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August 05, 2003

42nd Street


As I have admitted in the past, when it comes to musicals (of the modern variety) I am a pretty lukewarm consumer. Although I have somehow dragged my sorry self off to see “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables” and “Chicago” (among others) it was usually because my wife wanted to get dressed up and go out when we were playing tourist in New York or London. However, I took my daughter to see the revival of “42nd Street” in Los Angeles over the weekend, and I found myself wondering if, rather than not being too excited about musicals, if I’d simply been watching the wrong type?

I suspected I might be onto something more interesting when, waiting for the show to start, I found myself actually reading an essay by Christopher Breyer called “Old Broadway: The musical in the age of Pretty Lady.” Pretty Lady is, of course, the musical within-a-musical being put on during “42nd Street.” Anyway, I scented possibilities when I realized that Mr. Breyer, who seems a man of, ahem, conventional tastes, was apologizing for the retrograde vision of the musical offered in the 1933 film and in the 1980 stage adaptation:

In 1933, six years after the epochal Show Boat had definitively demonstrated just how sophisticated and dramatic and meaningful musical comedy could be, the average hit Broadway musical was still only about girls, gags, song and dance (and, to a lesser extent, dazzling lights, sets and costumes. Girls, gags, song and dance are, of course, essential to theatre (and life) but today we tend to think that the best musical theatre should also have story, characters and drama. This, the movie 42nd Street tells us, is not what most artists or audiences felt in the first decades of the 20th century.

Being the sort of cranky contrarian I am, I tend to admire retrograde visions. Screw progress: at least in cultural terms, it’s almost always an illusion and a deadly incitement to think that you're smarter than your grandfather. I found myself wondering if it were possible that the American musical had in reality taken some kind of cosmic wrong turn with “Showboat.” At least judging by the contemporary product, the musical certainly seems to find itself up a creek without a paddle.

In 1933, American popular musical theatre was—and, with some notable exceptions, had always been—essentially a variety show…[F]or decades vaudeville provided the main ingredient and life blood of Broadway musical comedy: star performers and acts…Broadway had its own variety format: the revue…And the line between revues and musical comedy “book” shows was very fine indeed. Musical comedies featured the same stars, the same comics and “specialty acts,” the same song and dance routines, as revues…Musical comedy’s dependency on vaudeville made story and drama if not actually impossible, then certainly difficult to achieve, and perhaps irrelevant.

Anyway, the play started and my musings fell into the back of my mind, where apparently they kept churning away. I say this because during Scene 6 of Act I, I suddenly sat up in my chair and thought “Brecht!”

To explain: Scene 6 of Act I is a Ziegfield-esque number, part of Pretty Lady, in which the company’s young romantic lead sings a tribute to “Dames.” During this the young and comely female cast members arrange themselves in graceful postures about the stage wearing not much except sequins and feathers. (And we’re talking 22-year-old professional dancers here.) Listening to the lyrics forced you to realize that through the mouth of a fictional character, the lyricist, Al Durbin (dead these past 58 years) was commenting on what you were currently engaged in doing: eyeing the merchandise, so to speak.

Who writes the words and music
For all the girly shows?
No one cares, and no one knows.
Who is the handsome hero
Some villain always frames?
But who cares if there's a plot or not,
When they've got a lot of dames!

What do you go for,
Go see a show for?
Tell the truth
You go to see those beautiful dames.
You spend your dough for
Bouquets that grow for
All those cute and cunning,
Young and beautiful dames.

Not that Al was particularly sentimental about the consequences of young chorines being eyed up by older gentleman with their supply of Wall Street "jack”:

Oh! Dames are temporary flames to you.
Dames, you don't recall their names, do you?
But their caresses
And home addresses,
Linger in your mem'ry of those beautiful dames

A Guy and His "Dames"

This “retrograde” movie musical, traitor to the middle-brow aesthetic of “Showboat,” had—within 5 years of the composition of the “Three-Penny Opera”—achieved the main goals of Brecht’s Epic Theatre. It had disposed of the well-made play, trashed any tendency towards “suspension of disbelief,” suppressed conventional character development, achieved a linear development of the story without any noticeable climax or catharsis, “foregrounded” spectacle, and offered a rather objective, indeed cold-eyed view of the social and economic aspects of its subject matter, Broadway during the Depression. (Frankly, it out-Brechted Brecht, at least as he existed in 1933. And, of course, since it was based on traditions that easily pre-dated Brecht, it reinforces my general notion that he was more of "Light Fingered Louie" in the world of ideas than an original thinker.)

