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Renovating '42nd Street'

The changes in the long-running Broadway fable mirror the changes in American musical theater.

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2003

[Photos: Joan Marcus]
The changes in the long-running Broadway fable mirror the history of American musical theater.
Broadway director Julian Marsh (Patrick Ryan Sullivan) and budding stage star Peggy Sawyer (Catherine Wreford) in 42nd Street.

In many ways, the pedigree of 42nd Street traces the evolution of musical theater. First, it was a novel by Bradford Ropes about the seedy characters of old Broadway. Next, it was a Depression-era movie with groundbreaking choreography by Busby Berkeley. Then, in 1980, it was a boffo musical, which became a Tony Award-winning revival 21 years later.

Mark Bramble has been involved with 42nd Street since he and his writing partner, Michael Stewart, caught a showing of the movie and had the bright idea to make a stage musical from the story of a chorus girl who steps in for a Broadway diva to become an overnight star.

"It's the American dream," Bramble said. "That was present in Bradford Ropes' novel, it was present in the Warner Brothers film, and it is the backbone of the Broadway show."

Today, Bramble is the director of the song and dance spectacle that continues in New York and has a tour opening Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

When Bramble reminisces about the show, two names from Broadway lore dominate his yarns: producer David Merrick, the legendary "Abominable Showman," and director-choreographer Gower Champion.

Merrick produced the musical, Champion directed it, and their collaboration led to one of the most dramatic opening nights in theater history, Aug. 25, 1980. Bramble was at the Winter Garden that afternoon for a last-minute run-through.

"It was about 4 o'clock when Merrick appeared on the stage and summoned me," Bramble said. "We went to the furthest backstage corner, and he literally fell against me and began sobbing and said that Gower was dead."

Champion had died of kidney failure that morning, but Merrick managed to keep the news a secret until after the curtain went up. As a result, nobody in the cast or audience knew of the director's death when the producer came onstage after the show ended and had received 11 curtain calls.

"The audience was standing and cheering, and Merrick held up his hand and said, "This is tragic,' and the audience roared with laughter," Bramble said. "They thought, "Oh, it's David Merrick, making another joke,' and he said, "No, no, you don't understand. Gower Champion is dead.'

"People literally fell back into their seats. Members of the cast began crying. A couple of people screamed. Then the curtain went down on Merrick and the shattered cast. It was probably one of the top 10 most memorable moments of the 20th century in terms of Broadway openings."

42nd Street was a smash that ran nearly nine years, but it marked the end of an era. Not only was it the final show staged by Champion, it was also Merrick's last hurrah.

"Broadway was in a state of transition," said Bramble, who got his start in the theater as an apprentice in Merrick's office in 1971. "It was the end of the independent producer as king of theater. You still had David Merrick, you had Alex Cohen, you had Kermit Bloomgarden, all independent producers, all of whom had made a tremendous contribution to the American theater, all of whom are gone now and have been replaced by the likes of the Disney Corp. and other corporate entities producing Broadway shows. Cameron (Mackintosh) is the last of the independent producers to really make a go of it."

The money required to put on a show got to be too much for an independent producer to raise. Exhibit A: 42nd Street, which set a standard for Broadway when Merrick pegged the top ticket at $50 (today the top ticket on Broadway is $100).

"The original production cost $2.5-million in 1980," Bramble said. "At that time that was the most expensive show ever to be produced on the Broadway stage. Well, the revival cost $12-million-plus just 20 years later.'

Merrick, who died in 2000, never had another hit. Broadway was overrun by the British megamusicals: Cats, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon.

Champion had a long relationship with Merrick. He directed and choreographed many hits, including Bye Bye Birdie and Hello, Dolly!, but his reputation has been eclipsed by his contemporary Bob Fosse.

"Gower has disappeared from our awareness," Bramble said. "Fosse has been kept alive through Chicago and Fosse. His style of dancing is much more appealing to people today than Gower's. Gower was a self-described meat-and-potatoes man, and Fosse was a much more sexual, sinuous kind of creator."

Musical staging and new choreography for the revival was done by Randy Skinner, who assisted Champion on the original.

Bramble has worked with many stars and stars-to-be in various productions of 42nd Street. Jerry Orbach originated the role of director Julian Marsh before leaving theater for a career in TV (notably Law & Order) and movies.

"Jerry Orbach is a good-luck actor," he said. "I don't think he was ever in a flop show. He was in The Fantasticks and even before that, The Threepenny Opera. Jerry went from hit to hit to hit. He's just a wonderful actor and one of the rare instances of a star who is also a regular person."

In the mid 1980s, Catherine Zeta-Jones was in the London production of 42nd Street, first as a member of the chorus, later as Peggy Sawyer, the stagestruck ingenue from Allentown, Pa.

"It was her big break. She was a girl from Wales who was 16 years old, and you simply could not take your eyes off her," Bramble said. "There may have been 60 people on the stage, but your eye went to Catherine."

42nd Street has changed in every incarnation. Though the movie is regarded as a classic musical, it had only four songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin: Shuffle Off to Buffalo, You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me, Young and Healthy and the title song. The 1980 musical had nine more Warren songs, and the revival added another three.

Bramble said the difference between the original stage musical and the revival can be summed up in one word:

"Technicolor. In 1980 we wanted to create the illusion of a black and white movie being done live onstage. In the new production, we wanted to create a Technicolor, MGM-like lollipop-colored show that was a tribute to all movie musicals, not just the 1930s movie musicals but everything that followed."

Theater preview

42nd Street opens Tuesday and runs through Sunday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. Tickets: $24.50-$66.50. (813) 229-7827, toll-free 1-800-955-1045,

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