Some words about 42nd Street
Heather Meeker image and title By Heather Meeker
Executive Director, The Musical Theater Project
42nd Street. If you’ve heard the infectious tune written by lyricist Harry Warren and composer Al Dubin, it’s hard resist the urge to sing and tap along. It’s an invitation, a pull. The American Film Institute included the song in its 2004 list of the top 100 movie songs of all time, and the criteria for the selections were profound: each had to “capture the nation's heart and resonate across the century, enriching America's film heritage and captivating artists and audiences today.” So what is it about the song—and the musical—that lulls us? Why does it speak so directly to the American experience?
Let’s start with the street. In the 1800s, tycoons like Cornelius Vanderbilt fueled New York City’s growth by transforming the city’s transportation systems and infrastructure. In 1871 he opened the impressive Grand Central Depot at 42nd between Madison and Lexington. Not only did it bring people from all over the country to the terminus of three railroads, but it ensured the area boomed with building and business. From the first train, the depot couldn’t keep up; the New York Transit Museum documents that “by 1910, [42nd Street] was the vibrant heart of a dynamic, ambitious, and swiftly growing New York City.” Grand Central Terminal was built on the same site in 1913 to mollify the crowds and by the 1940s, 65 million people (more than 40% of the U.S. population) traveled via the station. Whether you were a native New Yorker or fresh off the train from Allentown, stepping onto 42nd Street meant that you had arrived.
Unsurprisingly, the demand for entertainment was high and 42nd became a vital strip in the “theater district,” intersecting Broadway and at the heart of Times Square. The lights were bright and the buzz was palpable. Although 42nd Street wasn't the first or the last backstage movie musical, Warner Bros.’s Depression-era film (based on the 1932 Bradford Ropes novel) captured that spirit and firmly established screen musicals as a vital part of the movie industry. Anytime Annie was a breakthrough role for Ginger Rogers, and in Dick Powell the studio found a successful “type,” handing him the same role in numerous 1930s films. At the time, John Mosher of The New Yorker called it “as pretty a little fantasy of Broadway as you may hope to see,” and The New York Times noted that it delivered “with a degree of authenticity that makes it diverting.” During the Depression, diversion was a valuable commodity.
While the film was an Oscar-nominated hit, it took nearly 50 years for this Broadway tale to find its way to NYC. Theater producer David Merrick (whose own reputation not-so-subtly mirrored the character of Julian Marsh) took a $3 million dollar gamble in 1980 that audiences were ready—in the midst of another economic depression—for a spectacular love letter to old-school Broadway. He hired another iconic showman, director-choreographer Gower Champion, to create show-stopping numbers that would outshine anything possible in the 1930s and result in, as The New York Times theater critic Frank Rich described, “a final display of amazing theatrical fireworks.” At the time, it became one of the longest running shows in Broadway history: more than eight years, and a 2001 Broadway revival that ran for nearly another four.
On many levels, 42nd Street is the antithesis of contemporary musical theater, and often described as short on story and character. It begs the question: why does the show’s popularity persist?
In truth, 42nd Street speaks to the American promise so embedded in our psyche that we sometimes forget to question why, and how. In his 1977 essay Entertainment and Utopia, film scholar Richard Dyer suggests that:
...entertainment offers the image of ‘something better’ to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide. Alternatives, hopes, wishes—these are the stuff of utopia. The sense that things could be better, that something other than what is can be imagined, and maybe realized.
It’s a keenly American impulse: our commitment to our hopes, our wishes and the drive for ‘something better.’ There is something about so many feet moving in rhythm that tells us that ensemble—community—matters, and that together, there are no limits to what we can achieve. And who knows? Maybe one day, we can even step out of that chorus line a star.