A few days ago, I saw the revival of “42nd Street” on the West End. P.S., I still don’t know if it’s ‘on’ the West End or ‘in’ the West End, and this is an example of the type of thing I was distractedly thinking about during this positively ludicrous musical. At several moments during the show, I was struck by the thought that Jane the Virgin’s season 2 feminist killjoy of a thesis advisor would have stopped the show and JUMPED onto the stage to stop the atrocities of sexism from continuing. Every few minutes I could see Professor Donaldson shaking her head, then dropping her jaw, and then refusing to be a party to it any longer and marching onstage to shout “NO NO NO!!” And sure I have an overactive confrontation-imagination but I was as livid as the professor was. Enraged by both the rampant sexism in the show and the fellow audience members on their phones, confused by the lack of plot and the fellow audience members who wouldn’t stop talking, I tried to calm myself down by thinking over and over “this show is from almost 100 years ago, it’s okay, it was a product of its time, everyone knows that this sexist crap wouldn’t fly today, at least the dancing is great.” But it didn’t work because I think the majority of people (helloooo Trump voters) don’t actually know that misogyny belongs in the bygone era, and what was being presented onstage was very problematic to be tapping our feet along to.
Another thing I didn’t know? That Sheena Easton was the star! I usually know if there’s anyone famous in the show I’m about to see but for this I literally sat down in my seat, opened the programme that I just bought that wouldn’t fit in my purse because it’s one of those unnecessarily giant ones, and then said ‘Oh…what.” Sheena Easton is a pretty famous recording artist from the ‘80s and ‘90s who won some Grammy awards and sang one of the Bond themes, “For Your Eyes Only”, which I can’t remember but I can tell you is better than the Bond theme that won an Oscar last year because everything is. I knew her because of her song with Kenny Rogers “We’ve Got Tonight” (who needs tomorrowwww) (you should watch a 1983 concert performance of that song pretty much JUST FOR HER INSANE OUTFIT WHAT IS SHE WEARING) and because I have a foggy memory of Danny Tanner mentioning her on “Full House”.
I know I said ‘lack of plot’ before but the show is of course roughly ‘about’ something. It starts absolutely stunningly, which is almost worse because my high hopes for finally seeing this show performed were lifted even higher and I was like whoaaa ahhhhhhhhh and then it all came crashing down. But not yet! The heavy red velvet curtain slowly rose to reveal 50 pairs of feet tap-a-tap-a-tapping like their lives depended on it, and as it continued going up we see oh yes their lives do indeed depend on it – it’s an audition. The dozens and dozens of gorgeous dancers flail about in perfect unison as a musical director shouts stuff and demos stuff and they just keep going and it was glorious!! I really love watching incredible dancing, and this show had tons of it. This classic opening is one of the good bits. So the music and dance directors pick their chorus girls and boys and the audition is over but then eeeeee! in storms a little spitfire of a dancer named Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse) who is late and dressed like a lavender sailor but still wants to try out. She tells everyone she just got off the train from Allentown, Pennsylvania, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t that far, dear, you were one state away. The musical director, having just seen 50 great dancers, has no need for her, but the young male star of the show, Billy Lawlor (Stuart Neal), is like ‘Oh hey you are a non-ugly non-old female person I am going to touch you inappropriately and not let go of your arm as I flirt obnoxiously with you and tell you how we are going to end up just swell lovers so I will help you get their attention and audition even though there’s no reason to allow this to happen.’ So Billy and Peggy sing a song in front of everyone about how they are young and healthy so they might as well hook up I’m not joking, but like I said the show was cast and the dance director tells Peggy to ‘amscray, toots!’ which is clearly another of the good bits, and she runs off and barrels right into Julian Marsh, the hot-shot big-time director (Tom Lister), who is like whoooo is this football player tackling me but hey I kind of liked it. He really says that, it is gross. Peggy is mortified as she should be and runs out, forgetting her purse. What a lucky coincidence because of course she has to come back for her purse later! What mature story-telling devices! So Peggy comes back another day, but she is wearing the same lavender sailor suit and by now I just feel bad for the girl. She wears it most of the show, btw. But it has to be another day because everyone is there for a legit rehearsal, and rehearsals never start immediately after auditions that would be crazy. But so is this outfit. Anyway, songwriter Maggie Jones (Jasna Ivir) and a few of the more prominent chorus girls invite Peggy to eat lunch with them, where they don’t actually eat but have a DANCE OFF. This is another very sophisticated way to let the story tell us that Peggy is the best dancer of the lot, it is not forced at all no sir. So this scene is ridonkulous as a book scene, but it is amazing as a dance scene because Clare Halse really is the best tap dancer like ever. It might have a lot to do with the very difficult things they were making her do but her dance-off tapping ranks up there with “Shuffle Along” in terms of how worried I was that dancers’ legs were going to fall off.
