The 42nd Street cast
Review: 42nd Street4:24, 17th October 2017
The fabulous choreography and glittering costumes fail to salve the rampant sexism of this Broadway revival.
The original 1980 Broadway show 42nd Street was based on the 1932 novel by Bradford Ropes and the subsequent 1933 Warner Bros film, which premiered four years into the Great Depression – a fact that the film owes much of its immediate success to; such was the state of the United States at the time that the ‘feel-good’ factor uplifted many a destitute person. Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s show has been revived and toured internationally several times; most recent is this West End revival, again with Bramble directing.
If you want a brief, visual summation as to what 42nd Street is about, you need only look at the original film poster. Reminiscent of old James Bond posters, it shows a tunnel through the spread legs of lined-up faceless women in heels, gloves and tiny shorts.
The plot follows a group of actors desperate not just for fame, but to survive; premiering their show Pretty Lady is their last hope. This desperation is personified in Peggy Sawyer, a young woman trying to break into the tough industry of show business while also finding her feet in a world that doesn’t necessarily want her.
But while things seem tough for Peggy, they are too for the cast and crew of Pretty Lady; the show is relying on funding via the appearance of prima donna veteran star Dorothy Brock (played absolutely astoundingly by singer-by-trade Sheena Easton, who famously sang the James Bond theme song, ‘For Your Eyes Only’). Dorothy, aside from being a difficult woman to work with – and, though it’s not said explicitly, considered a diva, because how dare a woman demand anything from anyone, even if she’s worked hard for it – risks the show’s funding after offending a major sponsor of the show by spurning his drunken and unwanted advances. After Peggy accidentally knocks Dorothy over during a rehearsal, Dorothy breaks her ankle and Peggy is fired. The show being everyone’s last hope, they eventually scrabble around for Peggy’s forgiveness, and she’s rehired in Dorothy’s place.
I’m going to jump right in and say it: this production is outrageously sexist. It dresses up sexual harassment and assault as something romantic and desirable; from Peggy’s entrance, she is chased (literally) by fellow actor Billy Lawlor (portrayed with admitted panache by Stuart Neal), and when she declines his offer to dance, having only just met him, he proceeds to dance around her until she submits. Virtually all the women in the cast coo and squeal rather than present anything resembling personalities, and when Peggy faints (because women faint at slight inklings of hardship, of course), she is manhandled like a doll.
The trio of ‘friends’ Peggy has, none of whom seem to care especially about her until their own necks are on the line, were so sexed-up that my friend, who does drag, noticed from row M that one of them had had her breasts contoured to make them appear larger.
Worse than that for me was the way Pretty Lady director Julian Marsh acts towards Peggy. Alone together in her dressing room right before she’s due to go on stage, he abuses his position and power, tossing aside all professionalism to kiss her while she’s vulnerable. The kiss looks forced and uncomfortable. If it’s supposed to be consensual, it doesn’t come across. After sexually abusing his colleague, he then infantilises her by saying ‘You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!’ No pressure then, Peggy. Safe to say, I was furious.
Now, onto the casting: it’s almost completely white. There are, I counted, 58 cast members. Of the 58, four – yes, four – are black. It’s 2017. We know that there were BAME actors working in the 1930s. There is absolutely no excuse.
There are some redeeming features to 42nd Street – not entirely, but enough to stop it totally tanking. The acting, while tenuous for Clare Halse’s Peggy, is for the most part strong. The singing too is spectacular, but it’s Kelli Barclay and Simon Adkins’ choreography that’s the real star here. The dance moves, largely based around tap and jazz, really made a show of Roger Kirk’s magnificent costume designs – think glitter, sequins and swooshy dresses. There was one special moment involving a giant mirror that was tilted to reflect the circle of dancers lying on the floor, whose moves were reminiscent of synchronised swimmers. It was totally captivating.
This leads me onto the set design, which is fairly typical of the show’s vaudevillian, roaring 30s genre; there are gritty street scenes and plush nightclubs, portrayed with revolving platforms and mobile buildings that rotate to reveal concealed inner rooms – but my favourite design was a huge wall with fire stairs down either side. With the stage completely dark, each ‘window’ lit up like a dressing room mirror when the people within sang.
It is such a shame about the plot. While the dance moves are breath-taking, I was unfortunately unable to push aside the constant misogyny – and yes, of course it’s ‘typical’ of the time, but in 2017 I feel it’s a cop-out excuse. Suffragettes and the concept of women as people capable of bodily autonomy and decision-making existed decades (and dare I say it: thousands of years!) before this play is set. Yes, of course sexism was – and still is – rife, particularly within show business. But as was my issue with Half a Sixpence, aside from nostalgia, I cannot see the point of reviving something so ridiculously dated without intelligently and carefully reworking it, or portraying a message about the themes within. I suppose the point was nostalgia however, and to bring back to life something purely for the sake of an audience that wasn’t alive when the original film was released.
If you have students interested in costume, stage and technical design, or triple-threat students who can or want to dance and sing while acting, then this production would be a good example for them. Otherwise, I would steer clear and seek out some more thoughtfully-executed theatre instead.
42nd Street is currently running at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London, until February 10. Tickets and further information can be found at www.42ndstreetmusical.co.uk [/box]
Rebecca Pizzey is the editorial assistant of Teaching Drama. She is an English Literature BA and Creative Writing MA graduate from Brunel University London.