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Promo image from A Chorus Line


By Robert Harris

In January of 1974, veteran dancers Michon Peacock and Tony Stevens had an idea. They were going to create a company of dancers to workshop Broadway productions, and invited several of their colleagues to come together to discuss the project. To kick-start the process, they decided to ask each dancer to talk about themselves, their lives, and what it meant for them to be a performer. They planned to tape-record the sessions. Peacock had just finished working on a Broadway show called Seesaw, and invited that show’s choreographer/director to one of the first all-night confessionals. So it was that Michael Bennett joined the group, and the seed was planted that grew into one of the most important pieces of American theatrical art ever – A Chorus Line.

Outside those workshop walls in the first months of 1974, America was in turmoil. The Watergate scandal that had rocked the country for a year and a half was still burbling away. In the previous November, President Richard Nixon had angrily told reporters that “I am not a crook.” Fewer and fewer Americans believed him. Despite all the protests, the war in Vietnam was still agonizingly ongoing. The economy was in high-inflation tatters. The ’60s were long gone. Despair was the order of the day.

It was Michael Bennett’s genius, and that of his many collaborators in A Chorus Line, to understand that the times needed honesty and truth – but that integrity in the mid-’70s couldn’t come from above, from heroes and stars, but from below. That meant that in Bennett’s world – the Broadway musical, traditionally America’s most glamorous theatrical venue – something profound needed to change. What was needed was a show with no stars, no prima donnas. A show that focused on the hardest-working, most abused, and least acknowledged members of a Broadway company – its dancers, its chorus line. The funny, poignant, heartbreaking, but always honest stories that Bennett heard on those late-night taped sessions were the key – they eventually would become the script, lyrics and emotional centre of his show. A Chorus Line, despite being the sixth longest-running Broadway show ever, is decidedly working-class in its orientation. It’s the most blue-collar Broadway show of all time.

What Michael Bennett and his team could never have anticipated forty years ago is how universal an appeal their show would have across the decades and around the world. Few of us may aspire to dance on Broadway, but we all know what it is to have a dream, and have that dream denied; know what it is to face humiliation and despair; know what it is to create triumphs, large and small. Those dancers wondering “Who am I anyway?” and calculating “How many boys, how many girls?” mirror all of our fears and doubts and joys and traumas, the best of us and the worst of us. Forty years later, it is the humanity of A Chorus Line that lifts it out of its specific time and place towards the universal. No surprise, really, that it won not just its share of Tony Awards but the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1976.

However, what’s fascinating about A Chorus
Line is that it trades on every Broadway cliché at exactly the same time it demolishes them. It is a show about putting on a show, after all, in the most honoured Broadway tradition that stretches back to everything from 42nd Street to The Band Wagon to Girl Crazy. It’s wildly entertaining, with traditional Broadway choreography cleverly entwined with a stark set and costumeless dancers (until the complex finale). It’s a show, despite its working-class nature, that plays into every glamorous myth about the Broadway stage that has fuelled American culture since the 1890s.

It’s that glamour, when all is said and done, that has attracted those seventeen dancers to that stage – that makes them submit to the intense inner scrutiny that is visited upon them over the course of the show, one that forces them out of their comfort zones. Sure, they need a job, but there are other jobs. They don’t just want a job – they want to be in a show, they want to be able to transcend the very lives they put on display for us, they want to be chosen. The basic myths of Broadway inform almost all of A Chorus Line – it’s just that Bennett and his colleagues have turned them upside down, have let us see what they look like from the other end of the telescope.

And the creative team assembled for the original A Chorus Line is one of the most interesting in Broadway history – a collection of supremely talented individuals who never again, individually or collectively, managed the same level of creative perfection they achieved here. A Chorus Line was truly a singular sensation. Lyricist Ed Kleban, who worked for Columbia Records, never wrote another Broadway show, despite the fact that the words he crafted for “Nothing” or “At the Ballet” or “What I Did for Love” are as good as anything Larry Hart or Cole Porter or anyone else ever penned. Marvin Hamlisch, the show’s composer, although a supremely successful musician in many fields, never repeated on Broadway the success he had with A Chorus Line, despite several attempts. Yet his music is so perfect for this show, so sophisticated and unusual at the same time, so theatrical in its blending of melody and drama. At times, the collage-like numbers in A Chorus Line resemble nothing so much as the madcap finales of a Mozart opera.

And although Michael Bennett himself went on to create another big hit – Dreamgirls, his musical about the Supremes – the success of A Chorus Line was simply unrepeatable: this show was a perfect amalgam of its times, its situation, and a terrific initial idea. Because in the end A Chorus Line is about what it means to be an individual in our highly intertwined, highly interdependent society. Over the years, a lot has been made of the fact that the dancers we get to know as individuals throughout the show seem to disappear into the anonymity of the line by the time we get to the closing number – that “me” gets lost in “we.” But that’s not the real message of A Chorus Line. It seems to be saying, rather, that “me” and “we” are versions of the same thing – that our lives as individuals depend on our friends and neighbours and colleagues, that the loneliness we feel is soothed only by the joy of being on that chorus line of life. The fascination of A Chorus Line is that when we see those dancers looking exactly the same and executing exactly the same steps in their top hats and tails in “One,” we never forget who they are, behind the headshots and the sparkles.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster. He is currently the classical music critic for The Globe and Mail.