As the musical progressed I was intrigued to see that "42nd Street" didn’t back off on its essentially icy vision of the musical theatre as a glamorous aspect of the sex trade. The story is about two women, one an aging star who is prostituting herself with a rich businessman in order to get one last starring role and one a talented young chorine who gradually overcomes her “virginal” inhibitions to turn up the candlepower on her sexuality. Eventually the aging star, who still carries a torch for her no-longer-successful vaudeville partner, gives up the sex trade, er, the musical comedy theatre for love, but no matter: the young chorine is recruited to replace her. And the impact of the Depression in limiting the economic options of these young women is made crystal clear throughout.

A particularly audacious scene in which Pretty Lady’s director brings the young chorine, having second thoughts about a career in show business, back into the fold, underlined all this. The director, a formerly successful figure in the Broadway theatre who needs a hit after being cleaned out by the stock market crash—in other words, a guy with massive ulterior motives—seduces her with, of all things, the Lullaby of Broadway:

Come on along and listen to
The lullaby of Broadway.
The hidee hi and boopa doo,
The lullaby of Broadway.
The band begins to go to town,
And ev'ryone goes crazy.
You rock-a-bye your baby 'round
'Til ev'rything gets hazy.

Hush-a-bye, "I'll buy you this and that,"
You hear a daddy sayin'.
And baby goes home to her flat
To sleep all day:
Good night, baby,
Good night, milkman's on his way.
Sleep tight, baby,
Sleep tight, let's call it a day!

Gee, who could turn down a chance to be a Broadway “baby” staying up all night with her sugar daddy? Not our ingénue! She’s gonna be a Star!

Broadway Babies

So as I went out into the night, whistling the amazing score (I’m not aware of a single tune by Andrew Lloyd Webber that’s good enough to deserve a place in “42nd Street”) I wondered if the prejudices of musical theatre fans like Mr. Breyer aren’t blinding producers to a real opportunity. I mean, according to Mr. Breyer’s essay, “42nd Street” was merely one of hundreds or thousands of revue-style musical comedies written and produced in the pre-World War II era. The sheet music and dialogue of those comedies must be moldering in the basement of university theatrical departments around the country.

I mean, it’s possible that the American public could, once again, be sophisticated enough to appreciate the Ziegfield Follies of 1928!



posted by Friedrich at August 5, 2003


I've seen film versions from the late 20s/early 30s of musicals from that time. If the sheet music of a musical like Golden Dawn is mouldering away in a basement somewhere, I daresay that's because it deserves to.

I'm more puzzled by Breyer's attitude in the first paragraph you cite:

In 1933, six years after the epochal Show Boat had definitively demonstrated just how sophisticated and dramatic and meaningful musical comedy could be, the average hit Broadway musical was still only about girls, gags, song and dance (and, to a lesser extent, dazzling lights, sets and costumes.

Good heavens, Christopher, you're going on as if you've only just discovered that conservative and/or less sophisticated art is capable of co-existing with more progressive and/or more sophisticated forms. How long did it take you to work that basic truth out?

Posted by: James Russell on August 5, 2003 5:21 AM

Here's a website that lists the other broadway musicals of 1933 and their hit songs (sorry---I don't know how to do that "link" thing).

Some pretty darn good songs including "If I Love Again" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes."

Posted by: annette on August 5, 2003 8:06 AM

Hear, hear. Couldn't agree more. As a general taste, I much prefer the catch-as-catch-can revue style show to the more "formal," post-"Showboat" musical, which has (as far as I'm concerned) an amazingly poor batting average.

The standard musical-lover line is that, with "Showboat" and even more with the "every song advances the plot," "unified" shows of the '50s (De Mille, Balanchine, etc), musicals left their shameful origins behind and achieved Art -- became a Great American Art Form. Hats off to the fab examples of this Great New Art Form ("Gypsy" especially), but balls to the argument more generally. I love revues and variety shows. A touch of story, some numbers and jokes, some personality and some sex -- what's not to like? Plus, there often is (for weirdos like you and me who like playing with this kind of thing) a lot of implicit (and unself-conscious) avant-gardism going on. It's just not being turned into theory and forced on you. You're bouncing in and out of frames of reference, you're stepping into and out of the fictional framework, you're commenting on the action as it's happening -- it's postmodern long before there was postmodernism. Plus no big deal about it.

