This review contains spoilers.
It turns out that 42nd Street is an older musical than I thought it was: it was first performed on Broadway in 1980 and seems to have been revived reasonably regularly since then. It’s currently on at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, and Time Out was offering £15 tickets, and, well, the rest is history, as they say.
It’s a weird musical, this one. The plot is perfunctory: it’s 1933 and Julian Marsh, notorious Broadway director, is doin’ a show! And every girl in New York wants to dance in it – including Peggy Sawyer, who’s never done any theatre work before but who, conveniently, can sing and dance like anything. And including Dorothy Brock, a faded star and terrible dancer whose awful Texan sugar daddy is bankrolling the show.
But no-one cares about the plot, which is just an excuse for musical number after musical number. There are lots of threads left messily loose, in a way that feels careless rather than purposeful: Dorothy’s secret lover Pat, Peggy’s dalliance with actor Billy, whether Peggy was in fact out of line when Dorothy’s ankle got broken. And that…wouldn’t be a huge problem (though I think I’d still be slightly dissatisfied with it), if not for the fact that the show is so consistently, outrageously problematic.
Or, rather, its characters are problematic. The show-within-a-show, Julian Marsh’s magnum opus, Pretty Lady, is problematic. Pretty Lady doesn’t seem particularly to have a plot, but it definitely puts a lot of stock in women-as-decoration: it’s got those ridiculous ostrich-feather swimming costumes that are a cultural shorthand for a certain type of Broadway extravaganza, and one of its biggest numbers, “Dames”, has a chorus that straight-up goes “Keep young and beautiful/if you want to be loved”, together with a dance routine involving women preening in hand-held vanity mirrors.
Clearly there’s an element of parody here. This is ’30s Broadway TO THE MAX! It’s ’30s Broadway as it never really was; ’30s Broadway as it lives in our cultural memory. Pretty Lady doesn’t have a plot because it doesn’t need to; we (where “we” is a largely white, largely middle- and upper-class Western audience) can fill in the blanks from our own assumptions about what ’30s Broadway musicals are like, even if we’ve never seen one. And ’30s Broadway musicals are full of self-obsessed pretty women, of course.
But, if it’s parody, then it’s not parody that’s doing anything useful; it’s not parody that’s actually interrogating the ’30s Broadway musical, or our idea of it. It’s parody in the service of nostalgia, which seems to me a rather dangerous combination. There’s an interesting moment at the end of Act 1 when Pretty Lady becomes the same as 42nd Street; the frame narrative and the story-within-a-story merge. The Pretty Lady safety curtain comes down, Julian Marsh announces in character that we can get refunds at the box office, the house lights come on for the interval. It’s a joke, of course. But it’s also a piece of recursive self-obsession: we discover that 42nd Street is, in fact, about Pretty Lady; and Pretty Lady is about a certain kind of ’30s-style musical; and 42nd Street is a ’30s-style musical. All it cares about is itself.
This all comes to a nasty head at the end of Act 2, the end of the show. Julian Marsh has convinced Peggy to take over the leading role in Pretty Lady after the ankle-breaking incident. She’s had to learn the whole part in two intensive days, and she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Julian is unsympathetic. Actually, he’s a complete and utter bastard.
And, in between his hectoring and bullying, he kisses her.
The show gives us very little indication as to how we’re supposed to read this: she still has unresolved romantic tension with Billy, and the show ends very quickly afterwards. It’s a convention of musicals that kissing equals love, but Julian’s treatment of Peggy reads more Harvey Weinstein than Captain von Trapp, and I’m not at all sure that the show’s aware of this. There’s a shadow of a suggestion that, in fact, Julian loves the idea of Peggy as his leading lady; he loves her because she brings his show alive. So he too is self-obsessed. He becomes the symbol of an entertainment industry that’s turned in on itself, chewing up everything outside it (love; talent; friendship) to feed its own monstrous self-absorption.
42nd Street actually reminds me of the 2016 musical film La La Land. Both musicals are only interested in themselves, and both of them use the falsifying, reactionary light of nostalgia to register that self-interest. But La La Land at least made the world feel a little more glamorous and a little more romantic and a little more sad than it did before. 42nd Street was a lovely evening for £15: the dancing’s fun and some of the actors can actually sing properly. In particular, Steph Parry as Dorothy has a gorgeous jazz voice (and it seems she joined the cast as an understudy, which is incredibly impressive). But…it left a bad taste in my mouth.