The fictional Marsh's justifiable praise of what many hold to be America's greatest art form applies to several of this spring's Broadway shows. The lovely revival of Bells Are Ringing, the new-fashioned musical comedy The Full Monty and, of course, that glorious throwback The Producers are ecstatically reviving a genre that was more or less dormant during the heyday of such ponderous, pretentious European pop-operas as Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, and The Phantom of the Opera. I mean, really: Who wants to see a street urchin get shot to death, a Vietnamese former prostitute kill herself over a guy, or a lunatic in a mask run around a theater scaring people when you can hear great old Harry Warren-Al Dubin standards like "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," watch nearly 40 fresh-faced kids tap dance their hearts out, and split your sides as pros like Christine Ebersole, Mary Testa and Jonathan Freeman land big laughs at the Ford Center?
Aside from all that it has to offer in wonderful music, great jokes, glittering production values, and all-around pizzazz, 42nd Street has always been most famous for its dancing, ever since the property first came to life in 1933 as a Busby Berkeley film. The choreography of the current revival is in the more than capable hands of Randy Skinner, who worked closely with Gower Champion on the original production. I spoke with him about the project several weeks ago, just before the show moved into the Ford Center following rehearsals in studios at Radio City Music Hall.
THEATERMANIA: You must be thrilled about moving into the theater.
RANDY SKINNER: Yes. Rehearsal space in New York--that's the business to go into! The room we rehearsed in at Radio City was really wide, but it didn't have the depth of the Ford Center.
TM: Is the full depth of the stage being used for the show?
RS: Well, yes. We use it for the big curtain call at the end, when we have 38 kids on a perpendicular line. And we're pretty deep on several of the full-company dance numbers. But you do want to bring things downstage as much as you can at the Ford Center, because it's such a big house.
TM: Tell me about the auditions. That cattle call sure got a lot of publicity.
RS: The process took a long time, because we were looking for a chorus of 36 plus four swings. Plus, our show has everything in it; though it's predominantly tap, it's also got partnering and ballroom, some ballet for the girls, and some jazz for the boys. So we really had to spend time doing three different combinations. There was also the age factor: We tried to find a youthful chorus because of the demands of the show. From late fall through early January, I think we saw probably 1,200 kids for these spots. We had the required Equity call and then the big open call at the theater. About seven kids got serious callbacks from that, and one girl actually got the show. There was also a boy at the open call whom I wanted very much, but he was Australian and he didn't have working papers. I do try to see everybody who wants to be seen, because I'm interested in getting the best. It doesn't matter if they've done 10 Broadway shows or no Broadway shows; I don't even look at the résumés. I take the talent as it comes in the door.
TM: Is it your impression that the general level of tap skills is higher, lower, or the same as it was years ago?
RS: People are stronger today, because 42nd Street really brought tap back. There had been a need for it in the early '70s for shows like No, No, Nanette, but then it kind of faded. We had to go through a lot of people to find the original company of 42nd Street, because tap wasn't in vogue. Since then, people have gotten back to class. I credit the show with that. The five dance leads this go-around are terrific, just superb. That's great for me, because I've been able to come up with some great stuff to challenge them. For one thing, there's a lot of turning in the show. I love that!
TM: What was your credit on the original production?
RS: A lady named Karin Baker and I were dance assistants to Gower; Karin was actually hired first, then Gower got into production and realized that he also needed a guy, for partnering. He picked us because it was a tap show and he needed people with that vocabulary and technique. Gower was not known for tap; he was known more for ballroom and jazz and the wonderful partnering he did with [his wife] Marge. So he made a very smart choice in getting people like Karin and myself to work with him. The art of choreography involves being able to come up with things in collaboration, then to pick and choose and edit. It's a valuable lesson to learn: If you want to have a hit show, gather the people you need around you. Gower said that the most fun he ever had was being in a room with his team and coming up with the stuff. It's the height of creativity.
TM: What was it like to work not only with Champion but also with David Merrick on the original production?
RS: What I've said to several interviewers is true: It was the type of education you can't buy. You learn things from the masters that you can't possibly learn in a school. To be the last person to assist Gower and to spend about 10 years with David--overseeing companies of 42nd Street, then working with him again on State Fair--I was very fortunate.
TM: I've heard that, despite Merrick's horrific reputation, you got along quite well with him. What was your secret?
RS: Like many powerful people, David was the kind of man who would test you. I've always felt that, if you deal honestly with those kinds of personalities but show them your own strength, it opens the door to a real mutual respect. I think David and I had a very good working relationship; I admired him and trusted his judgment. What I also loved about David was that he always owned up when he made a mistake. He was usually on the nose but, if he did make a wrong decision, he was the first one to realize it and correct it. Again, I think that's how you create good art and have hit shows.
TM: In 1980, the artistic excellence of 42nd Street was overshadowed somewhat by Merrick's surprise revelation, right after the curtain calls on opening night, of Gower Champion's death. I hate to dwell on it, but that announcement created such a sensation that I have to ask you to talk about it a little bit.
RS: Well, it's part of history. David wasn't the only person who knew that Gower had died. There was a handful of us--but just a handful. I certainly knew. I had gotten inklings of his illness when we were out of town in Washington. He ended up in the hospital a couple of times, so Karin and I both kind of raised an eyebrow and started to wonder what was going on. When we got to New York after the tryout, it came to a head; I remember that Gower would be sitting in the theater in a winter coat, in August. The day that he died, Karen and I were told. Carla Champion, his wife at the time, obviously knew. We were all asked to keep it private, which was absolutely the best thing. You can't tell a cast something like that on opening night! It was handled the way it had to be handled. As far as David's announcement--well, it certainly sent Gower off in a huge way. You can say that it was just David trying to get press, but it worked. There was worldwide coverage. It was pure show biz.