The story of 42nd Street, has become a timeless classic in the history of American show business. The tale of Peggy Sawyer, a small-town girl who gets her big break on Broadway, was originally conceived in a novel of the same name by Bradford Ropes in 1932.
The story was quickly scooped up and adapted for film by Warner Brothers. The film, 42nd Street, was directed by Lloyd Bacon and choreographed by Busby Berkeley, one of the most popular choreographers of the day. It starred Ruby Keeler (Peggy Sawyer), Bebe Daniels (Dorothy Brock), Warner Baxter (Julian Marsh), Dick Powell (Billy Lawler), Ginger Rogers (Annie), and Guy Kibbee (Abner Dillon). 42nd Street was a huge success at the box office, becoming one of the highest grossing films of the year. It received the Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. In 2006, the American Film Institute ranked 42nd Street as the thirteenth greatest movie musical of all time.
In 1980, David Merrick conceived the idea of transferring the popular movie to the stage. It was considered a gamble at the time, as movie-to-stage adaptations did not have a successful history. Merrick assembled a strong production team to build the musical: Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble penned the book, Henry Warren composed the music, Al Dubin wrote the lyrics, and Gower Champion directed (42nd Street would be the final production for the legendary, aging Champion, who passed away the afternoon of the musical’s premiere).
The musical opened in previews at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. in June 1980. Following the six-week tryout, 42nd Street moved to Broadway on August 25, 1980 at the Winter Garden Theatre. The original cast included Wanda Richert (Peggy Sawyer), Tammy Grimes (Dorothy Brock), Jerry Orbach (Julian Marsh), and Lee Roy Reams (Billy Lawler).
The show was a massive success and ran for 3,486 performances, making it one of Broadway’s longest running musicals. It won the 1981 Tony Award for Best Musical. During its run, it played at the Winter Garden Theatre, the Majestic, and the St. James.
The show premiered on the West End on August 8, 1984 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It won the 1984 Evening Standard Award for Best Musical and Olivier Award for Best New Musical. This production famously launched the career of movie star Catherine Zeta-Jones, then a teenaged chorus girl, when both the actress cast as Peggy Sawyer and her understudy fell ill and Zeta-Jones was asked to fill in.
42nd Street enjoyed a successful revival on Broadway in 2001 at the Foxwoods Theatre. The cast included Kate Levering (Peggy Sawyer), Christine Ebersole (Dorothy Brock), Michael Cumpsty (Julian Marsh, and David Elder (Billy Flynn). The production ran for 1,524 performances. The production won the 2001 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Musical.
42nd Street has continued to enjoy success on regional, touring, and community theatre stages. Tours have been mounted in the US (2015), UK (2007, 2009, 2011, and 2012) and Asia (2007-2008).