By Evan Henerson
As showbiz tales go, “42nd Street’s” is one of the oldest and most inspirational. Fresh faced starry-eyed girl gets off the bus from Allentown determined to find a job – any job – in show business. When the star breaks her ankle, up steps the unknown to take over and write her name in lights.
Great stuff, right? Well, naturally, there’s a story behind the effort to bring the classic 1933 film to the Broadway stage in 1980 where it ran for more than eight years. Likewise, there’s another tale behind the 2001 Broadway revival on which the current production at the Hollywood Pantages is based. In the more than 30 years he has spent with the show, Mark Bramble – the musical’s co-writer and the revival’s director –can rattle off an assortment of them.
But in the summer of 2015, when Bramble and choreographer Randy Skinner re-assembled to assemble the newest touring cast, Bramble put out a call for new stories about another time.
“When I approach a new production, I really do start from scratch, and I want to put the show in a context that’s relevant to the time in which the production is being done,” Bramble said. “We’re just getting out of — and some people say we’re still not out of — this tremendous recession. In 1933, 42nd street, the film really got America out of the Depression.”
“These are people in their 20s and 30s and they had no understanding of the Great Depression. Many of them didn’t even know it existed,” he continued. “I gave them an assignment: find someone in your life who was alive in 1933 and who had a memory of that time. We shared those stories every day before rehearsal.”
While several “42nd Street” company members came back with stories of loss and ruin, others found evidence of ingenuity and even prosperity. An African American singer and dancer and her sister got jobs singing at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem (“they had never had it so grand,” Bramble said.) Another cast member found someone who spoke of planting a secret vegetable garden, protected by a ramshackle fence, on which they survived and, when possible, helped feed the neighborhood.
Bramble shared a personal story as well. Bramble’s mother, a child at the time, accompanied her father when he went to work on Saturdays to take violin lessons at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute. One day while on the train, they learned that the stock market had crashed and the banks had closed. The girl asked her father what all of this meant. It meant, her father explained, that the only money the family had left was what was currently in his wallet.
“When the country began to get back on its feet, and she resumed her routine of going to Baltimore, she would see people on the train and in the train station who she had once seen as well dressed businessmen, and they were selling apples,” Bramble said. “They had lost their jobs. They had lost everything, and there they were trying to survive by literally selling apples.”
Bramble first heard this story in the late 1970s when he and co-writer Michael Stewart were figuring out how to bring “42nd Street” to the stage. After watching a screening of the film at the Carnegie Cinema in the basement of Carnegie Hall, they rushed back to Stewart’s apartment and called composer Jerry Herman to gauge his interest in composing new music. Herman’s response: absolutely not. Anybody who adapted “42nd Street” for the stage and didn’t use Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s songs in a stage musical was a fool.
Bramble, Stewart and director-choreographer Gower Champion set out to secure the rights to the song catalog. Meanwhile, word of the team’s quest filtered back to legendary producer David Merrick. Merrick, who had been working on films in Hollywood, wanted to get back to Broadway and thought “42nd Street” would be the perfect vehicle.
Stewart balked, still smarting from the failure of their collaboration on 1974’s “Mack and Mabel.” Bramble insisted they take a meeting with the producer, and Stewart went in with guns blazing.
“We met at the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel,” Bramble recalled. “Mike was a very feisty guy and he was very pissed off with Merrick over ‘Mack and Mabel.’ He sat down and he was practically growling, he was so angry. He said, ‘David, this is a big show. We want 16 girls,’ and Merrick looked at him as if he had lost his mind.”
“He said, ’16 girls? I won’t do it with less than 24, and if we can fit them on the stage, I’ll use 36.’ Of course, that shut Mike up. David said, ‘I want to do the biggest show since the Second World War,’ and we set about to do that.”
As the team came together, Champion – the show’s director and choreographer – needed a male dance assistant to work with arranger Donald Johnston. Johnston recommended a young dancer from Ohio named Randy Skinner.
“I was kind of the same age as a lot of the kids I was in charge of,” Skinner recalled. “On the one hand, I felt like one of the kids, and wanted to go out with them at night. The other half of me realized that this was one of those breaks that happens without your realizing that it could be life altering. Which it was.”
The out of town reviews were not favorable, but Merrick forged ahead anyway. At its first preview in Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, Bramble recalls maybe 300 people in an auditorium that held 2,000. On the play’s opening night in 1980, Champion passed away. The musical went on to become the 14th longest running show in Broadway history.
“42nd Street’s “success effectively launched the careers of both Bramble and Skinner who reunited to stage the 2001 revival, Bramble as director, Skinner as choreographer. The two men have subsequently worked on productions both regionally and around the world from London to Shanghai, from Berlin to Tokyo. Bramble has been nominated for Tony Awards for the original book and for his direction of the 2001 revival. Skinner’s choreography for the revival was also Tony-nominated.
Skinner calls it “the granddaddy of all musicals.” Bramble concurs, citing the life-affirming message about the possibility of the American Dream, a theme that he says never gets old.
“If you follow your bliss, dreams really can come true,” Bramble said, “and I think that’s what the appeal was of the film in 1933, I think it’s what the appeal was of the original Broadway show in 1980, and I think it continues to be the appeal.”
And speaking of following your bliss, here’s one more story.
While still in high school in Houston, Caitlin Ehlinger took a master class with Skinner and declared it a dream to one day dance for Skinner professionally. Nearing her graduation date and with only high school musicals on her resume, she travelled to New York to audition for “42nd Street.” After a 10 day audition process, she won the role of – you guessed it – Peggy Sawyer, the unknown ingénue who becomes a star.
Only in the theater.