by Ellis Nassour

    There's more than one new 42nd Street. Of course, there's the post-Disney, neon-lit galore 42nd Street. And then there's the other new 42nd Street, the smash 2001 revival of the 1980 dance spectacular still packing them in at New York's Ford Center for the Performing Arts on the new 42nd Street. The touring production, fresh from SRO business in Seattle, opens today [July 10] at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre, where it's set to run through August 31. Once again at the helm are director/co-writer Mark Bramble and 2001 Tony-nominated choreographer Randy Skinner.

    Skinner (as an assistant to director/choreographer Gower Champion) and Bramble (co-writer of the book with the late Michael Stewart) worked the 1980 David Merrick production, which played 3,486 performances on Broadway, with additional sit-downs and tours around the world.

    The musical is based on the 1933 movie musical that transported audiences out of Depression-era gloom into a world of glorious dance [magnificently choreographed by Busby Berkeley], happy endings and leggy "hoofers." It tells the story of a down-on-his-luck Broadway director producing a pre-Broadway show. The financing comes from a love-struck stage-door-Johnny, who's mad about the star, who, the night before the opening inconveniently breaks her ankle. This leads to one of the much more talented chorus girls, Peggy Sawyer, to go onstage a youngster, but who comes back a star.

    In 2001, the revival, with classic Tin Pan Alley songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, was up for nine Tony and five Drama Desk Awards, with Skinner getting a nod from both camps for his choreography. It took, among others, the prizes for Best Revival of a Musical. The original production was honored with eight 1981 Tony nominations, winning for Best Musical and Best Choreography.

    But, as Skinner stresses, "This isn't a by-the-books remounting of the musical. If you were doing Kiss Me, Kate, which hadn't been seen in 50 years, most audience members aren't going to have a memory of it. But with 42nd Street, it came back only 12 years after closing. The revival is over two- thirds new." There are four newly-created numbers, expanded numbers and a huge tap finale featuring the entire chorus.

    Bramble and Skinner wanted to bring surprises to today's audiences. Luckily, lead producer Joop van den Ende of the Netherlands and TV production there, agreed and had the cash to make it happen.

    Skinner says there was never any resistance to new choreography; in fact, it was one of the revival's goals. "Joop [ rhymes with rope ] felt if we were going to do a revival we should bring something new to it or there's no reason to do it."

    "But," adds Skinner, "even with all the technological advances of the last decade, this time was much harder, much more demanding. The Ford is a big theatre with a stage that's like a movie studio soundstage. That's an advantage, because you know in front you aren't going to be able to do a show like this small. Audiences go to certain shows with high expectations, and this is certainly a prime example. Joop and (co-producers) the Dodgers gave us everything we needed to make it feel brand new."

    Choreographing numbers for such a large ensemble isn't easy, but," he smiles, "we choreographers have our ways! You use paper and a pencil with a very good eraser for charting your dancers, and that is a great tool when you get everyone in the rehearsal hall. I give much credit to our dance captains who keep the chorous on their toes."

    Skinner explained his "movie musical vision" was his greatest tool. He's watched those screen musicals of the 30s and 40s over and over. "I can see what I want by closing my eyes and seeing pictures and hearing sounds. I've been able to do it since I was a kid. Every director and choreographer has some version of that ability to visualize what you want out of a scene and where you're going to place people. It's a gift."

    The touring production takes no shortcuts. "We still bring a ëmovie vision' to the big numbers. The show hasn't shrunk from the original, either. When we opened, it was unheard of to have such a large cast but, when you see that line of 40 dancers [24 women, 12 men] in a straight line, it takes your breath away. I can't praise our dancers enough. Their dedication is really what makes it work."

    Though anyone seeing 42nd Street on Broadway or on tour - or Skinner's recent production in Moscow or the Stuttgart production [which opens in September] - might think money is no object, this is show business. "It's all illusion and some smoke and [literally in this production] mirrors," laughs Skinner. "When you plan, your imagination goes a little crazy. Then you're told what's realistic. We had budgets and adhered to them, but the producers knew how and where to spend the money."

    One big Skinner addition is the newly added "Keep Young and Beautiful." "I wanted to transport the audience back to those movies I admire," he notes. "The mirror coming down and tilting is a magical effect. Often, our memory of theater is short-lived because, in the scheme of things, shows are short-lived. The majority come and go, and most people only see a show once. By adding elements like that this go-round, people's imaginations are being stirred in another way."

    He says that, in the original production, many felt that Peggy Sawyer never got to do much. "You heard a lot about this girl who went out there a chorus girl and came back a star, who was talked about as being a great dancer. But she wasn't allowed to do that much. That prompted us to create ëWith Plenty of Money and You,' where you see Peggy strut her stuff and why she becomes a star."

    Another goal of Bramble and Skinner's was to give the show within the show an ending as well as a beginning. "So," reports Skinner, "we made the number ë42nd Street' much bigger. Now it really showcases Peggy and Billy Lawlor as the leads of Pretty Lady."

    In a show that's so dance-driven, so dependent on musical staging, where does the director's job end and the choregrapher's begin? "Mark and I have known each other 21 years and worked on many productions of 42nd Street. He knows what I'm thinking and I know what he's thinking. We know how much time each element needs."

    [Flashing back to the original 42nd Street, one wonders what happened to the original Peggy Sawyer, Wanda Richert, a 1981 Tony nominee for Best Featured Actress. "I didn't see her at our New York opening or hear that she attended. After 42nd Street, she did a try-out of The Baker's Wife, then she went into Broadway's Nine as Carla, the role originated by Anita Morris. After that, unfortunately we lost touch."]

