I was in London for a two day conference on International Development (which reminds me that I never got around to telling those who asked more about the last International Development thing I went to – one of these days I’ll write properly about what I’m doing in my new job). I decided the best way to spend the evening would be at the theatre – and so scrolled through the list of things on. My eye was caught by 42nd Street – since I’d intended to see the film a few years ago (and failed), and owned the screenplay (which I haven’t read). A couple of clicks, and some scouring of theatremonkey.com, and I’d picked my seat.
Before I describe the musical: an anecdote. Off I sauntered, from the place I was staying – the Youth Hostel off Oxford Street, since you ask, and since I’m all glamour all the time – to the Harold Pinter Theatre. It was only about 15 minutes’ walk. I got there a good ten minutes before the musical was due to start… and saw the posters for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It dawned on me, with horror, that I’d gone to the wrong theatre (I’m seeing that play tomorrow). One quick check of Google Maps later, and I realised I was 15 minutes’ walk from the correct theatre (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane)… and only ten minutes before it started. Reader, I ran. I ran all the way, following Google Maps as I ran – and got there with 3 minutes to spare. And – sorry people either side of me – coughed all the way through the first half because I’m so unfit.
But thank goodness I did! Because 42nd Street is an absolute delight. I loved every moment – infectious, unashamed delight.
The plot is wafer thin. Apparently it’s based on a novel by Bradford Ropes – I can only imagine that the novel is terrible, because the whole plot is basically ‘ingénue comes to Broadway; becomes star’. But that is all you need in a musical. It’s plenty. Throw in an older lead who is reluctant to hand on the baton (played, to my surprise, by Sheena Easton), and it’s all there. Oh, and it’s set in the 1930s, so what’s not to like?
From beginning to end, 42nd Street is a whirlwind of tap dance, big voices, glittery costumes, and pizzazz. There are so many excellent sets and set changes – my favourite being one where various windows are lit up in sequence as the people leaning out of them sing – and the finale is out of this world. While Sheena Easton is the big name, it’s Clare Halse as Peggy Sawyer (the ingénue) who really takes one’s breath away.
The songs? Well, the only ones I knew were ‘We’re in the Money’ and ‘Keep Young and Beautiful’. There is the issue that, since the characters are rehearsing or performing a separate musical throughout most of the performances, the songs illustrate a plot that we never learn – but if you aren’t hoping that the songs progress the plot, then you can sit back and enjoy how fun they are.
I was there for one of the previews, I believe, but it was already slick and brilliant. I’ve not been to many productions which received standing ovations, but this was one of them – perhaps only the 4th or 5th I’ve been part of. Fully deserved – in these fraught times, this is pure, delightful escapism. If you can – go.