era when European operetta was still the dominant form. 42nd Street's style was the kind of enormous but truthful style I thought I had learned from Little Shop, Bat Boy, and Urinetown, but now I realize I learned it from 42nd Street and the revival of The Pirates of Penzance. These two shows I saw on my first trip to New York would shape my entire artistic life.

I feel so lucky to have gotten that rare glimpse into my artistic roots. At that point in 1981, I had no idea American musical comedy would return in the 1990s as the neo musical comedy. I had no idea I'd be running an alternative musical theatre company. I had no idea that musical comedy would reemerge with such force in this new century. Who could have foreseen Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or Spelling Bee?

Seeing 42nd Street taught me so much about style, tone, size, energy, pacing, and that delicate tightrope between emotional honesty and musical comedy's exaggerated, self-aware style. It gave me a remarkably authentic look at the early art form, from the mind of someone who remembered.

Over the years, New Line has developed its own style of performance, its own personality – very aggressive, very intimate, very honest, very adult, outrageous, even vulgar, but also serious-minded, and anchored by a phrase coined by one of the Bat Boy writers, “the height of expression, the depth of sincerity.” The canvas is bigger, the colors richer, the brushstrokes more expansive, but the image is no less true, the details no less real, the textures no less subtle. Theatre scholar Tom Oppenheim writes in the outstanding book Training of the American Actor about the great acting teacher Stella Adler, "Stella insisted that characters must be multidimensional and grounded in oneself. They must be real human beings. But she does not shy away from painting characters in broad strokes. While she demands truth, she never shies away from size."

But where did we learn all that? From George M. Cohan, by way of George Abbott and Gower Champion.

And yet, as much as I love this show – particularly Gower Champion's original production – my feelings about it have changed a bit since I read Bradford Ropes' original 42nd Street novel. The story of the film and the stage musical is really just the last section of the novel, the rest of which is very dark and very adult, and much more about the sordid, fucked-up personal lives of the show's cast and crew, rather than about the opening of Pretty Lady.

It's a really terrific novel, fast-paced, funny, cynical, vulgar, nasty, incestuous, truthful, sad, wry, emotional, all underlined throughout with copious amounts of sex and booze. Like The Wild Party, it's a story about people who live outside mainstream cultural and moral norms, these creative (and often crazy and damaged) artists who have powerful drives and even more powerful insecurities. The theatre has no glamour in the novel; it's just what these people do for a living, and it's hard work. Characters in the film and stage musical get drunk; characters in the novel are alcoholics. In the film and stage show, they make references to "Anytime" Annie's easy morality; in the novel, these people are all sleeping around, including the married ones. In the film and show, Billy Lawlor is an amiable skirt chaser; in the novel, he's director Julian Marsh's pampered boyfriend.

I wish someone like Andrew Lippa or Kyle Jarrow would write an original musical that's really based on the novel. Maybe they could call it 42nd Street After Dark or something...

It's the most fun novel I've ever read about show business. Unfortunately, the novel is out of print, but you can still get it through inter-library loan. There are used copies on Amazon but they're expensive. I contacted one of those publishers who takes famous out-of-print books and re-releases them, and asked them to publish 42nd Street. No idea if they will. They said they'd look into it.

I have a bootleg video (from Japanese TV, I think) of the original production of 42nd Street, with some of the original leads still in it, though not Jerry Orbach or Wanda Richert. It's so wonderful to be able to (mostly) re-experience that night in 1981 when I first got a glimpse into authentic classic American musical comedy.

People think of me as the guy who only likes musicals with the word fuck in them. But though my taste does run to the Dark Side, I don't think most folks understand how adult, how cynical, and how subtly political many of the early musical comedies were. But beyond that, I will always love 42nd Street mostly because at its core, it's about how hard it is to do what we do – making art, telling stories – and how deeply and desperately we need to do it. (And, of course, who among us hasn't witnessed an ugly, drunken confrontation at a cast party?) Though the story of Peggy Sawyer is an exaggerated one, it's not a fabrication.

When we did Kiss of the Spider Woman, Scott Tripp had to step into the huge leading role of Molina a week before opening, learn songs, scenes, staging, choreography. And then he thrilled the critics and our audiences.

Making musicals takes everything out of you, leaving nothing but an exhausted shell on closing night. It requires an extraordinary amount of energy. But it's also more exhilarating – every single time – than anything else I've ever done in my life. By a mile. And the novel and the show really capture that. Just like me and my New Liners, these characters can't really do anything else – they have to make musicals. It's who they are.

As I often remind people, research shows that pot is not addictive. But musicals are.

Long live the Musical!


Caitlin Ehlinger | May 7, 2015 at 12:21 AM

Loved this blog post! So inciteful, well-written, and helpful!! It allowed me to see 42nd Street in a different light.. Thank you!