Which leaves me thinking that maybe the kind of thinking about musicals as Art that we're noticing -- well, maybe it was part of the modernist insanity. Self-consciousness seen as a virtue; the unique, unified work of art that defines its own terms ... Interesting as well to notice that one of the fizziest things happening off-off-off-off Bway these days among young performers is a kind of post-po-mo vaudeville. The results are generally 'way too self-aware, conceptual and video-generation for my tastes, but maybe it represents a genuine desire to leave a lot of that modernist crap behind, and to return to "having fun putting on a show" as a legit and more than adequate motivation for doing theater. God bless that. Dance, sing, tell jokes, show off your figure and your personality -- why the hell not? It can make for a fun 70-90 minutes, and what's wrong with that?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 5, 2003 10:49 AM

What is the worship of "Gypsy"---generally people seem to think that was the peak of all musicals. I've seen it several times, including the movie and Bette Midler's version, and I just don't get it. I mean--it's not bad, but I think "My Fair Lady" or even "Oliver!" outdoes it. Plus, I'm just so appalled by a mother encouraging her daughter to become a stripper than I admit it loses me, no matter how hard anybody belts out "Everything's Comin' Up Roses."

Anyway, I think revues are fun, too, and where some of the most famous musical performers began.

Posted by: annette on August 5, 2003 12:30 PM

The movie version of 42nd Street doesn't feature the songs "Dames" or "Lullaby of Broadway."

"Dames" comes from a 1934 movie musical of the same name, the plot of which basically protested the newly enforced Production Code. (If you thought the song was Brechtian, wait till you see the movie.) The film is best known for the song "I Only Have Eyes For You" -- though as choreographed it's more than a little bit creepy.

"Lullaby of Broadway" is the centerpiece of Gold Diggers of 1933, for my money the definitive film on the Great Depression. Taken by itself, the 15-minute "Lullaby of Broadway" finale is an achievement unsurpassed in American cinema.

What consistently surprises me about Warner Bros. Depression-era musicals is the way they use the conventions of the revue-style musical to address, not evade, social problems. They may be closer to contemporary theater than Broadway nostalgists would have us believe.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on August 5, 2003 1:58 PM

Okay, Tim, you've exposed my inadequacy as a critic of the Broadway musical AND the Hollywood Broadway musical movie. I admit, I've never seen the movie version of "42nd Street." (Gasps of disbelief.) None-the-less, both songs were written by the team of Durbin and Warren and within a year or so of "42nd Street." Consider them part of a virtual-musical that would only be brought into reality in 1980 by Gower Champion et al.

And what contemporary theater you are referring to that uses the conventions of the revue-style musical to address, not evade, social problems?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 5, 2003 3:09 PM

And what contemporary theater you are referring to that uses the conventions of the revue-style musical to address, not evade, social problems?

When I made that statement I wasn't referring to conventions of the revue-style musical, but to theater as a vehicle for social concerns. But now that I think about it, I may have been on to something. The current vogue of postmodern "non-linear, non-narrative theater" (of which Charles Mee's Summer Evening in Des Moines is the best example I know) draws much of its impetus from revue musicals: They are episodic and performance-based, with elements deliberately drawn from live vaudeville. They lack plots or characterization in any traditional sense, but they do work over basic themes or situations in a sort of extended free association.

The problem I have with the Broadway revival of 42nd Street is that it's approached as a happy nostalgia piece. The original Warner Bros. musicals were much richer and more interesting than that. (And tougher, too -- check out James Cagney's performance in Footlight Parade, made some forty-seven years before Fosse's All That Jazz but no less grueling to watch.)

BTW, I goofed in my last post -- "Lullaby of Broadway" was the finale of Gold Diggers of 1935, not 1933. But I still hold to my judgement that Gold Diggers of 1933 is the definitive Great Depression movie: The "Forgotten Man" number, which actually closes the movie, indicts the federal government for allowing its WWI veterans to starve. Even the social-critique films from that time, like "I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang" and "Hell's Heroes," never went quite so far.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on August 6, 2003 12:39 AM

I have always loved 30's musicals. As Tim says, Gold Diggers of 1933 is THE Depression era musical to see. The "Forgotten Man" number just jumps out at you after all the froo-froo song and dance numbers and beautiful women gazing at the audience. It's totally unexpected and soulfully sung by Joan Blondell. A must see. My favorite movie, though, is Footlight Parade with James Cagney as a song and dance man-turned-producer. Joan Blondell is his wise-cracking secretary, and Ruby Keeler is the ingenue. The finale is "Shanghai Lil." Great to see James Cagney dance and sing!

I am suprised no one has mentioned the main reason these movies were so popular: Busby Berkley. The man was a genius. Who else would have thought to put neon on violins, or to have an entire soundstage filled with water and bathing beauties? I think this requires a more extensive post elsewhere, though.

Posted by: Alexandra on August 6, 2003 11:24 PM

South Park movie.

Posted by: jc on August 7, 2003 2:18 AM

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