IT WAS 15 YEARS AGO TODAY 42nd Street opens in London

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The Independent Culture
ON 8 August 1984, the ultimate hymn to Broadway came to Drury Lane. 42nd Street, the stage-musical-about-a-stage-musical adapted from the 1933 film-musical-about-a-stage-musical, had opened in New York in 1980. True to its show-must-go-on storyline - chorus girl Peggy Sawyer takes over from the injured star of "Pretty Lady" and saves the day - choreographer Gower Champion died on the day of its premiere.

David Merrick, 42nd Street's veteran producer, was determined, despite a stroke in 1983, to get the Tony award-winning show on in London. James Laurenson, who played producer Julian Marsh, assumes this "obsession" was because it was "a great sentimental show, with the ogre of a producer who nearly falls in love with the leading lady but is more in love with the show. It must have involved lots of fantasies for him."

Merrick "could hardly speak and was really crippled", Laurenson recalls, but his hands-on involvement was total: "He didn't like the velvet curtains so he replaced them. And the top of the double bass could be seen in front of the stage, which really offended him. He put a black velvet bag over the top of it, but he still wasn't happy. So he dropped the orchestra pit by two feet. It's those kinds of things that the American musical theatre is all about."

It was those kinds of things that critics were unsure about, too. "The corn may be as high as an elephant's eye," said the Guardian, but the staging and choreography "bring tears to anyone's eyes". It "revives a kind of choreography which one never thought to see again ... They do not write melodies like this any more. A cliche? But that is [its] fundamental appeal" (Telegraph).

Others were less forgiving - "A monumental piece of American kitsch" (FT); "Yuck" (Spectator) - but all were proud that the 40 pairs of tap-dancing feet revealed at curtain-up were homegrown: "the prettiest girls I have ever seen assembled ... on a British stage" (Standard).

Laurenson knew that, in such an "exhilarating juggernaut" of a show, the chorus were the stars. But, in his first and last foray into musicals from classical theatre, he had the best line, if not the best tunes. "You're going out there a youngster but you've gotta come back a star," Marsh tells Peggy (played with star-is-born verve by unknown American Clare Leach). "The show just stopped," recalls Laurenson. "It wasn't anything to do with me, it was the line. But I just thought `Wow'. It was a tremendous first night." Merrick's fantasy was played out in London until 1989.

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