Tonight 42nd Street – the epitome of a great West End show – ends its run at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Having promised myself I would go since it’s arrival in 2017, on New Year’s Eve, I finally made it. It was a wonderful way to end 2018, reminding me of everything I love about theatre. I was lucky enough to see the 1980s production (also at Drury Lane) – as well as the Broadway revival in 2003 (at the then Ford Center for the Performing Arts – ironically on 42nd Street itself). And the current London production is – by a very long way – the best.
At the heart of 42nd Street is a universal story. Peggy Sawyer – the girl from the chorus line, who with hard work and some lucky breaks overcomes setbacks to become a star. There is a Peggy Sawyer somewhere in all of us – striving to get on in life and looking for the opportunity that will make our dreams come true. There are also contemporary edges – Peggy’s search is for professional success (rather than love). When stardom does arrive she stays true to herself and chooses to go to ‘the kid’s party’ instead of the Ritz – an authenticity that also resonates with contemporary concerns.
It is said that great musicals are those that send you home humming the show tunes. I found myself on the way to the theatre mentally singing ‘We’re in the Money’ and ‘Lullaby of Broadway’. A good story, and memorable show tunes are however, not enough alone for a bona fide hit. This one has the other key ingredients in spades. The production values are faultless. A chorus line of 50 is rare in the contemporary west end and it is breathtaking to witness. With a choreography that is both coherent and fluid, from the iconic opening number and sight of those tap dancing feet as the curtain rises, to tapping through ‘we’re in the money’ atop giant coins. 42nd Street is also a visual delight with a glittering range of costume changes from pastel to sequin as we join Peggy on her journey.
The Theatre Royal’s vast stage is well utilised. Spectacular dance numbers with a large toe tapping chorus line, reminiscent of the golden age of Hollywood musicals, were made for a stage this size. Indeed it is hard to imagine 42nd street anywhere else. That life imitated art during the original London production (when a teenaged Catherine Zeta Jones became a real-life Peggy Sawyer. Finding herself, by chance, propelled from the chorus line and second understudy to stardom when both the lead and understudy were unable to go on) has only added to the mythology. The rest, is as they say, history.
The cast are outstanding with the chorus line both technically faultless and demonstrating an easy exuberance and genuinely believable love for this show. They deliver an electric and uplifting atmosphere – that makes us root for them all from the start. Clare Halse is an excellent Peggy – but the star of the show is Bonnie Langford who delivers an assured but emotionally nuanced – and sympathetic -Dorothy Brock.
A light goes out in London’s West End tonight. I hope its not long before we see the like again.