A depression legacy -- of fun

Will Americans fifty years from now be whistling the tuens of today and marveling at what fun people managed to have during the hard times of 1980? The question comes to mind as Broadway crowds stand in line to be exhilarated by the echoes of the songs and dances of the 1930s' depression in the new/old musical " 42nd Street." If this is the kind of plain delight brought about when things are bad, it's almost enough -- almostm -- to make us worry about what gloom might descend if those economists are right who way the recession is over. And we sonder if Ronald Reagan may be onto something other than politics when he calls the recession of a depression -- that Americans have proved in a depression they can keep their sunny sides up.

But what help they had in 1933 from the talents in their midst! That was the year when the movies included not only Ruby Keeler in "42nd Street," which has now taken to the stage with additional material from the period, but Ginger Rogers in "Sitting Pretty," Joan Crawford in "Dancing Lady," Bing Crosby in "Going Hollywood" -- all musicals in which show business itself was part of the story. "42nd Street" is the quintessential fable of the talented unknown who replaces the star at the last minute and justifies the labors of all who have had faith in her.

The plot, to be sure, is little but a device to display a few basic human attitudes: shyness overcome by spunk, despair overcome by action, jealousy overcome by justice. And to wrap it all in music and dancing -- especially, for some reason, tap dancing. Was it because almost anybody could tap dance a little -- as a spectator did during the intermission of last Saturday's matinee -- and thus the audiences could almost feel in their bones the magic of the experts on screen and stage? At any rate, when "42nd Street" opens on a crowded stage resounding with simple tap steps, a 1980 audience welcomes it with the open arms that the fun of the depression days somehow invites.

This is not the only show calling to the '30s for an infusion of untrammelled entertainment. As the last testament of director-choreographer Gower Champion, it draws together talents of today in ways more complex than they seem without sacrificing sheer high spirits. If this is how the legacy of hard times can gladden today, maybe 1980 will leave some smiles to the future, too.

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