42ND STREET FORTY YEARS AGO By Peter Filichia
On August 25, 1980, legendary producer David Merrick gave what is still, forty years later, the most remembered curtain speech in Broadway history.
He’d wait until the enraptured 42ND STREET first-night audience had finished awarding close to a dozen curtain calls to this “song & dance extravaganza” — words he’d soon use to advertise what would become his greatest hit.
Part of Merrick didn’t want to give the speech, for he had terrible news to dispense. Yet part of him knew that what he would say would garner worldwide publicity.
“David was always aware that notoriety helps a show,” says Randy Skinner, one of two dance assistants on 42ND STREET.
Lee Roy Reams, who played Billy Lawlor — which gave him the chance to sing the felicitous “Dames” and hit the high note on “Lullaby of Broadway” – says “I assumed David was coming out to say ‘Gower Champion couldn’t be here tonight, but I want to thank him.’”
The cast knew that Champion had been hospitalized. But weeks, even months, had to pass before they realized that he wasn’t well.
Karin Baker, the show’s other dance assistant, recalls “During pre-production in February, Gower would say to me ‘If I get cold, please have a sweater ready for me.’ Frankly, I thought he was a hypochondriac.”
What Champion actually had was Waldenström macroglobulinemia. When an illness has a name that long and unfamiliar, it usually means it’s an unforgiving one.
“During rehearsals, we got hints,” says Skinner. “His frequent trips to the rest room took longer than we expected. Once we traveled to try out in Washington, he missed rehearsals, which wasn’t like him.”
Adds Baker, “As time went on, Gower would say things like he’d had his ‘blood washed’ and that he felt ‘weak as a kitten.’” But Baker didn’t infer that a man who was only fifty-nine was near death.
A visit there, encouraged by Champion’s wife Karla, showed her the truth. “I was at the hospital when he died at 1:15 on the day of our opening,” Baker recalls.
Merrick also knew that Champion had died, too but wanted to keep it quiet. “He ordered the cast go to the theater and rehearse all day so we wouldn’t find out anything,” says Reams, “We were locked in there from three p.m. on. and security guards were stationed all around. It felt as if we were being held hostage.”
Adds Baker, “There I was backstage, where the performers were giving each other opening night presents, talking and laughing. Pretending that nothing was wrong was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
“I too knew what had happened,” says Skinner. “But as David took the stage, I didn’t know what he’d say.”
Merrick started with “I’m sorry to have to report,” which got a boisterous laugh from the audience. Oh, that David, who’d once hired seven nobodies with the same names as the drama critics to rave about one of his musicals that he didn’t think had turned out so hot. Here was the producer who’d paid a woman in the audience to run on stage and slap the leading man who was playing a despicable character, just so the show would get its name in the papers. There were other attention grabbers over the years, too, so what would this one be?
“No, no,” he yelled. “This is tragic. You don’t understand. Gower Champion died this morning.”
“I was of course shocked,” says Reams. “And what went through my mind at that moment was a conversation we had had when I told him I was born too late, for at heart I really was an M-G-M song ‘n’ dance man. He told me that he felt lucky to have been there in Hollywood for the tail end of the song and dance era before adding ‘This show will be my gift to you.’
“And then he added ‘Let me tell you, in the ‘70s, I went to the discos and did drugs and tried to stay current. I really worried about being out-of-touch.”
Ah, so that explains Champion’s directing and choreographing a certain disaster. In fact, his Playbill bio for that 1976 musical stated “With ROCKABYE HAMLET, Champion effects a marriage between the Broadway musical and the rock concert.”
Take it from one who saw it: ROCKABYE HAMLET stunk. But Champion succeeded mightily in doing what he set out to do. It was a distinct synthesis of the two genres.
Note the words that followed in that bio: “Among his countless stage and screen triumphs, Champion’s most renowned accomplishment is probably his staging of a musical production number which begins with a lady in a red dress making her entrance down a staircase.”
(And he didn’t mean either Daphne or Josephine in SUGAR.)
While DOLLY was trying out in Detroit, it wasn’t a “renowned accomplishment.” The story goes that after Merrick saw it open there, he returned to New York to check in on his TWO other shows that had opened that same week on Broadway – ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and ARTURO UI. After closing the latter, he soon returned to Detroit.
Champion took great pains NOT to see him by renting a car and driving around Michigan. Merrick knew he was being purposely avoided, left town, and let Champion work in peace.
(And look what happened to that one.)
Reams said “So when Gower wasn’t around much during our time in New York, we initially assumed that this was another case of him and David feuding.”
He sighs. “After the speech, thank God that Jerry Orbach had the presence of mind to say to the curtain-puller, ‘Bring it in! Bring it in!’ And finally we had a private moment.”
The next day, the publicity flowed, for Champion’s name was well-established with the general public. Americans didn’t necessarily know him as a big name on Broadway, although he’d been one for more than twenty years, after winning both direction and choreography Tonys in the same year THREE times: BYE BYE BIRDIE, HELLO, DOLLY! and THE HAPPY TIME.
Of the most illustrious Broadway directors, Harold Prince and Bob Fosse had done more musicals and Michael Bennett had done one that would run longer. But Champion had been in films since 1946 and had appeared on plenty of ‘50s and ‘60s TV variety shows (often with his then-wife Marge). Thus he became front-page news, which wouldn’t have necessarily happened if any one of the others had died under equally dramatic circumstances. They probably would have been relegated to newspapers’ arts sections or merely the obituaries.
There would have been a time when Merrick would have assumed that no show of his would outdo HELLO, DOLLY’s 2,844 performance run of nearly seven years, which had then made it the longest-running musical in Broadway history. Yet 42ND STREET easily did, amassing 3,486 performances over eight-and-a-third years.
As much money as Merrick made with DOLLY, he amassed much more from 42ND STREET; with the former, he had investors; with the latter, he confidently bought out two partners early on (“I even heard that he gave them back TWICE their money,” says Baker) and thus wound up profiting and pocketing every dollar and pound.
Besides, DOLLY had a $9.90 top while 42ND STREET eclipsed the $25 charged by THE ACT by going to $30 – and then, for the first time in Broadway history, the same show raised its prices then again to $35.
During its mammoth run, 42ND STREET’S window cards could have quoted the New York Times (“blazing theatrical fireworks”), the Post (“a most formidable triumph”) or Women’s Wear Daily (“ineffable magic”). But Merrick preferred Time magazine’s “A musical made in heaven!”
Says Joshua Ellis, who became the show’s press agent shortly after the opening, “I’ve always felt that the ‘heaven’ referred to Gower Champion’s death. That was Merrick’s sense of humor.”
Yet Merrick was deadly serious when he accepted the 1980-81 Best Musical Tony. “Imagine what this season would have been without 42ND STREET,” he crowed. Point taken. But imagine what Broadway would have been like had Gower Champion lived. He might well have staged and choreographed musicals through the rest of the twentieth century.
Says Baker, “Gower spent hour after hour coming up with one great idea after another only to go home and return the next day with something even better.”
“Working with Gower was like getting a Ph.D. in musicals,” says Skinner. “He taught me how to shape a production number – how the beginning moments must start the number on an overall arc, how it mustn’t shoot its wad too early or later wear out its welcome.”
And Reams recalls how that ROCKABYE HAMLET conversation ended. “Gower said to me, ‘So after all the drugs and disco, I realized that in my heart I’d always be an MGM song ‘n’ dance man,’ too. Only someone like Gower could have given Broadway the gift of 42ND STREET.”
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.