From Musical Comedy, Escape From Terror

42nd Street
Clare Halse & Co. in the revival of 42nd Streetat the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London. Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

There was more than a hint of nostalgia at last week’s opening of 42nd Street in London’s West End, returning to the historic Theatre Royal Drury Lane some 30 years since David Merrick’s original production dazzled audiences and made Catherine Zeta-Jones, like the show’s hero Peggy Sawyer, an accidental star. Given a Royal reception in front of Princess Kate, Mark Bramble and Randy Skinner’s revival was based on the 2001 Broadway run that racked up 1,524 performances, appealing to tourists and New Yorkers alike.

Whilst the production was generally well-received in London, most of the criticism centered on the flimsy book and questionable sexual politics that some, such as The Evening Standard’s Fiona Mountford and The Guardian’s Michael Billington, found inappropriate for a modern musical. No one was ever pretending the show could respond to gender equality, diversity and representation in the way that new musical theatre has the potential to, but for some, each new production should go somewhere to reflect the climate in which it is opening.

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Untouched from the 2001 revival, Bramble’s book revisions certainly helped to update the production from its original 1980s standpoint (which updated the piece from its 1930s origins on film). Mostly it focused on the (slight) story and amplifying the lack of drama to get to the skillfully executed conveyor belt of production numbers. Many of the reviews, both positive and lukewarm, pointed to the show’s greatest asset being its sense of “escapism,” offering audiences a chance to mentally “go into their dance” to combat and shut out the world outside of the theatre. In a week following a terrorist attack in Westminster that shook London and acted as a vital reminder of our vulnerabilities, the froth and fuzz of 42nd Street, and other musicals like it, works on this level of distraction. The world around you may be terrifying, but within the colourful world of musical comedy, it is possible to forget terror.

I’m currently in the process of writing my Masters thesis on the effects of terrorism on the consumption and creation of musical theatre since 9/11, and this revival of 42nd Street here in London bears a direct relevance to Broadway in the autumn of 2001. After New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said, at a Sept. 13 press conference, that the “best thing you can do for our city is take in a Broadway show” not only did he confirm that Broadway and New York were open for business, the function of musical theatre, and our reaction to it, changed. The difference between uptown and downtown theatre at that time have been well-documented; despite how badly Off-Broadway fared, the musical Urinetown, which originated Off-Off-Broadway before moving to Off-Broadway and then Broadway, became the first musical to open directly after the attacks and received a rave review in the New York Times. But the wider psychological impact and change in the marketing, production and consumption of musical theatre, then and now as a reaction to terrorism, remain less explored.

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Immediately following 9/11, attendance at Broadway shows dipped dramatically, with a loss of around $5M in ticket sales. Five shows posted closing notices by the end of that first month; many long-runners struggled to keep afloat despite financial releases put in place with the cooperation of unions; everyone held a collective belief in keeping the lights on and showing the world that the Great White Way — a symbol of New York to the world — was very much in play. Such stakes may have seemed trivial at the time, given the mass human effect of the disaster, and perhaps such stakes may seem trivial again today. But people want entertainment. People want to forget.

Bramble and Skinner’s revival of 42nd Street opened four months before 9/11 — on May 2, 2001. Post-opening, its earliest peak attendance was that June, when it broke the 90% mark. Boosted by its strong performance at the 2001 Tony Awards, where it opened the telecast and won Best Musical Revival, the production continued to sustain audiences above 80% during the summer. Grosses for the week before 9/11 stood at 75% capacity; the following week, they fell to 64%, representing five performances rather than the usual eight.

For the week of 9/11, by comparison, The Phantom of the Opera fell to a 43% capacity and then it feel still more, hitting an all-time low of 35% the following week. 42nd Street, on the other hand, rallied — rising to 70% capacity during the week after 9/11, then to 81.8% by the end of that September.

Analysing Broadway grosses can be tricky. But the numbers suggest that 42nd Street managed better than other musicals to bounce back — because it provided audiences with the right level of escapism. It was a beacon of national pride, an all-American success story dazzling and bright in its delivery.

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Jerry Herman’s musical Mack and Mabel may invite audiences to “Tap Your Troubles Away”, but it’s undeniable that 42nd Street is the king of the hoofers. The unbridled joy we feel watching such sleek formation dancing transcends age, race, language and gender; it radiates a distinct warmth as well as an overwhelming amount of emotion to its audience. From the accidental beginnings of raising the curtain just knee-high at the top of the show, the audience becomes exhilarated; they feel invited into this world that looks and feels similar to the one they know, but somehow it also exists elsewhere, in technicolor. 42nd Street is set against one of the most difficult periods of modern American history, with the threat of the breadline and the Depression beating at the door. But inside the world of the show — the world of the theatre — life is but a song and dance, and ongoing troubles beyond the proscenium are forgotten.

By March 2002, Broadway box offices were reporting $12.1 million in grosses a week — back up to the top levels of the previous year. New York and the world had changed forever but audiences relied on musical theatre more than ever for escapism, for an artistic release from the problems of reality. That same feeling is currently being embraced in London’s West End. Whether it’s the terror that takes place in Westminster or terror from Trumpism to Brexit, musical comedy democratises its audience and it justifies what Julian Marsh — the character of the inimitable director in 42nd Street — claims to be “the most glorious words in the English language”. Glorious, yes. And escapism of the highest degree.