42nd Street reminds us, should we have ever forgotten, what a great performer Lulu is. Returning to a West End musical for the first time since she was Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls (1984 – I was there!) she is ideal casting as the imperious Dorothy Brock, a Broadway diva who’s long-in-the-tooth career depends on the success of just one more hit show. Her general stroppiness is ignored by the crew and cast of Pretty Lady because the financial backing for the show is coming from her sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (Bruce Montague in cowboy hat, drawling and drooling over his prize star, just the right side of sleazy).
Fresh off the bus into the Big Apple from the sticks comes wannabe star Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse – a stunningly brilliant dancer who also sings and acts!) who stumbles her way into the chorus and then, when she accidentally causes Ms Brock to fall and break her ankle, into the leading role. We, of course, never doubt she’ll make it from the moment she steps onto the stage complete with large suitcase. We’ve seen this before in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Cathy Seldon in Singin’ in the Rain. Because although 42nd Street nominally pre-dates both those shows – it’s set in depression era 1933, when the original film was made – it only first saw life as a stage musical in 1980.
The original film had just five songs (music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin) but the stage version adds numbers the pair wrote for other 1930s films as well as one by Warren and Johnny Mercer – the brilliantly witty ‘There’s a Sunny Side to Every Situation.’ But that’s not all they’ve added. This show is the most glittering, spectacular cliché of a Broadway musical you’ll ever see. If you like to get value for money for your West End pound then this show delivers. Theatre Royal Drury Lane has the biggest stage in London and this show uses every bit of it, with the biggest cast you’ll ever see. The costumes are colourful and designed on the basis that there isn’t anything that can’t be improved by adding more sequins. And it’s the chorus that’s the real star here. From the iconic opening moment when the curtain lifts just enough to reveal a row of tap dancing feet to the spectacle of the finale when a suddenly unfolding staircase has hordes of dancers tapping their way down it, they deliver jaw-dropping moments repeatedly and on a grand scale.
The tough director of the show within a show is Julian Marsh, played by Tom Lister. His previous claim to fame is having been in Emmerdale, which is not a bad thing but doesn’t necessarily provide transferable skills for this kind of lynch-pin part. I have to say, though, that he is first class. He has a lovely singing voice and he deftly handles the difficult nature of his part (is he exploiting the young Peggy when he pushes her into the lead role, or does he really have feelings?).
Of course the problem with these shows about show business is that we’re invited to sympathise with the problems of people whose entire lives are founded upon make believe and their desire to be loved by people they don’t know (us!). Goodness knows there were people in the 1930s with real problems more deserving of our sympathy. The weak point in 42nd Street is that we don’t really worry about our heroine because it’s clear from the opening moment she’ll end up a star. There’s no real mystery or suspense created. The production overcomes this by throwing every musical theatre trick at you, but done bigger and better than you’ve ever seen before.
42nd Street is at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Lulu appears as Dorothy Brock until 7 July 2018.