In which Broadway’s Broadwayest musical turns 45
There’s no shortage of subjects I could chase this week. The album Taylor Swift surprised us with that no one was emotionally ready for. The utter circus my expat life is becoming as I wait on important answers from oversaturated offices. The fact that I’m using my limited access to Disney+ to keep rewatching The Three Caballeros. But there is one thing that really demands to be discussed today, which I’ve done enough long-term planning to feel able to speak to even in my addled state.
I can pull myself together long enough to say that on this day forty-five years ago, Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s A Chorus Line, conceived and directed by Michael Bennett, had its Broadway premiere at the Shubert Theatre. Following that, it ran for 6,136 performances and has since sparked a film, multiple revivals, and an enduring widespread respect for the sheer electrifying power of choreography. It’s a show about theatre geeks, by theatre geeks, for theatre geeks—and, as with movies about Hollywood, those babies sell themselves.
It’s a masterpiece of personal story, a tapestry of the life arcs of its characters, founded on a series of interviews with real Broadway chorus members, eight of whom went on to join the original cast. I believe it was the actress who inspired the character of Connie (known for the trouble with being “four foot ten”) who said that if she didn’t get the show she had just auditioned for, she would have so little money left that she would be evicted from her apartment. And although my stakes have thus far mostly been lower than that, I thought it would make sense to examine this show in terms personal to me.
As usual, it started in the car with my dad. Much of my musical education took place there. I absorbed Randy Newman’s “Four Eyes,” They Might Be Giants’ Flood, literally all of the Mamas & the Papas. You’d be amazed at the impact a daily drive of fifteen minutes to and from school can have over a run of years.
I was about ten when, en route home one day, he flicked through a series of tracks and said, “Now, I can’t play this with your sister around because it’s got a swear word in it.” In hindsight I doubt my younger sister would have cared, or even noticed; that’s how it was for me, my interest in certain lyrics induced by the grownups’ aversion to them and attempts to shield me from them. (Don’t overthink it, grownups!) Anyway, he pressed play on the story of a woman’s struggle in an acting class whose toxic environment constantly made her feel as if she were…nothing. I had experienced similar feelings among my peers at school, and I was cheered to hear about people with theatrical aspirations like mine.
The line that uneased my dad came at the end of the first verse of the song proper:
They all felt something
But I felt nothing
Except the feeling that this bullshit was absurd
That admittedly made me sit up straighter. The two show credits to my name were rather wholesome: a school production of The King & I (as Anna) and a children’s-theatre production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (as one of three narrators). I had the bug, but I knew I also had a long way to go. Maybe someday I would get to—or be brave enough to—sing a line like this.
Cut to May 2017, when a friend who had played Jack to my Cinderella in a local production of Into the Woods tipped me off to an audition for a nearby community theatre’s summer staging of A Chorus Line. This was it! A shot at the show whose peculiar lines I’d been spouting haphazardly since that day in the car. So many lines.
“If Troy Donahue could be a movie star, then I could be a movie star.”
“Little brat. That’s what my sister was. A little brat. And that’s why I shaved her head. I’m glad I shaved her head.”
and the existential
“Tits! When am I gonna grow tits?” (As of eighth grade, that had turned out not to be a concern.)
I hadn’t had a real-life frame of reference for the majority of these observations as I was memorizing them. I thought they were funny, even if some of the jokes went over my head. But they had accompanied me through an adolescence as tumultuous as any the characters mentioned in “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” and through college where I felt misunderstood all over again in different ways, and now at nearly twenty-two I considered myself slightly more in the know. I had something of a sense of what was going on in this thing called the adult world. At the very least I understood the jokes. Not going for it would be doing myself a disservice.
I had always been a strong dancer, if rarely the strongest in the room. But even if it hadn’t been a while since I’d danced in a formal context, this audition would have challenged me like none other. I was nowhere near the strongest; I may have been among the weakest of the girls (don’t get me started on gendered double standards). And once I was cast as a dancer who is cut after the famously taxing opening number—and as the understudy for Val, of “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” notoriety—the challenges only continued. Wonderful challenges, to be sure, especially where the choreography was concerned. It occurred to me that I had spent so long turning over every aural detail of that original soundtrack that I had a loose concept at best of the visual mechanics of the show (well, except for the spangled finale ensemble, which I was quite excited to put on). So watching it come to life, and physically taking part in it, was a unique and invigorating experience. As I mastered and perfected that opening routine, I felt I was leaving the best of myself out there with it. I was digging right down to the bottom of my soul to see what I had inside. Not forgetting the chance I had to directly engage with my beloved libretto: I even got to sing “I really need this job / Please, God, I need this job / I’ve got to get this job.” My whole heart was in those three lines too.
The book (or script), which I had never heard, struck and moved me over and over again as rehearsals went on. I wasn’t sure how faithful the stories were to the lives they represented, but some were truly heartrending. Paul’s recollection of finding a home away from home. Cassie’s plea to be rescued from a washed-up Hollywood career. These characters want to be important, want to reach someone, if only one person—the director. The setting is iconic in its sparseness, a bare stage and a mirror, giving the impression of a liminal space where anyone can have a voice and take up the space they deserve, even if they won’t all be rewarded for it. As we polished and then performed our production, it seemed we were getting at some essence of life, imperfect and often disappointing and ultimately fleeting though it might be.
Never have I been more insecure onstage than when I was doing A Chorus Line. And my instances of onstage insecurity are few and far between. Even given my familiarity with the score, I was faced with constant effort and constant failure at a hitherto-unknown rate. If ever the opportunity presents itself, I’ll gladly do it again. If not, I’m grateful to have had this show, witty and fretful and heartfelt, to guide me through my life up to this point and eager to track my evolving relationship to it going forward. As befits my music-nerd persona, I’ve also had tremendous fun hunting down cut tunes like this one. Good old Hamlisch will never let me down.
One of the things I appreciate most about A Chorus Line at the end of the day is its balance of escapism and realism. It allows both performers and spectators to entertain the fantasy of working in show business while even more potently pointing out the trials of the industry and the varied barriers that can spring up in the path of anyone who dares to try to live out that fantasy. Realizing art by this method is a special sort of pain, and a special sort of joy. These personalities, these songs, and these images inhabit the pain and the joy better than just about any show I know. Almost half a century on, it’s the one.
Images: from the 1975 production