In YET ANOTHER oh so clever and not at all eye-rolly twist, the show is suddenly short a girl so the curbside dance-off in the middle of Times Square pays off because Julian the director sees Peggy and is like ‘you’ll do!’ It’s not clear, though, whether they really are short a girl or whether Julian is just a gross old man who likes what he sees. Well no, the latter is very clear, it’s just a question of whether the former is true also. It doesn’t matter thought because all of a sudden Sailor Moon is in a new musical’s cast because she was late, assaulted the director, absentmindedly left behind her belongings, and then danced like nobody was watching when the director was watching. Well I’m inspired. By the way Julian refers to her sometimes as ‘Allentown’ which is cute once and then very annoying the rest of the time.
The show that Peggy is now in is a big new risky expensive musical called “Pretty Lady”, starring the legendary Dorothy Brock (Easton), who is a difficult and stubborn diva who refuses to do things like sing for the creatives when she doesn’t feel like it. Although she is talented, Brock is not a dancer, so they have the ensemble just dance around her while she sings. The team needed to hire her because she brings the financial backing – her old rich southern sugar daddy is putting up the money to produce the show. Why a woman of such renown and seemingly money of her own would spend time with a man purely for his money is unclear, but it is presented as ordinary in the show because women are terrible and do dumb things. Brock has a boyfriend, Pat Denning (Norman Bowman), who sneaks around to see her, but Julian Marsh, the director, doesn’t want him distracting his leading lady or complicating things with old moneybags so he hires ‘goons’ to beat him up. Totally normal. Oh it’s important to note here that I started to get the sense we were supposed to see Julian Marsh as a romantic leading man. I mean. No. But then every interaction with Peggy confirmed this, because he flirted with her a lot yet was cruel and a textbook abuser. It was very strange. We will return to this later.
The show leaves for its out-of-town pre-Broadway tryout, which is moved from Atlantic City to Philadelphia for reasons I don’t remember because I was too busy shouting ‘woooooo Phillayyyyy!’ At a party one night, Peggy overhears Julian ordering the goons to come again to teach a lesson to Pat Denning, who won’t leave the woman he loves alone. Peggy rushes to warn Pat that his life is in danger, but she is interrupted by that intolerable Billy Lawlor, who is not her boyfriend or even her friend, but still feels that he is entitled to control Peggy because he is a man. He asked her hey pretty lady where you off to, and she is frantically like ‘I have to warn a friend his life is in danger!’ or something and Billy chooses the wrong thing to focus on and says, ‘what…a male friend?’ and walks away dejected and it took all my might not to yell down to the stage ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THIS SHIT. This little prick has seriously had one previous conversation with Peggy and he’s mad at her for trying to save someone’s life? Fragile white masculinity is THE WORST. This is the type of man who punches a woman on the dance floor after she politely turns down his invitation to dance. (This happens often by the way. Men are A MESS and I blame ‘30s-era musical comedy for a lot of it no I’m just joking obviously but all this kind of crap presented as normal makes it normal!)
Luckily, Peggy reaches Pat and Dorothy in time, but the inane misogyny is far from over. When Peggy rushes into their private room to warn Pat, Dorothy immediately assumes that they are having an affair. I MEAN. I know things were different in the ‘30s but were men and women just not allowed to speak to each other unless they were a couple? My goodness. Then Dorothy goes down the party all upset and decides this is the perfect moment to tell her southern sugar daddy that it’s over and that she doesn’t love him at all, and he of course threatens to pull his money from the show. The creatives are terrified, so to distract him from ruining their show, they throw chorus girls at him. One prominent girl, Annie, had to flaunt her boobs like 10 different times in the show, and four times in this party scene alone to distract and calm down various old men. It was very bad. But it worked because he left his money in the show. And then he got together with the songwriter Jones, which was expected because she was overweight and these types of ‘comedies’ always throw the few non-perfect non-young bodies together.
Okay so this is all act one, and I know it seems like a lot of plot even though I said there was no plot. It is not a lot of plot though. I am devoting many, many more words to all the action I just described than the actual show’s book does. All of what I just described takes maybe five minutes to work out onstage. The show is mostly big dance numbers from the show within the show and I don’t get how this is a show or how I could say show more times in one sentence. It is 99% the ensemble practicing the musical numbers in “Pretty Lady”. Seriously. It’s dance scene after dance scene, all taken from this new musical “Pretty Lady” that also has no plot and even less of a story, so it seems from what we see, and the drama going on with the cast happens very briefly around these big dance numbers. I’ve never seen a show with more big dance numbers. Every one of them pretended to be the showstopper, but then another one was right behind it. And they were all wonderful. Even though I am harping on the story here and will continue to do so because it is abominable and gets worse, the dancing and the performances were all incredible. But, there’s a reason no other show has as many showstopping dance-heavy musical numbers – when they have nothing to do with the plot, it gets boring. It’s like being at an advanced tap recital and yes they are all insanely amazing but the dances have nothing to do with anything and nothing to do with the other dances we’re seeing. It’s just a mess of great dancing but just like too much of anything it starts to get intolerable. I had a bad headache.
