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