I haven’t seen an American musical for a while, but being invited to her class’s performance of 42nd Street by a niece attending NASDA , whanau duty was involved.
The experience was one of psychosis: a noisy energy, a chaos of plot, masked faces, skilful dance and choreography, engaging in a way, never a dull moment, nor an authentic one. It is also a musical about a musical so has a hint of formal reflection. The show has a history: a depression-era, feel-good pulp novel about a girl from the sticks seizing an opportunity to become a Broadway star, became the basis of a feel good depression movie – lots of starlet flesh on show to provide fantasies in the soup kitchen queue – and then, in the 1980s the film gave birth to a musical, reasserting the bimbo female role in the midst of the rebirth of feminism. The depression context had long gone by then, other than as a costume statement. There’s a lot of skilful tap dancing to give a vaudeville edge and a sub text of a girl has to do what she has to do – no use sitting on it, baby.
Still from the film
I was impressed at how much this is propaganda, akin to the old USSR and Chinese spectacles, there’s the same skill set, the same mask, the same necessary energy to convince and captivate the masses; except this is propaganda for the capitalist system. Instead of taking place in Red or Tiananmen Square it takes place on the hallowed ground of Broadway.
To get through the evening I imagined staging it in Guantanamo Bay, my friend wondered about one of those bombed out Syrian cities… the culture of the US empire is certainly akin to a decaying Ancient Rome.
I was wondering what to say to my niece the next day but thankfully, she was also critical – not keen on playing the bimbo or ‘the dame’, had been a little horrified by the film with its tracking shot through the legs of the line-up of chorus girls. But at her age it’s all experience.
Before 42nd Street, there’d been time to catch Mike Leigh’s film, Peterloo, where his usual seeking of authenticity is focused on a historic action, the parliamentary reform movement of 1815 and its repression. The acting was superb but I was also struck by the costuming, where the same seeking of the real had been taking place. The film put to shame most costume drama you see – only the Russians have managed this before. At the same time, the effort required to capture the real was also apparent, so that the now existed as well.
Still from Peterloo
Home through the snowy alps, all the dross momentarily cleansed and happy families sliding around the geological playground, no more important than the insects and the birds.
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