Though I’d already seen it several times, in February I attended a performance of the musical Forty-Second Street. I’d always enjoyed the songs and the tap dancing, but also wondered why the producers thought this old movie musical, of all the great musicals of the 1930s, would make a successful Broadway show.
It certainly was successful: the 2017 audience loved it, standing frequently and cheering loudly. The dance numbers were spectacular: beautiful costumes and great athletic synchronized dance. But we were also viewers watching something more– a piece of history, a musical extravaganza telling the story of the Great Depression.
I realized when I came home that I had taped the original movie, made in 1933. Forty-Second Street was made during the depression and was about the depression. If a dancer couldn’t make it into the chorus, she’d have to join a breadline. If she lost her room in a boarding house, she had no place to go but the street. The director who lost his shirt on Wall Street was recovering from a nervous breakdown.
The stars were actors of my parents’ generation—Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler—and most of the other actors I’d never heard of, though a blond Ginger Rogers played a small supporting role. Forty-Second Street was filmed in a dark grimy black and white.
The similarities between the old film and new show are striking. The show uses many lines directly from the film, word for word. The plot follows closely, and ends with a monumental finale with many dancers and spectacular costumes.
It’s in the finales where the genius of Busby Berkeley in the old film triumphs. The finale explains why this show made it onto Broadway over all those magnificent Fred and Ginger collaborations.
Forty-Second Street ends with a grand dance by a huge chorus line to the tune of the show’s title. The finale starts quietly, with a short grim ballet depicting a murder. Soon dancers fill the streets and we see and hear the pounding of the chorus line. Dancers are dressed in white against a black background with cards attached to their backs. After they complete their dance they turn around. Against the dark background the cards show silhouettes of tall buildings dotted by illuminated windows. The camera moves back, and we see New York City at night. Then the camera moves back further showing an overhead: a complete image of the Empire State Building.
For movie goers of 1933, this was an image of the new and exciting– the Empire State Building had opened only in 1931. The old film, made during the depth of the depression aimed to do more than entertain. For the price of admission, the audience could find something to cheer about. That was a building we built! It’s new! It’s great! It’s the biggest! It’s mine! The rest was strictly vaudeville.