In one of the early big dance numbers, Billy sings a song called “Dames”. It’s about how as long as there are beautiful dames around, nothing else matters. This is a very meta song, telling the audience just to enjoy the beautiful girls dancing all around the whole time and not to worry about the very thin book and very offensive dialogue. I felt like Billy was singing to me being like ‘stop complaining said the farmer who told you a calf to be just enjoy yourself!’ You might think I’m overreacting but look at these lyrics:
Who writes the words and music
For all the girly shows?
No one cares and no one knows.
Who is the handsome hero
Some villain always frames?
But who cares if there’s a plot or not
When they’ve got a lot of dames!
What do you go for
Go see a show for?
Tell the truth
You go to see those beautiful dames!
My god. I mean they are flat out telling us that this whole show is really just an excuse to stare at pretty women. They have no remorse.
Just when you thought that was enough, “Dames” ends and the cast has to rehearse the next song in “Pretty Lady” called “Keep Young and Beautiful”. YOU HEARD RIGHT. It’s an ensemble number with all the girls dressed in skin colored, very bare, lingerie-like costumes and they are told to KEEP YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL. Lyrics from this winner:
Keep young and beautiful
It’s your duty to be beautiful
Keep young and beautiful
If you want to be loved.
If you’re wise, exercise all the fat off
Take it off, off of here, off of there…
Take care of all those charms
And you’ll always be in someone’s arms.
Keep young and beautiful
If you want to be loved.
F-ING CHRIST ON A CRACKER. I thought I was being pranked and not the good too much tuna kind of pranking. This is a new level of sexist nonsense in theatre to me, on par with if not surpassing “Funny Girl”.
Throughout these musical numbers, Peggy trips and falls and bumps into people at every turn. I don’t understand. She is supposed to be the best dancer they’ve ever seen, and according to folklore the audience is supposed to be rooting for her success the entire show. Um. She kept falling, though? Why would I want someone to become a big Broadway star if she fell into everyone every time she danced? That kind of nonsense is not covered by insurance. It’s very confusing, because Peggy is an amazing dancer – amazing. I was really stunned at how talented Clare Halse was. But how can you reconcile Peggy being the best dancer ever with her falling all over the place when she dances?! Is it just to continue the trend of women in this show being flighty and/or incompetent? All it does is show her to be unqualified to perform live, and I would have fired her after she bumped into her fellow performers the first time. Then, at the big first preview finale in Philly (the song “42nd Street” and our real Act I finale), Peggy knocks Dorothy Brock over and breaks her ankle. True, someone else knocked into Peggy, but she still was flying all over all the time. Peggy FINALLY gets fired, and we’re supposed to be upset for her because we’re supposed to be rooting for her, but why would we be rooting for someone who can’t dance without bumping into people? Ahhh!
Then in Act II, when they think they have to close the show because they don’t have a star (why Brock can’t still sing while doing the same stand-and-deliver planted method she was doing before, I don’t understand), the chorus girls convince Julian that Peggy could be the star. Peggy who he just fired. Julian, who is a very unkind, frightening man, IMMEDIATELY believes them that the mess of a dancer he just fired could certainly be his star, so he runs to the train station to stop her from going back to Allentown. They say Allentown SO many times. To continue the trend of nonsensical things happening, Peggy doesn’t WANT to go back to the show and doesn’t WANT to be the star. It is yet again hard to root for someone to become a big star when she doesn’t jump for joy at this invitation. So Julian, freshly convinced that she’s the best there is even though he has never heard her sing or act, has to persuade Peggy to come back. And he does this by singing one of the most beloved songs from early musicals, “Lullaby of Broadway”. The fact that this delightful song that is forever linked to the great Jerry Orbach is used in this show at this absurd scene makes me very upset. Why would this prominent director need to use everything’s he got to convince a chorus girl who ostensibly wanted to be a star to in fact be a star, I do not understand. Also, in this context and given how creepy Julian is, a lot of the lyrics became creepy. He calls her baby a lot and clearly thinks exactly like Billy Lawlor about her except worse because he is in a position of power over her. At least Tom Lister has a very strong voice and sounded great.
