A Chorus Line, was up until Cats took its place , the longest running musical in Broadway history. It strikes home with many performers as being the closest thing to what the life of Broadway dancers really is like. Keep in mind that injuries and health gives a typical dancer the working span of a pro football player. We bandage our arms and bind our knees just as much as those in the sports world do , difference is we don't get millions of dollars for it...
Instead of a standard plot, A Chorus Line had what might be called a "staging scheme." Presented without intermission, that scheme was a simple one. At an audition for an upcoming Broadway production, a director and a choreography assistant choose seventeen dancers. The director tells them he is looking for a strong dancing chorus of four boys and four girls, and he wants to learn more about them. They are then told to talk about themselves.
"I Hope I Get It" is a ten-minute sequence, one of the most exciting openings in all musical theatre. We are watching the beginning of the final phase of a Broadway tryout. A rehearsal piano plays as Bennett fills the stage with flying arms and legs, as groups of dancers in rehearsal clothes vanish and reappear. The dancers eventually surge forward into a line, holding their eight-by-ten inch head shots in front of them.
After the director (Zach) informs the dancers that he wants to know more about them, they begin with great reluctance to talk, revealing portions of their life stories. In order to get this job, they must put themselves on the line. While the show uses different characters to move through the audition, the overall pattern of stories progresses chronologically from early life experiences through adulthood to the end of a career.
"I Can Do That" has Mike recall his first experience with dance, watching his sister's dance class when he was a pre-schooler. Certain he could do it too, he took her place one day when she refused to go to class -- and he stayed the rest of his life. This song was the first opportunity for the typical audience members to relate what they are seeing onstage to their own life experiences. Almost everyone has had an "I Can Do That" moment, which gave the song's title a comfortable second layer of meaning.
"At The Ballet" is a poignant tribute to the escape Sheila, Bebe, and Maggie found in the beauty of ballet.
"Sing" comically makes it cringe-ably clear that Kristine is tone deaf while her husband (Al) helps her through it.
"Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" is a montage sequence, Bennett at his best. All of the dancers share memories of their traumatic early teens. The number is constantly surprising and alive with shifting emotions, symptomatic of the years it thematically epitomises. This is the first of several places in the show where homosexuality is dealt with in a matter of fact style. A Chorus Line was the first Broadway musical to do that.
The montage wipes into "Nothing," Diana's recollections of a horrible high school acting class, and then "Dance Ten, Looks Three," Val's explanation that talent doesn't count for everything with casting directors. (The song is perhaps better known by the "biological" title "Tits and Ass.") A wrenching monologue follows in which the emotionally vulnerable Paul comes to terms with his early career, manhood, and sense of self. From the moment he says "Take care of my son he said" the audience wants Paul to succeed the most.
"The Music and The Mirror" was the longest solo ever created for a musical. It tells of Cassie's love of dance. She is a terrific veteran "gypsy" who has had some notable successes as a soloist. She may be, in fact, too good for a chorus part. But she needs the work. Even more, she needs to dance.
In the first rendition of "One," where Zach and Cassie confront each other and their romantic past. After Paul falls injured and is carried off, out of dancing for now, perhaps forever, the director asks the remaining dancers what they will do when they can no longer dance. With no regrets ,Diana answers for all "What I Did For Love" expresses the emotional drive that keeps these dancers focused, ever hopeful and free of regrets. This number fades into the final elimination process as the final eight dancers are selected.
"One," the finale, is Bennett's masterpiece of style and irony. It begins with an individual bow for each of the nineteen characters, their hodgepodge rehearsal clothes replaced by identical spangled gold costumes. As each dancer joins the group, it is suddenly difficult to distinguish one form the other. Each character who was an individual to the audience is now an anonymous member of an ensemble.
The number offers the flashiest choreography of the show. The dancers form a triangular wedge that flies off into a kick circle, celebrating the glitz and excitement of Broadway. But there is an underlying irony that the individuals we know to be special had to become parts of a line, anonymously working in synch to back some star. In a final, unforgettable image, the dancers form a kick-line that technically never ends since the lights fade as the cast kicks on.
Almost more interesting than the story itself , is the story of how it was conceived , and how it went from an idea in the mind of Michael Bennett to the smash hit it became.
In 1974 Bennett tape-recorded the reminiscences of a group of "Gypsies" ~ Broadway chorus dancers, eight of whom would be a part of the original cast ~ bought the rights to those stories and convinced Joseph Papp of the non-profit Theatre to bankroll a workshop that would develop the stories into a stage musical.
What emerged was a show with no stars, no set , and almost no plot. This struck people as daring in 1975...in fact, given what's been on the stage in the intervening two decades, astounding is more like it.
Papp's theatre was half a million bucks in the red, and it was a non-profit company, but he put up half a million more for what would which , aside from Bennett, had no track record in the theatre business. And it worked! And the profits funded the Public's other work for 15 years afterwards; it just about restores your faith in miracles, especially when you realise that nothing like it has happened since.
Bennett began pulling together his irregulars at that first taping, offering them a dazzling hundred dollars to do the workshops. Nicholas Dante, the original author , was one of those dancers; in fact, it's his recollections that form the basis for the character Paul, the gypsy who debuted in a drag show. James Kirkwood , a novelist and playwright who had been an actor, was brought in to condense ,edit and dramatise the rough show.
They never left town to try out, but those workshops down on Layfette Street served the same purpose. They also , just incidentally , started a word of mouth groundswell like nothing since. A nanosecond after their Broadway opening , every single ticket disappeared, before the critics even had time to think.
Two months later they transferred uptown to the Shurbert and were an instant hit.
One thing that audiences feel is odd about Chorus Line is the fact that there are no bows...no it is not a mistake .Michael Bennett, the shows creator , wanted it that way to make a very true point:
"I want the audience to walk out of the theatre saying, 'Those kids shouldn't be in a chorus!' And I want people in the audience to go to other shows and think about what's really gone into making that chorus . . . It fades with them kicking. That's it. That's the end of the show. There are no bows. I don't believe in bows, just the fade out. That's what a dancer's life is."
-Donna McKechnie played Cassie in the original cast, a role built in large part around her actual life experiences as she related them in the workshops. Also , it was no small fact that Bennett and Cassie were actually married...twice , and she did leave because Bennett was almost a workaholic.
-The beautiful final ballad, "What I Did For Love" was not like by the lyricist Kleban he is on record with this unexpected quote: "I think it's a dreadful song.")
In the workshop stages, Bennett had Zach read off different names at each performance/rehearsal, and cast members were often hurt when not among the "chosen." Now the names are pre-set.
All of the principal creators of the show, including Bennett, died before the show closed and Dante and Papp shortly after none at a ripe old age. Bennett the man who created the sensation, was only 44 when he passed away, and there were no accolades, no bows....a dancers life.