The Broadway musical 42nd Street (2018; streaming on Broadway HD) constantly places its female leads in positions of seeming autonomy but this only highlights the lack of power they possess in actuality. The show constantly reminds the audience that although Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse) and Dorothy Brock (Bonnie Langford) end up ‘the stars’ of the show, their power is predicated on the decisions and money of powerful men – namely producer Julian Marsh and financial backer Abner Dillon. The song “Lullaby of Broadway” perhaps best underscores this concerning gender dynamic, when Julian (Tom Lister) attempts to coax a resistant Peggy into taking over the role which Dorothy can no longer play. This number takes place right after Peggy injures Dorothy onstage, leading to her dismissal and subsequent attempt to get on the next train to Allentown. At this point, Peggy just wants to return to her humble roots after being harmed by the showbiz industry. But after learning that Dorothy can no longer perform, Julian has other plans for Peggy, needing another leading lady to insure his own success. This is the audience’s first red flag about Julian’s character, and it extends to all the men with power in this show.
Julian does not treat Peggy like a full human. She is simply a chess piece which he must move in order to keep his show alive and continue his own fame and fortune. With this in mind, everything Julian says as he opens his mouth to sing is utter rubbish. Julian knows he must simply say the things that Peggy wants to hear to keep her in the cast. He even throws out a pitifully ridiculous line about staying “for the kids.” Rest assured, Julian could care less about the juveniles in the cast, or really anyone for that matter.
Julian begins the number with an unsettling attempt to grab Peggy’s hand. Like many of Julian’s movements, this grab can be interpreted as simply part of his attempt to get Peggy back in the show, it comes off as oddly and uncomfortably sexual. As Julian, Lister leers and smirks at Halse uncomfortably, and the scene begins to read as harassment rather than a director simply trying to convince his star to perform.
Julian then begins to sing, and immediately, problematic words escape his mouth. He describes the ‘essence’ of Broadway as: “The rumble of the subway train, the rattle of the taxis, the daffy-dills who entertain.” Apparently, to Julian, one of the core parts of Broadway and New York aren’t the strong actresses that make his show successful, but the delicate little ‘daffy-dills,’ who successfully entertain his audience. Julian’s character constantly oozes misogyny, but this seems extreme even for him. Julian shows the audience that he doesn’t view any women as talented individuals, rather he thinks of them as pretty little flowers at which his audiences can gawk.
Julian’s misogynistic rant continues when he refers to Broadway actresses as babies, saying, “When a Broadway baby says “Good night,”/It’s early in the morning/Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight until the dawn.” Now, one might be fooled into believing that this “baby” reference is innocent, simply keeping in-line with the ‘lullaby’ theme. Don’t be fooled! He clearly uses the word ‘baby’ is clearly to refer to women in a patronizing, sexual way. This line reveals that this song as a lullaby for all industry women, sung by men to put their sense of autonomy ‘to sleep’. They will “hush” any women who want to make it as actresses and tell them to put any power they have to bed before they can truly succeed. Julian hasn’t come to the train station to show Peggy the beauty of Broadway – he’s come to convince her to ‘sleep’ on the injustices and misogyny of the industry and perform in his show! If there’s any doubt about this motivation, Lister constantly reinforces that this with his sly looks and sexual physicalization.
When Peggy tries to leave again, Julian puts his leg on her briefcase – another sexualized action that leaves the audience feeling horribly uncomfortable. At this point, the scene has taken a dive into full-on harassment, as there is no denying that Julian is sleazily holding Peggy against her will. It’s reminiscent of “I really can’t stay,” “baby it’s cold outside.” Although continually Julian uses his silver tongue to convince both the audience and Peggy that he is looking out for her best interests, the highly-sexualized leg raise and look he gives in this moment proves the opposite.
When other characters, or as I like to call them, Julian’s reinforcements, enter to convince Peggy to take the role, they serve as the perfect representation of both perpetrators and victims of showbiz misogyny. Rather than an innocent display of happy, enthusiastic Broadway performers, it is actually something much darker. Reading the scene in the context of the repression and misogyny, the women represent those who have endured and accepted the injustices of Broadway while the men are the beneficiaries from this broken system. This seems especially true for Billy Lawlor, (Philip Bertioli) who obnoxiously sings “let’s call it day.” Billy is an acute display from 42nd Street that things aren’t getting any better in the industry, that younger generations are correcting the misogyny of older men. The musical introduces Billy to the audience in the context of him trying to ask Peggy on a date. At the end of the day, the only value Peggy, and the other women onstage, hold is their sexual appeal. Bertioli physicalizes Billy in a highly sexualized way, similar to Lister’s portrayal of Julian. The two actors absolutely nailed the sickening sense of entitlement and power that the ‘kings’ of Broadway felt for many years in the entertainment industry, and to some extent still feel.
The look on Clare Halse’s face as she is ‘serenaded’ by the company who try to convince her to join the show displays just how reluctant she is to enter an industry that does not respect her. It’s almost as if there are about ten devils on Peggy’s shoulder as she tries to make the right decision. It’s especially interesting to see the women of the cast trying to convince her to join. This is one of those moments where you may say, “See, this song isn’t about Peggy being subject to misogyny!” Careful. Just because the women of the cast try to convince Peggy to return does not mean they are happy in their own position. It reads as a desperate cry for another ally within the industry. It’s like they are saying, “Peggy, please face the horrors of this industry with us!” That they sing this plea with a smile on their face is symbolic. No matter how bad things are on Broadway, once the curtains rise, performed must appear one hundred percent in control.
Peggy has a moment where she almost gives in, then decides to flee, but then Julian grabs her and the group surrounds her. I found this the most disturbing moment of the number. It’s uncomfortable enough that everyone is surrounding a woman who clearly wants no part of being there, but even scarier when Peggy goes to turn and Julian grabs her. It’s important to note that he doesn’t just grab her to try to stop her, but seizes her only in a way that a person seizes a person when they want to lean in for a smooch. It’s amazing how this scene continues to find ways to become even more uncomfortable. While the sexual connotations of this scene may not be quite as overt as in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” it’s still pretty clear that a woman gave a man an answer, and he simply won’t take it. It’s not easy to watch.
Of course, the group does not give up, eventually convincing Peggy to throw on a fake smile, and exclaim, “I’ll do it!” In the end, they force the woman to give in to the man’s wishes. Peggy has become just like the other women in the number, as now she smiles, and appears happy, as all performance have to on stage. But she has clearly given up. Re-joining the cast is not a triumph for Peggy; it is a concession. Julian has chased and grabbed her enough, she may as well just give in right? It’s a sickening ending to the scene, especially because it’s painted as a happy ending. Every time I watch this scene, it becomes a more pointed criticism of the power dynamics of Broadway and society in general.
If, for some possible reason, misgivings still exist about whether this scene is an example of Julian empowering or objectifying Peggy, one need not look further than the end of the show. Did Julian cast Peggy in the show and then simply allow her to shine? Of course not. He falls in love with her, rendering Peggy again more of an object than a star herself. There’s nothing more sickening than when Peggy is about to make her debut, perhaps the biggest moment of her life, and it sullied by Julian kissing her and saying, “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” Thanks, but no thanks, Julian. Neither Peggy nor the audience need to hear your empty, sly words anymore. Save your ‘lullaby’ to put yourself to bed.
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