'42nd Street' -- the shortest distance between two eras

In the wonderful world of show business, a revival can mark the shortest distance between two eras. Revivals telescope time. They recollect the past, perhaps rearrange it, and inevitably re-view it in terms of the present. Glancingly, even subliminally, they supply a subtext of comment on the material revived. In all these respects, there is more than meets the eye to the eye-filling spectacle of "42nd Street," the first smash hit of the current Broadway season.

The musical-comedy extravaganza at the Winter Garden Theater offers a fleeting, panoramic look at show-business history over the past 40 or 50 years. Its overview assembles a collage of creative influences and styles. It celebrates bygone cinematic glories. It speaks to theater history and even supplies footnotes on cultural and socioeconomic matters. Finally, when Jerry Orbach's Julian Marsh takes stage center alone, his defiant delivery of the minor-key serenade to 42nd Street's rhinestone glitter becomes a mordant reminder of what the ravages of time and decay have done to a once glamorous setting.

The latest fictional chapter of 20th century show-business annals began in 1932 with a novel by Bradford Ropes about the trials and tribulations of mounting a Broadway musical. Glorying in the stuff of theatrical legend, it tells how an unknown chorine takes over the show's leading role at the last moment and saves the day for all concerned. Broadway backstage became the stuff of Hollywood sound stages and "42nd Street" became the archetype of Warner Brothers' musicals in their 1930s heyday.

In the world make-believe, however good ideas don't fade away. They recycle.

Dissolve to 1977. After seeing the film again, librettist-lyricist Michael Stewart gets the idea of transforming the endearingly corny romance into a realm Broadway show. In 1933, "42nd Street" and its upbeat message reassured a public beset by economic problems at home and uncertainties abroad. Would not latter-day audiences, facing similar challenges, find cheer and reassurance in a stage version? Collaborator Mark Bramble agreed that they would. So did producer David Merrick and, subsequently, director-Choreographer Gower Champion. From the 250 songs written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin when under contract to Warners in the 1930s, the collaboraters chose the 16 numbers now winning rapturous applause at the Winter Garden.

Nowhere more than in its choreography does "42nd Street" illustrate cultural history in evolution. The movie's greatest visual fascination was the succession of brilliantly filmed, choreographic kaleidoscopes devised by the legendary Busby Berkeley. In these gorgeous geometric patterns, Berkeley gave dimension and variety to the single plane of the cinema. Mr. Champion had no such photographic gimmicks. Instead, aided by Robin Wagner's mobile, multidimensional scenery and Tharon Musser's lighting wizardry, he created interwoven patterns of stage movement. "42nd Street" on stage and screen illustrates how creative artists achieve comparable effects through differing milieus.

With some of the most breathtakingly light fantastic imaginable, "42nd Street" adds lustrously to the train of Broadway musicals which have vied with each other's choreographic themes and variations. We have had a rich panorama of evolving styles in such recent entertainments as "A Chorus Line," "Dancin'," "West Side Story," "Sugar Babies," and "Oklahoma!" "42nd Street" joins that honorable company. Furthermore, it revels in the glories of tap, the eye-dazzling, ear-tickling terpsichore that began making so strong a comeback in the '70s. Thus it is that theatrical forms revise and revitalize themselves.

The historic footnotes don't end there. The jargon of "42nd Street" is the slang of the '30s ("How about putting on the feed bag? . . . The crash got me down for the count . . . Pretty hot stuff . . . They're payin' $4.40 a seat out there, and they want hoofin'.") The look and feel of the '30s is compounded in Theoni V. Aldredge's fashion parade of period costumes. Futher footnotes occur in Mr. Wagner's glimmering tracery of theater marquees proclaiming Katharine Cornell in "Alien Corn," Ruth Gordon in "Three Cornered Moon," Edith Evans in "Evensong," Tallulah Bankhead in "Forsaking All Others," Mrs. Patrick Campbell in "A Party," and more.

To summarize these historical footnotes, "42nd Street" celebrates a time as well as a genre. 1980 looks at 1933 with affection and humor but no patronizing. It reminds us how close here and now can be to there and then. The time gap dissolves. Gower Champion, who passed on a few hours before the Broadway opening, ended a lustrous career on a note of triumph with a slow that will be delighting audiences for years to come.

Movies helped reduce the legitimate theater to a shadow of its former self. Now a $2.5 million stage musical based on a film about putting on a Broadway musical has turned shadows on a screen into figures on a stage. It's getting to be like a hall of endless mirrors. Will there be a new film version of "42nd Street?" Why not?

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.