The sound of tapping feet invokes a whole era of classic Broadway and Hollywood musicals and when the curtain rises on this tap-infused extravaganza it pauses 18 inches or so off the stage to afford us our first glimpse of the source of that pulsing, kinetic sound. 42nd Street is a show which grew out of the 1933 Hollywood movie but more importantly the songs of the great Harry Warren – one of the American songbook’s most prolific but still unsung heroes. His name should be mentioned in the same breath as Kern, Rodgers and Gershwin, but rarely is.
Since its first Gower Champion driven stage incarnation back in 1980 42nd Street has acquired cult status as surely as it has gathered additional songs and this latest West End offering in the very theatre which first hosted it – the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane – is a celebration as much as it is a revival. A musical about the creation of a musical at the height of the Great Depression could hardly be more symbolic of what musicals have always striven to do. The idea that you can, in the words of a song that Warren didn’t write, “tap your troubles away” is at the very heart of this one.
So you may not be able to see the dancing feet but you sure as hell can hear them – and as Jae Alexander’s cracking band hurls itself into the rip-roaring ‘Overture’, trumpets flaring, saxes honking, the sound of an era is re-booted and re-focused. This terrific 19-piece band – with trumpets led by the John Wilson Orchestra’s Mike Lovatt – is, in essence, the pick of West End stylists and as good a reason as any for acquiring the album. For the record, Philip J Lang’s original orchestrations are expertly revamped and freshly minted here by musical supervisor Todd Ellison.
Sheena Easton was this revival’s surprise casting – an erstwhile pop sensation from, some might have thought, the wrong side of the tracks, boldly coming through as veteran Broadway star Dorothy Brock. She certainly has the voice (remember the Bond song ‘For Your Eyes Only’) but more pertinently the style for songs like the gorgeous ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ and ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ where the heartache peaks in her indomitable belt. Then there’s Clare Halse’s Peggy Sawyer, the fast-footed hoofer who goes out a chorus girl and comes back a star when Brock takes a tumble; and the suave Tom Lister as all-powerful, he-who-must-be-obeyed Broadway director Julian Marsh for whom the show will always go on.
But 42nd Street will always be about the ensemble numbers and the orgy of tap that drives it from one show-stopper to the next. “We’re in the Money” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” could only have been written when they were written – and they really don’t write them like that anymore. And, of course, the two epic exponents of the genre – “Lullaby of Broadway” with its thrilling segue from dialogue and Peggy Sawyer’s cry of “I’ll do it!” and the title number, both of which build and build to monster half-tempo reprises, the latter peaking with one of the West End’s greatest spectacles as row after row of dancers come “over the top” of what can only be described as the show’s “stairway to paradise”.
The lyric of the title song goes like this: “It’s the rhapsody of laughter and tears, naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty 42nd Street”. Just so.