The rest of Act II features more big dance numbers that have nothing to do with anything, and Peggy trying to learn the entire show in 48 hours, because Julian, professional abusive man, decides to open cold in two days and cancel out-of-town tryouts AND previews FOR NO GOOD REASON. Ugh this man is the devil. We get a big dance scene from “Pretty Lady”, and then a glimpse of Julian forcing Peggy to insanity in nonstop rehearsal. Then we get another big dance from “Pretty Lady”, and then we see Julian hurting Peggy’s arms and not letting her rest or eat or sleep or stop dancing until the curtain rises on opening night. See that’s not the best way to get a great performance out of someone. She breaks down from exhaustion and stress, and Julian gives her an energy boost by KISSING HER. I really almost screamed ‘this is harassment at the very leeeeassssstttt he should be in jaaaaaiiiiillll.’ But because this was written by dirty old men, Peggy gets a new wave of energy and is just an adorable ball of joy again because she liked it, of course she did, he’s a powerful man and why wouldn’t she! UGHASDJF;ALKWEJ FAW.
One of the random dances we see from “Pretty Lady” is the song “We’re in the Money”. I bet you can’t guess how it is staged. So four orphan children (four dancers dressed up in sooty faces and clothing from ‘Annie’) are playing under a bridge and they find a dime in a grate! And then they sing ‘We’re in the Money’. I can’t make this shit up it was INSANE. After the orphans sing a verse, the rest of the enormous ensemble comes out dressed in shiny gold costumes dancing with GIANT DIMES and the set changes to a gilded one and the dancers hoist their giant dimes into the light and then they put them down and dance atop them and if you listen closely you will hear the sound of a girl who thinks she is going crazy whispering ‘just like what is happeninggggg’.
Then there is more abuse of Peggy from Julian but as long as he kisses her she is revived! It’s not abuse if he really likes you!
Then. Oh then. We finally see the full version of their big “Pretty Lady” finale, the song “42nd Street”, that was cut short before when Dorothy was injured. The song is atrociously rhymed and I was audibly groaning every time the chorus sang “Naughty, bawdy, gawdy, sporty, forty-second streeeet.” SPORTY!!!! WHAT! Thank god this is in England so the words kind of rhyme but what on earth did they do in New York with this song? Holy cow. Peggy and Billy dance in the grungy, dark, twisted Times Square, in a much more adult and serious style than all the other dancing. Various players fill the stage, including a man who looks like a mime, wearing red gloves. But oh no, it’s not a mime, it’s a mugger! Well maybe he is a mime and a mugger but anyway he steals a lady’s purse and two cops shoot him dead. While Peggy and Billy are dancing. As your jaw drops open and you wonder um HOW did “Pretty Lady” go from repeated drivel about how great attractive young girls are to a gritty scene in Times Square where SOMEONE GETS SHOT, the cops drag the mugger’s body offstage and Peggy and Billy begin to dance again. WHAT THE HELL IS PRETTY LADY ABOUT?!!??!!!
Well, we have to just guess, because that’s pretty much how “Pretty Lady” ends, and “42nd Street” ends shortly thereafter, when opening night ends and Peggy is a huge star who has a huge crush on her abusive director. I just. I’m very tired. Julian is a textbook abuser and it is revolting that he is considered a romantic part and that the whole Marsh/Peggy dynamic is a classic one in the musical theatre canon. Blechhh. I wish it ended with her punching him and being like now that I’m a star I’m going to make sure you never work in this town again. I need to do a revival that is really a rewrite but the estates would never sign off on it. Maybe it would be excused as fair use because it would really be a social commentary on the original. Hmm.
Anyway, you might be wondering why Sheena Easton is considered the star but all I really talked about was Peggy. Well, aside from singing a few songs (and Sheena did a fantastic job), Dorothy isn’t in it that much. She only has one short scene in ALL of Act II! But Dorothy Brock is considered the leading role and Peggy the featured, and Christine Ebersole won the Tony for Leading Actress for playing Brock. BUT THIS MAKES NO SENSE. The show is all about Peggy, and she is in it 10 times as much as Brock is! and 20 times as much as Julian is! Yet Dorothy and Julian get the final bow at curtain call! Whyyyyy oh this makes me so angry!
So I obviously have a few strong feelings about this drivel and you probably think that this was the most I’ve ever hated a show. But while I hate the story and the character interactions and everything it says about women, it was still a very enjoyable production because the performances and the dancing are so wonderful. If you plug your ears while characters talk and during a few garbage songs, and you just watch the dancing and listen to the singing, it’s a decent time at the theatre. It’s the pesky story and characters and yeah everything it says about women that foul it all up. So don’t think of it as a show. Try to convince yourself that it’s a cabaret performance, all unconnected dances and songs just for their own sake, and not telling any larger story, and then it is enjoyable. I mean it’s not telling any story anyway, really. Ugh what a shitshow.
HI HOW PROUD ARE YOU OF ME FOR NOT SAYING ‘AND PEGGY’ THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE THING