A Chorus Line
It's impossible to overstate the impact of A Chorus Line when it opened at the Public Theater on May 21, 1975: the entire run sold out and on July 25 it moved to Broadway, where it ran for 6,137 performances (a record in the pre-Andrew Lloyd Webber years) and won nine Tony Awards and the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Many of this show's innovations have since become commonplace, so it's worth stepping back and considering how revolutionary it was for its time.
A Chorus Line may have been the first "workshop musical." The kernel of the show was a series of workshops with dancers who were taped while speaking about their childhoods and how they became involved in dancing. The stories on these tapes became the basis of characters in the show: some are composites, while others are clearly the stories of identifiable individuals.
And the things they talk about! This is no moon, June, spoon musical: the subject matter is life as it is lived. I'm not going to argue about which was the first musical to discuss racism, unhappy childhoods or sexual identity in a musical, I'll just say that A Chorus Line includes some of the rawest, most moving material on these topics that I have ever heard.
There are no stars in A Chorus Line; instead, the show focuses on the lives of gypsies, dancers who go from one show to another, wearing out their bodies and working for minimum contracts while knowing that they'll never become a headliner. The ensemble is the real star of the show, and it's made up of hardworking people who realize just how tenuous their place in show business really is, and how quickly it could all come to an end. There are certainly distinct characters in the show, but one minute they're delivering a solo dance or monologue and the next minute they're back in their place in the chorus line, where the highest virtue is to blend in rather than stand out.
There is almost no set as well, just a bare stage with a rotating back wall which can be mirrors or a plain black background. There's also a set of mirrors arranged in a U-curve which descend from the ceiling for Cassie's dance solo "The Music and the Mirror," but otherwise A Chorus Line relies on blocking and some wonderfully creative lighting to shift attention around the stage, from a solo dancer to a small group to the full ensemble.
I saw the original production in New York in 1978, and it completely blew me away. And, while I was just a hick from the sticks at the time, it's worth noting that hardened New York critics fell all over themselves in their reviews of A Chorus Line, trying to find words to express what made this show so unique and so powerful. Clive Barnes of the New York Times said that the audience response to the Off-Broadway production was so shattering it was a wonder the theatre was left standing. Frank Rich (also of the New York Times) called the show "a celebration of Broadway mythology and a full exploitation of the stage's ingenious magic" and described the record-breaking 3,389th performance as "a theatrical experience that was even more poignant than it was thrilling."
But enough nostalgia: this is 2009 and the production at the Fox is the national touring company. How well does A Chorus Line hold up today, and how well does the cast fulfill the requirements of this demanding show?
To the first question, I'd say it's a mixed bag. The music by Marvin Hamlisch is sometimes undistinguished and often dated. The show is long by today's standards (well over 2 hours, without intermission) and the book frequently feels both rushed and padded. Some of the cast's "true confessions" would shock no one these days (wet dreams and adulterous fathers, anyone?).
But there are also moments of genius, and if I've learned one thing over the years it's that in most musicals you have to be willing to tolerate a certain amount of chaff to get to the wheat: Wicked and Spring Awakening come immediately to mind. A couple of really great songs, or even great moments, can be enough to make a show worth seeing. When A Chorus Line is good, it's really really good, and that makes it worth sitting through the script's dated references and gratuitous jokey moments.
The touring company cast is also a mixed bag. Starting at the top, Bryan Knowlton is brilliant as Paul, who delivers the evening's most moving monologue as he relates his experience of growing up Puerto Rican and gay. Even though the broad outlines of such a life story are no longer novel on stage or off, this particular story as delivered by Knowlton remains shattering. Rebecca Riker as Diana shows off her powerful voice and spirit in "Nothing" and "What I Did For Love." Stephanie Martignetti is hilarious as Val, who relates the real secret to getting show business work in "Dance: Ten; Looks Three" more colloquially known as "Tits and Ass."
Less satisfactory is Robyn Hurder as Cassie: yes, she can dance, but she's unable to sell the life story she keeps telling us (that she was once an item with Zach, played by Kevin Neil McCready, who's conducting the auditions) and she can't carry a tune in a bucket. Not very convincing, since her particular conflict to work through is that she was once a featured performer and Zach feels she's too good to return to the chorus.
But the balance is definitely on the plus side. The dancing is great and the choreography and staging are positively brilliant; my memory is not good enough to make a detailed comparison with the original production, but this feels very true to that spirit. And there's something incredibly moving about A Chorus Line as well: maybe it's the fact that we may not all be dancers, but we've all known what it's like to not fit in, to be embarrassed by our bodies, to realize that time is running out and maybe we won't achieve all of our goals. These are the common experiences of life, and seeing them portrayed on stage produces both the shock of recognition, and catharsis.
The national touring company of A Chorus Line will run at the Fox Theatre through May 24, 2009. Tickets may be purchased in person at the Fox Box Office or by phone or internet from MetroTix, 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com.