Bechdel, Sawyer, & More: The Women of 42nd Street

Jess Grams, Ordway 8/1/19

Telling a story can be risky business—almost as risky as retelling it. It’s the fun in a game of telephone, and the danger in listening to gossip. It’s also a hot topic these days, as the film and theater industries continue to reboot films, shows, and franchise after franchise for new audiences. Any creative team embarking on retelling a familiar story can face purists bemoaning loss of what was beloved to them on one side, and diehard fans upset that the show was dated and not enough changed on another.

Yet the slightest time spent searching the internet for “successful musical revivals” will yield pages of reviews, both praising and denigrating the hopeful dreamers who engage in this task. Updates of Broadway classics are so popular that, as Ordway Producing Artistic Director Rod Kaats notes, they’ve prompted the invention of the term ‘revisicals.’ So what is it about these stories that makes them worth the risk to tell? What about them stays true, and what about them changes, to capture audiences all over again?

Asking these questions reveals a surprising bit of trivia: that from very early on in the story’s creation, 42nd Street passed the Bechdel test.

You may be familiar, but just in case: cartoonist Alison Bechdel released a comic in 1985 in which the characters discuss how they choose what movies they like to see. One character famously quips that they will not watch a film without:

“1. At least two women,

2. Who talk to each other,

3. About something besides a man.”

Of course, Alison Bechdel did not intend for her facetious statement to catch fire, but the internet could not resist. After journalists’ and broader audiences’ proposal of many new metrics, it became generally accepted that the Bechdel test should also include the requirement that the women be named. Today, media critics and fans alike consider this measure a bare minimum necessary to provide a female character with agency in her story.

When you start with a bare minimum, it may not seem like a huge deal for 42nd Street to pass this test—until you realize two things:

    1.   Most modern films do not pass this test.
    2.   42nd Street’s story was first written in the 1930s, more than 50 years before the introduction of the Bechdel test.
Kimberly Immanuel, Annie Jo Ermel, Amanda Castro, and Allysa Shorte in 42nd Street.
Peggy bonds with fellow chorus dancers in 42nd Street (Kimberly Immanuel, Annie Jo Ermel, Amanda Castro, and Allysa Shorte). Photo by Paul Tate dePoo III.

Research and advocacy group Women and Hollywood shows us that although female-identifying people make up half of the audience consuming media, their stories are still one-dimensional. The New York Times and Hercampus evaluated the Oscar nominees from 2018 and 2019, and both showed the female narratives to be crawling into the 21st century. Although these statistics reflect the stories in film, we know the Bechdel test has been just as difficult to pass in the world of theater. Check out Does your Show pass the Bechdel Test? to explore more.

Tamara Tunie in 42nd Street. Photo by Paul Tate dePoo III.
Headlining star Dorothy Brock (Tamara Tunie) in 42nd Street. Photo by Paul Tate dePoo III.

But in the now-classic tale of 42nd Street, written in 1933, not only is lead Peggy Sawyer a female driven by her professional goals, but she connects with a whole family of women who are doing the same. Each of these hardworking professional artists (women—with names!) reaches out to Peggy to encourage and support her from the very start. Soon the audience also discovers that one of the playwrights depicted onstage in 42nd Street is female, and by the end of the story even diva Dorothy shows some real ethics in the name of sisterhood—and artistry.

It makes for quite a miraculous anomaly amidst old-school Broadway, but what does all this mean for the audience? The audience gets to escape the dangerous limitations put on both men and women when their characters are written into stereotypical gender roles, all while being entertained. No doubt about it, 42nd Street deserved another look.

While a regional theater’s creative team may not be able to restructure all the problems with Hollywood’s offered stories for women, they certainly can endeavor to change the story in their own house, helping to move the larger conversation and narrative into one that values all artists with equity. It’s clear that this is risky business, especially since we know it will take time to learn to do it right; but it’s a risk we have to take.


42nd Street performs July 23–August 11 in the Ordway Music Theater. Tickets are available online or by phone at 651.224.4222.

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