There's more than one new 42nd Street. Of course, there's the post-Disney, neon-lit-galore place in Manhattan. And then there's the other new 42nd Street, the smash revival of the 1980 dance spectacular now in residence at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts - on the new 42nd Street. Choreographer Randy Skinner ... [is] busy planning the opening number for the 55th Annual Tony Awards, which will be held June 3 at Radio City Music Hall and broadcast live on PBS and CBS. The number, which will be pre-taped early next week, will feature 40 dancers in their dazzling best from 42nd Street tapping out of the Ford Center and into the subway for an uptown train to Rockefeller Center. For the 9 PM opening on the CBS portion of the ceremony, the cast will be seen emerging live and tapping into the Hall singing.

Skinner stresses that this 42nd Street is not a by-the-books remounting of the musical. "It's crucial that audiences understand that this is a new mounting of a revival. When you're dealing with a musical like Kiss Me, Kate, which hasn't been seen in 50 years, most audience members aren't going to have a memory of it. But with 42nd Street, it's back after only 12 years."

He explains that the revival has many new elements, "in fact, it's over two-thirds new," with four newly-created numbers including a huge tap finale featuring 37 dancers.

"The people on this revival who were connected with the 1980 production are Mark (Bramble, co-writer of the book and director), Donald Johnston, the original dance arranger, who's aboard this go-round doing musical adaptation, arrangements and additional orchestrations and me. Everyone else is new: design team, conductor, costumer, cast."

It was, Skinner says, the wise way to go because he, Bramble and producer Joop van den Ende wanted "new eyes" learning and discovering the show. And they wanted to bring some surprises to the audiences. "But," adds Skinner, "even with all the technological advances of the last decade, this time was much harder, much more demanding. We're in a big theater, on a huge stage that's like a movie studio soundstage. That's an advantage, because you can't 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."

He says that audiences haven't been disappointed. "The luxury of such a large, deep working area allowed me to bring a 'movie vision' to the bigger numbers, such as the new finale. When you see that line of 37 dancers in a straight line, it takes your breath away. I can't praise our dancers enough. They bring such dedication and clarity to the choreography and really make it work."

Skinner says there was never any resistance to new choreography; in fact, it was one of the revival's goals. "When Joop [ rhymes with rope ] mounted the revival last year for a tour of the Netherlands," explains Skinner, "he felt if we were going to do a revival, we should bring something new to it. I found everyone very supportive. You have to bring something new, or there's no reason to do it."

Skinner says the Netherlands tour allowed he and Bramble the luxury of trying out a lot of the new material there (in Dutch, no less), but because the show was touring, the show was smaller. "We've gone much further for Broadway," he reports.

Working with such a cast of 53 and a large dance ensemble in a show that is so dance driven required countless hours of planning and instruction for Skinner and his "right arm," assistant Kelli Barclay, who's dance captain and a swing. Choreographing a number for 37 dancers is not easy, says Skinner, but it's not as hard as non choreographers might think. "We have our ways!" he smiles. "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.
"But what helps me immensely," he continues, "is I just see it. I close my eyes and see pictures and hear sounds. I don't know how. It's a mystery! But I've been able to do it since I was a kid. It's a gift. 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."

Skinner says it also helps that he knows all those movie musicals from the 30s and 40s. "I always go back to research the films and movie stills. One of the luxuries of today is having so much on video and all these cable channels that show movies non-stop. It's a great research library."

Though it might seem money was no object to the producers, that, says Skinner, is an illusion. "We had budgets and had to adhere to them, but they knew how and where to spend the money. When you sit down to plan, your imagination goes a little crazy. Then you're told what's realistic. So we slimmed down a few things, but not to a degree I found detrimental."

One of Skinner's "big surprises" comes in 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 theaer 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."

Skinner says that, in the original production of 42nd Street, many felt that the character of 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 'With 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, `Pretty Lady,' an ending as well as a beginning. "So," reports Skinner, "we made the number '42nd Street' much bigger. Now it really showcases Peggy and Billy Lawlor as the leads of `Pretty Lady.'"

Skinner has high praise for the new Peggy, Kate Levering (Tony-nominated as Featured Actress), "who's an incredible pro and who was never daunted by anything. There's a reason she's having all this success at such a young age [Zaneeta Shinn in the Music Man revival, Mona in the first national company of the Chicago revival, Annie Get Your Gun, The Life]. She's talented, smart and has the unique ability to adapt to any situation. Best of all, she learns quickly -- any choreographer's dream. She's exactly what I look for. She has it all! But David Elder (Billy Lawlor) and our entire cast is terrific."

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 opening or hear that she attended. After 42nd Street, she did a try-out of The Baker's Wife, then she went into Nine as Carla, the role originated by Anita Morris. Then she had a family. Unfortunately we've lost touch. People come and go in this business, depending on what their needs are."

Skinner came to the attention of Gower Champion, almost fresh out of college, in 1976 when he was hired for the pre-Broadway try-outs of 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 and wonderful collaboration. Gower allowed us such creativity. Those six weeks of pre-production were some of the happiest days of my career."

Qualities that made the mulitple Tony-winner 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.

"For a lot of us in theater," he continues, "what we do reflects what's going on in our lives. Bob Fosse's a prime example. It's always been said that Fosse had two careers: one as the All-American dancing boy, then, as his life changed, the choreographer and director of darker shows. But Gower, no matter what was going on in his personal life, always did happy, wholesome shows. Plus, he and his first wife, Marge (Champion), were quite a powerhouse dance team in the movies. Like most choreographers, he came from a strong dance background."

That production and working for Merrick was a charmed experience for Skinner. "Of course, like everyone, I heard the stories about Merrick 'the mean showman,' but I never saw that side of him. When I worked with him, 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."

Skinner and Baker, looking after choreography and musical staging, and Lucia Victor, a stage manager for David Merrick, looking after the book scenes, put out two national tours here, and the West End premiere. Skinner and Bramble helmed the Australian production, which led to a U.K. It all came full circle last July, when they mounted the Dutch tour.

What he's done with 42nd Street, Skinner equates with what Ann Reinking did with the revival of Chicago. "She paid tribute to the past," he said, "and yet brought something of her own, something new, to it. My goal was to respect the original but to create something bigger, and audiences seem to leave with that understanding."

He said that it's not easy to bring something new to a revival, especially a revival of a "young" show. "You have to think it through and all of the creative team have to be on the same page. You approach with the mindset of what can we bring to it that will make it fresh again, to make it leap off the stage. If you're able to pull that off, and I feel we have, it's a rewarding challenge."


Key Subjects: 
42nd Street, Randy Skinner, Kate Levering, David Merrick, Gower Champion, Bob Fosse
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
May 2001