An All-New 42nd Street: A Conversation with Director Michael Heitzman
Award-winning director Michael Heitzman has helmed theatrical productions in Moscow, Paris, Amsterdam, and New York. He earned a 2018 Jeff Award nomination for his reimagining of 42nd Street at the Drury Lane Theatre in Chicago. This summer, he brings that vision to life in Saint Paul with an Ordway Original twist. Delve into the ideas behind the brand new beat of 42nd Street with this exclusive interview!
This version of 42nd Street differs from the traditional production that most people are familiar with. Could you describe these differences, and why they help tell this story? Why did you choose to work this way with the story?
I knew that I wanted to direct a 42nd Street that would respect the history and origin of the original, but would also tap—no pun intended—into the contemporary energy of this iconic street and all that it represents. A 42nd Street that looks like [New York’s] 42nd Street looks today—reflecting the melting pot of our country, of Broadway, and of theater audiences. A show that kids of all races, genders, and backgrounds could come to and say, “hey, that could be me up on that stage singing and dancing.”
I had a vision for a 42nd Street that would remain faithful to the beautiful melodies by Harry Warren, and lyrics by Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer, but would also allow us to hear these classic songs anew, with a fresh, bold contemporary sound. A 42nd Street that would honor the roots of tap dance, but also push the envelope and give us a window into what the future holds for this incredible art form.
On June 9th, the same day as the Tony Awards, there was a pull-out section in the Sunday New York Times. It was a photo essay of Broadway dressing rooms from all different eras—for example, a photograph of Gertrude Lawrence in 1939 at the Morosco Theater, and one of Ben Platt in 2017 at the Music Box. It was remarkable how very little had changed, and yet everything had changed. It’s that “then-meets-now” aesthetic that is the cornerstone of this revival of 42nd Street.
42nd Street is set in the 1930s. What makes it relevant for today’s audiences?
When the movie of 42nd Street premiered in 1933, it was the height of the Depression and people needed to escape. Although we are not currently in a depression, we are also faced with serious challenges—economic inequality, rising healthcare costs, climate change, to name a few; all reflected in an endless 24-hour news cycle. We have more entertainment choices and modes for getting away, but our need for that escape is the same.
What does 42nd Street say about the theater business today?
Actually, not that much has changed. Stars want to find a great property to be in; directors want to direct their next big hit; producers, “angels,” or financial backers pour thousands (in 1933) and millions (today) into shows and don’t want to lose their shirts; and young hopefuls from every corner of this country continue to dream of a life in the theater—of Broadway. The process of getting there and the stresses that go along with it may change from show to show, but the desire to create remains constant. The love of theater, creating art, and moving people is timeless—and in the end is what drives the theater business.
Can you describe the journey you’ve gone on to create this production? How have the physical elements, like scenic and costume designs, changed and informed the way you’re telling the story?
We started this journey at the Drury Lane in Chicago. They had done 42nd Street several times, and asked me to pitch them a version of the show that was different. I had been thinking about approaching this classic musical in this way for several years, and that is how the journey began.
As I delved deeper into how to articulate the physical elements of the show, I was struck by how little in the theater had changed. Little in NYC had changed. Scaffolding that would have been in place to build the Empire State building was not dissimilar to the scaffolding I was seeing in midtown surrounding modern buildings today. This was the inspiration that led to the direction of the scenic design.
With regard to costuming, I was looking at photos in the 1930s and seeing the same silhouettes walking down the runway at Fashion Week in NYC. And same with lighting. Footlights then are footlights now. But LEDs and projection design has moved the art form into the future.
I also felt strongly that the streets of New York—especially 42nd Street—are always thrumming with music and rhythm, which is why it was important that the musicians in this show are onstage. They are an onstage embodiment of the rich sound of the city emanating from the streets.
This production of 42nd Street pares the show down to its essential elements. What is the essential story you want to tell?
Don’t give up on your dreams. Whether it’s 1933 or 2019, everyone can be reminded and inspired by that message.