Tuesday, October 31, 2017

42nd Street was on at the Drury Lane Theatre in London in 1984. Mother's friend, Christina, was miraculously playing the (marginally) older female lead. Catherine Zeta Jones, the younger female lead. 

Aged 9 (and then perhaps a little later), I think Mother, Father, Sister and I all went down to London from Nottingham to see it. Twice. I remember it because it was very exciting. I'd possibly only been to London once before (for another of Mother's friend's productions). And because I think Sister and I got matching little outfits, in honour of the occasion. Since then, I have been fascinated by this show. We bought (Mother bought) the soundtrack on cassette tape and we learnt all the words to all the songs. Latterly, I tried repeatedly to hack out the (full orchestra required) music on my rudimentary clarinet. 

I saw the posters for a resurrection of this classic work first at Waverley train station. And then was stalked by high-kicking buses whenever I went to London. All of which made me yearn to see it. But what occasion is most fit for the trip down the notoriously risky memory lane? In the end, I plumped (riskily) to purchase tickets during a half term trip to London last week with the two remaining at home kids. I managed to secure some relatively cheap tickets - twice what you'd pay for a show in Edinburgh but that's the joy of London. And two Thursdays ago, off we went.

The story is the story you'd expect. Enormous risky investment show is put on at a time when no-one has money to risk (1933) so everyone needs it to work. Leading lady is a bitch and an ageing bitch. The most virulent kind. A kid pitches up from nowhere, late, chaotic but brilliant and is allowed to join the (huge) chorus line. But then bitch breaks her ankle, like the night before the show. And the kid has to take her place. Is, of course, amazing and the show is a triumph!

It's a lovely heart-warming story in which loose ends are tied, love is found and lots and lots of dancing and singing is enjoyed by all. Sets extravagantly swoop and change. The neon signs flown down for the "in the heart of little old New York" hero number catch in my throat still for evocative wonder. I remember the costumes being stunning (remember I was 9). The music sumptuous and the dancing, to die for though I wouldn't have known such an expression then.

So fast forward thirty something years. And I'm back. Same theatre. Same show. Except Harvey Weinstein is unfolding on the news now. I know a little more of how the world works. And I'm trying to write a play about gender politics. Julian Marsh (potentially washed up though once hugely successful staking his all on this show producer) slapping the pert ass of the newly elevated lead as she skips to his perfectly played tune plays out altogether differently with my 42 year old self. "Is that not a bit predatory?" hollers my 42 year old head as the 9 year old shouts back that this is cheeky courtship.

It's an interesting play for its depictions of women, in fact. There's the naif young female lead, sweet, wide-eyed, enthusiastic, willing to work as hard as is needed to achieve her goal. There's the bitter cynical manipulative using one man for his money and another for his youthful good looks except she really feebly vulnerably can't make herself get over this young chap even though she knows she should. There's the happy fat lady, "mum" of the company who seems to be both dance and song instructor, costume mistress and she also features in the end production. And there are the sweet and sassy but not very well-rounded "pack" girls that you seem to get in many musicals. See Grease / Mean Girls / Dirty Dancing / Legally Blonde etc. 

The update of the show isn't helped, from a progressive representation of women point of view, by the fact that whilst the men remain fully clothed this time around, the girls are showing much more flesh than they did in 1984. We don't need to see their skinny tummies in "We're in the money" to know that they're hungry. I yearned for the little all in ones in a silvery green that they wore in 1984 in place of the golden wouldn't be our of place on The X Factor shiny oh so shiny bra tops and little golden knickers that they pulled on today.  But I am old and a prude so perhaps this commentary should be taken with a dose of salts. 

42nd Street will not be the first and will not be the last show to contain caricatures that perpetuate gender stereotypes. If you set aside all of young girl swooning into the arms of the masterful / predatory older man stuff, it's a sweetly classic rags to riches set in musical theatre story. The costumes were lovely looking. The cast is huge (spending the money they saved on fabric). The sets are spectacular. And the chorus line dancing is stunning. Don't be put off by my disenchanted rant. It's a cracker of a show.


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