    Skinner came to the attention of Gower Champion, almost fresh out of college, in 1976 when he was hired for the try-out of em>Jolie, a musical about Al Jolson starring Larry Kert that never made it to New York. Donald Johnston was music director and was so impressed with Skinner's tap abilities that he recommended him to Champion. He joined Karin Baker as Champion's assistant.

    "Karen and I were diva tappers," says Skinner. They became Champion's right hand when it came to choreographing the show's tap spectaculars. "It was a true collaboration. What really made it incredible was that I was so young ó I had only been in New York four years. Working with Gower Champion on a big, splashy David Merrick musical was the opportunity of a lifetime. He allowed Karen and I such creativity. Those six weeks of pre-production were some of the happiest days of my career." It did come at a cost, however. Looking back, Skinner admits that seeing all those dancers dancing gave him all sorts of separation anxieties. "Part of me wanted to be onstage with the chorus!"

    One quality that made the mulitple Tony-winning Champion [Bye, Bye, Birdie, The Happy Time, Hello, Dolly] a champ, explains Skinner, was that he knew how to put up a musical that told a story and believed in creating memorable stage pictures. It's no secret that Champion was less than well-versed in matters of tap and much of the choreography was done by Skinner and Baker, but, as is often the case in theater, credited under Champion's billing.

    "In theater," states Skinner, "what we do reflects what's going on in our lives. Gower, no matter what was going on in his personal life, always did happy, wholesome shows. Plus, he and [first wife, Marge] were a powerhouse dance team in the movies. That strong dance background helped make him a great choreographer."

    Champion, only 61, became more and more debilitated as 42nd Street approached it's New York opening. Very few knew he had cancer. In one of those ironic show biz moments, he died opening day. However, Merrick, ever the showman, kept word from the cast so he could step onstage at the curtain to announce the devastating news. Of course, the show must on and it did for eight years.

    That production and working for Merrick was a charmed experience for Skinner. "I'd heard the stories about ëthe mean showman,' but I never saw that side of him. When I worked with Mr. Merrick, he was an older gentleman and 42nd Street was his big comeback vehicle. Maybe age had mellowed him. I had a great working relationship with him then and later on State Fair. I feel so fortunate to have hit New York and, early on, get to work with David. It was an education I couldn't buy.

    "There was a real talent there and he was a savvy businessman. He didn't throw his money away. In fact, he was careful where he spent it. But, like Joop, he knew what to spend the money on. He knew the value of press and the value of putting the money up on the stage. David was famous for giving what you needed."

    What he's done with 42nd Street, Skinner says, is pay tribute to the past while bringing some of his own, something new to the revival. "My goal was to create something bigger and, with changing audience tastes, something more daring. Why do a revival if you can't make it so fresh that it leaps off the stage? You want to go ëWow!' And, so far, wherever we play, they do!"

    Following the Los Angeles engagement, the tour moves on to San Francisco, Sacramento and Portland.


    Randy Skinner is hard at work on anther massive undertaking.
    Unfortunately, it will be a one-night-only event: the Career Transition For Dancers gala benefit, Gotta Dance! A Dance Tribute To Hollywood, set for City Center on October 27th.

    He's directing the evening and creating the opening and closing dance extravaganzas. The former will feature 30 young dancers from the National Dance Institute and the latter, says Skinner, will feature "the best hoofers on Broadway." In addition, the gala will feature production numbers by other choreographers.

    The event will salute the films [The Red Shoes, Singin' in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, West Side Story, Sweet Charity and others] and stars [Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Fred & Ginger and Gene and Cyd and others] that provided so many glorious onscreen dance moments.

    Participating, among others, are the Royal Ballet's Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg and dancers from American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company and Les Ballets Grandiva.

    Hosts and performers already scheduled to appear are screen legends Cyd Charisse, Donald O'Connor, Esther Williams and Jane Powell. Broadway and the dance world will be represented by Tony Award winners Chita Rivera, Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth; and George Chakiris, Cynthia Gregory, Eugene Fleming and 2003 Tony Award nominee Elizabeth Parkinson [Movin' Out].

    Among the awards presented will be one saluting cable network giant Turner Entertainment for Outstanding Support of Dance. Movado will present the coveted award for Outstanding Contributions To the World of Dance.

    Career Transition For Dancers has offices in New York and Los Angeles and provides specialized services to assist dancers establish new careers when dance is no longer an option. For more information, visit www.careertransition.org. Gala tickets, at $550 and $1,000 are now onsale, call (212) 582-6690. They include the performance and post-performance black-tie supper dance with the stars. Show only tickets will be available later.



    Thursday, July 10, 2003 at 12:14 PM | Item Link

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

    The last five columns written by Ellis Nassour:

    07/02/2010: Summer in the City: Fireworks on the Hudson Launch a Season with Plenty to Do and See

    06/13/2010: The 64th Annual Tony Awards Celebrating Broadway Achievement

    06/10/2010: Tony Honoree Marian Seldes: Grand Duse of the American Theater

    06/08/2010: Starry, Starry Nights [Hopefully] with the Bard; Broadway by the Year Celebrates 10th Anniversary; Old Flames Reignite [Onstage]; Summer in and Out of the City; Stars Rally for Dancers; Cast CDs and Re-releases; New to DVD

    05/21/2010: Patti LuPone Hosts Sunday's Drama Desk Awards; A Starry, Starry Season; Tovah Feldshuh, Sherman Brothers Honored; Broadway By the Year Season Finale

    For a listing of all features written by Ellis, click here.