Musicals based on movies might be ten a penny today, but when the legendary Broadway producer David Merrick attempted to get 42nd Street to the stage, he was taking a big gamble – a $3 million gamble at that, $9 million in today’s terms. As of 1980, only one movie had been made into a musical and that, Gigi, had been an enormous flop.
His show, however, is credited with one of the all-time great opening images. Director and choreographer Gower Champion created a set-piece that started with the curtain just open, revealing a chorus line of calves: 40 pairs of feet tap-dancing in unison. It sent the Winter Garden’s audience wild from start to finish.
It is, in a way, the ultimate backstage story – a wholehearted love letter to Broadway and its showbiz dreamers. Wannabe actress Peggy Sawyer steps off the bus in New York, fresh from Pennsylvania, and is rushed into auditions for that season’s big show Pretty Lady after two chance meetings – one with its young male lead Billy Lawlor, another with its director Julian Marsh. She wins a part in the chorus, looking up to the leading lady – a big name, albeit past her prime – Dorothy Brock.
On opening night, however, Peggy slips and pushes Dorothy breaking her ankle. Fired by the director, she’s about to head home for Pennsylvania when Julian changes his mind and promotes her to save his show. It leaves Peggy two days to learn the part in full and take her big break. Fretting and anxious, she wins her predecessor’s approval, her director’s heart and, in the end, the love of her audience. As Julian instructs her in the musical’s most famous line, she goes out onstage a youngster and comes back a star.
That’s what happened to Catherine Zeta Jones in the 1984 West End premiere, incidentally. Cast in the chorus as a teenager, she stepped in to play Peggy when both the actress and her understudy were hit by illness. Shortly afterwards, she won the role for good.
42nd Street is, in a sense, the prototype of a jukebox musical. Merrick took the four songs that Al Dubin and Harry Warren wrote for the 1933 film, and added a string of their other popular hits, folding them into a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble. Songs like ‘About a Quarter to Nine’ and ‘We’re In The Money’ add up to a surprisingly familiar score that’s since been bolstered by further additions of enduring numbers: ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ and ‘Keep Young and Beautiful’.