Decades of dancing feet
In 1980, Randy Skinner was plucked from the chorus -- that is, from his career as a dancer -- to take a daunting role as assistant to the celebrated director-choreographer Gower Champion (“Carnival,” “Hello, Dolly!”) for the original “42nd Street” on Broadway. The production was based on the 1933 movie musical that transported audiences from their Depression-era gloom into a world of glamorous gowns, happy endings and leggy, high-heeled hoofers in the ever-changing kaleidoscope of perfect bodies that is the choreography of Busby Berkeley.
Champion died of cancer the day “42nd Street” opened on Broadway. But that night the show went on -- in fact, it ran for eight years. And more than 20 years later, Skinner’s life unexpectedly began to parallel that of “42nd Street” ingenue Peggy Sawyer, the naive chorus girl tapped for stardom: He stepped from assistant status into the spotlight as choreographer for the 2001 Broadway revival of “42nd Street.” The touring production, directed by Mark Bramble, opens Friday at the Ahmanson Theatre.
Skinner talked to The Times’ Diane Haithman about his days on “42nd Street” with and without Champion and recalled how in 2001 the “youngster” of 1980 came back as a star.
Who would have thought, 20 years later, “42nd Street” would be back in my life? It was a wonderful experience in 1980, because I was so young -- I had only been in New York for four years. So when the chance came along to work with Gower on this big, splashy musical, I grabbed it. It was with mixed feelings, to be honest. I loved working with Gower, but I also felt that I was being separated from my contemporaries. Part of my heart wanted to be up there onstage with the kids. But you go where life takes you.
It was really wonderful to take a classic musical and put a new spin on it. Mark [Bramble] and I had many, many talks about that: How do we pay tribute to the past, and yet how do we make it now, and current and bigger, so that the people who had seen the original would go, “Wow, this is nothing I ever expected”?
We have 40 dancers in the chorus -- 12 men and 24 girls, plus four “swing” dancers. That’s what they used in the original production, and we wanted to stick to it. It was one of the first times in history since the ‘30s and ‘40s -- in 1980, it was unheard of to bring in a cast that big. After us came “Les Miz” and all those Broadway shows that had pretty big casts, but we really brought back a chorus of 40 dancers.
“Audition” is that opening moment, it’s a very famous moment when the curtain goes up and you see all those kids’ feet, 40 kids tapping onstage; it sets the whole tone of ‘30s “hoofing.” We definitely hang onto that.
I think film dancing creates some of the most powerful images that we have. You could do retakes and reshoots and all of that, so you got to reach for perfection. I have tried to push the envelope of technique onstage, so that maybe we could do the kind of things they did in film. I think that’s what makes an audience go crazy; you see that level of dance but they’re doing it live eight times a week, not just for the cameras.
Mark and I made a choice to return the show to the actual period of 1933. In 1980, because of what was going on in show business, we made the show a little more pristine; we didn’t show so much skin. Now we’re in an era when you can do anything you want, so the challenge was to still be a good family show but to be a little truer to the period. Up until, like, 1933, the 1930 Production Code regulating decency in the movies was loosely enforced, so there was a lot of skin in these movies, so we made the choice to be a little more revealing in some of the production numbers than we ever had been before.
We wanted slender ‘30s girls who had the kind of bodies to wear the kinds of clothes that we needed them to wear. A lot of the shows today are calling for the more athletic, worked-out look. And the men -- because of the period clothes, it’s kind of nice to have tall, slender guys onstage. The period pants are all pleated, and all of those clothes hang better on slender people. There’s that audition scene in the early part of the show where the girls come in and hike up the skirts to show the legs; that’s part of what goes along with show biz. The heartbreaking thing is when you see people who are terrific dancers but physically just might not be able to fit the image of the show.
When you look at the movie, it’s really an odd little musical -- it’s really a drama with three full-scale production numbers in it, all concentrated at the end. A lot of those Depression-era musicals were like that.
Originally, when Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble wrote the book, they had to augment the score. So they got the rights to those four Harry Warren and Al Dubin songs, and then went to their catalog to get other songs to make this a much bigger evening, a full-scale musical.
In the revival, we have new numbers -- “With Plenty of Money and You,” “Keep Young and Beautiful” -- and there is a huge chunk of the “42nd Street” number that was never there. There are some new lyrics that we found and added, there is new music, there is a whole curtain call that we found. And in the other songs, it’s all new staging and choreography.
The “staircase dance” is part of the big “42nd Street” Act 2 number. We wanted to do an image that would reflect the movie, where people could come up and over from behind. It’s a great film image that is very hard to accomplish onstage because it is so costly, and you have to have a stage big enough to do it on.
In the 1980 production, we had some mirrors in the background, but we didn’t do any kind of overhead stuff. For “Keep Young and Beautiful,” we came up with this idea of this big, big overhead mirror, and a turntable. Dancers end up lying down, forming these wonderful geometric patterns in the overhead mirror. And they can also get up and move to the mirror, so there is a continual element of change. It really is an audience favorite. It’s really the glorifying of the American girl, it’s as simple as that; it’s what was a big part of all those Busby Berkeley movies.
We call “Plenty of Money and You” the “piano number.” That’s the big moment for Peggy (Catherine Wreford in Los Angeles), when she gets to dance on the piano and jump off the piano; she’s all over the stage. It is the number that shows Peggy has grown and is able to take over the show. She is really able to strut her stuff.
“We’re in the Money” is an old number, but I have done a whole new thing for Billy Lawlor (Robert Spring), dancing on top of a dime. It’s kind of a nice way of blending the new with the old. What the kids do is pretty much the same as in the original. We worked so hard originally to figure out how those coins would fit on the stage; they’re rather heavy. So it was easier just to take that number and say, “It works, it’s always worked.” People love just seeing the coins come out, and hearing the sound of the taps on the metal; it’s a slightly different sound.
Doug Schmidt, our set designer, has done a remarkable job of getting a show on the road that is so huge in New York. Your choices are to only play the big theaters, like the Ahmanson, or make changes so you can go to a lot of places that don’t usually get this kind of show. We actually staged the show initially for the smaller stages, because it’s easier to spread out when you get the bigger stages than it is to crunch.
“42nd Street” is a show that dancers love to do, because the chorus is the star. With young dancers, “42nd Street” is the show that made them want to start dancing, I’ve heard it too many times not to believe it. I think every generation has a show. In the ‘70s, it was “A Chorus Line.” In the ‘80s, it was “42nd Street.”
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: Opens Friday. Runs Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m.; and Sunday, 7:30 p.m. After Aug. 17, Sunday shows at 2 p.m. only; Aug. 21, 28 shows at 2 and 8 p.m.
Ends: Aug. 31
Contact: (213) 628-2772