When the most successful and dedicated interpreters of a choreographer’s artistic legacy work for the North Korean government, you’ve got to ask a few questions. In a musical theatre world that’s (rightly) waking up to the potential of individual expression, Busby Berkeley’s biggest contribution is a kind of dazzling uniformity on a mindblowing grand, kaleidoscopic scale.
His vision has made a micro-comeback in a revival of 42nd Street, on now in the West End. Seemingly identical women make huge patterns that are only visible from above – or, in this stage interpretation of his cinematic vision, via a giant angled mirror.
Even this outpouring of fleshy extravagance is just a thin, watered down cousin of the 1920s and 30s Hollywood movies that made Berkeley’s name. After working as an artillery lieutenant in WWI, he seems to have transferred the exhilarating sight of soldiers, drilling en masse, onto the unlikely field of Hollywood musicals. His ruthlessly drilled ‘girls’ were restricted to a small range of movements which prized uniformity over individual expression, and were arranged on increasingly elaborate built constructions – revolving towers, or huge assemblages of staircases.
Plenty people have extolled the joys of Busby Berkeley’s work – most recently, Judith Mackrell in The Guardian.
And rightly so. But there’s something unsettling about his legacy, too – something that speaks to the strange heritage that modern musical theatre lives with. Berkeley was at his most influential at the birth of the modern movie musical, and I grew up watching films that were soaked in his legacy. Something in me lights up at the sight of a stage that’s full of a burst of fabulously costumed women, dancing in unison. But I can’t even try to square this feeling with my feminism. And I feel conflicted about how these scenes deliberately erase difference, too, creating a hyper-conformist parallel world where people come in two moulds, white thin male or white thin female.
What made me think of Busby Berkeley’s work, most recently, was the profoundly disingenuous comments by the producers of Half a Sixpence, on the West End. To paraphrase, they claimed in The Stage that they used an all-white cast because non-white actors were in such high demand they simply couldn’t find any willing to sign a lucrative West End contract.
A few reflections, blown afloat on my sighs of deep cynicism. Firstly, even if by some magical misalignment of the stars, no casting agent had a single non white banjo-strummer on their books, a celebrity casting or even (shock!) an open call would have filled the vacancy. But secondly, more than that, it’s pretty clear that Half a Sixpence has made a choice – one that its makers are keen to disavow.
Because casting only people who look very similar to one another is a choice – and that goes for age, and dress size, as well as ethnicity. In Half A Sixpence, it speaks of nostalgia, and clinging on to an increasingly embattled image of the past – one that’s related, maybe, to the pink-suited presence of a handkerchief flourishing gay stereotype, too. In 42nd Street, it’s something a bit different – it’s replicating, on stage, Busby Berkeley’s vision of perfectly-drilled spectacle on a monumental scale. Not all the dancers were white, but you wouldn’t know it from many of the photos: the dazzlingly bright lighting makes the chorus line’s legs average out to a uniform American tan.
There’s a cruel conformism built into these light, bright, gay spectacles – and it feels ironic. The frothier the show, the more brutal the strictures on who can take part on it. One aerial hoop artist has written about being rejected from Cirque du Soleil because of her body shape was told frankly that it was because the costumes were made in a set size:
“I had to take a second to remember every drop of blood and sweat and the money and the sheer bloody force of will that it had taken to make me the creature I was, was at this juncture worth less than the price of a new costume in this particular situation.”
And these ideas aren’t limited to musical theatre. What Busby Berkeley’s work does is telegraph, loud and clear, is that Hollywood is a place of abundance, of wild sexual availability. And that women, like bananas or expensive watches, are only valuable when they confirm to a certain size and shape. Trying to track down Busby’s legacy, I thought of the world of fashion, where a limitless number of near-identical women is an aesthetic given, to be subverted occasionally but never challenged. It felt particularly true of Kanye West’s Yeezy show, where unpaid models fainted after being asked to stand for hours in blazing sunshine (he’d cast the show with only multi-racial women, in a statement against the whiteness of the fashion world that was also discomfitingly exclusive in its own way).
Press coverage of the incident reminded me oddly of 42nd Street, the movie version, where chorus girls are locked in the theatre overnight and drilled mercilessly to the point of passing out by an alcoholic, increasingly deranged director – not least the show’s overnight star. “I’ll either have a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl”, he announces. Exploitation is built into any seductive display of uniformity, whether it’s fashion or musical theatre or a military drill or a North Korean mass dance. Individual differences are ruthlessly filed off, and each performer is infinitely disposable or replaceable.
Cinematic musical theatre has graduated from being in love with itself (the Busby Berkeley-era movie musicals are invariably *about* making a movie musical) to being in love with its own past – most clearly demonstrated by La La Land. But this nostalgic love rubs out the brutal economic and social realities behind the Golden Age greats.
Similarly, the current stage revival of 42nd Street trades in kitsch and camp and nostalgia – its heroine Peggy is a ferociously talented automaton, delighted at every opportunity fate throws her way. But the 1933 movie on which the musical is based is a much, much more brutal thing. These Depression Era chorus girls are thin because they’re young, and hungry. Peggy is shown to be vulnerable and human, an ingenue adrift in a backstage world full of handsy, drunk men. Crowd scenes include a child being beaten, a hallucinating homeless man, and even an abused woman dying at the hands of her partner. And as a great modern review of the movie has it,
“The film maintains that creativity is an act of outrageous commitment, moral compromise, degrading sexual abuse, exhausting work, and the ever looming danger of humiliating, devastating failure. But it’s also satisfying, even if no one understands what you put yourself through– the miracle of accomplishment is enough.”
Whatever darkness lurks behind it, it’s definitely not time to trash Busby Berkeley’s legacy. But it would be infinitely more powerful if the shows that continue it were able to interrogate it, instead of heightening it into kitsch. The essence of camp is in satirising and sending up heteronormative values – not repackaging them with an extra coating of glitz, and selling them back to a gay audience. Okay, a crowd of identical performers is striking – but could they be a size 16 instead of a size 8? Could legs come in colours other than American tan? Or if the bodily strictures of 100 years of musical theatre really are indispensable, then maybe it’s time that producers followed Berkeley in pointing to and highlighting their cruelties, even if they’re framed in an endless line of identical, well-toned calves.