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By Sylviane Gold
The studio door opened, releasing a wall of sound-a choir lustily singing the praises of “one singular sensation.” Then 17 performers in leotards and practice pants came into view, tipping their ill-assorted hats and moving forward in the precise, kick-happy unison of a Broadway production number. In those few seconds, the stormy summer's day outside disappeared, and three decades seemed to fall away. Suddenly it was 1975 all over again—the year I and absolutely everyone else spent the summer desperately wanting tickets to A Chorus Line.
Little did we know that it would take 15 years to exhaust that zeal, as this plain little show about chorus kids auditioning for a musical moved from off-Broadway to Broadway and then into legend: how it had been born, in all-night bull sessions about dancing in musicals; how it had been nurtured, over two years of workshops financed by Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival; and how it had succeeded, garnering nine Tonys, the Pulitzer, and, ultimately, a record-setting 6,137 performances and $38.4 million in profits.
It sounds like hype now, but anyone who was around back then will know that it isn't. A Chorus Line was much more than a hit, it was a phenomenon. And in giving audiences a glimpse into the thoughts and emotions of hitherto anonymous gypsies—a term that was then unknown to the general public—as they auditioned for an emphatically non-phenomenonal Broadway musical, this celebration of the dance life altered not just the way the world saw dancers, but also the way dancers saw themselves. By peeling away the veneer of uniformity, the show turned not just its chorus line but all dance performers into plucky, impassioned, vivid individuals.
Despite its insular, dance-world concerns, A Chorus Line was embraced not just by dancers, not just by show people and not just by New Yorkers. As it turned out, everyone on the planet could identify with the dancers who had provided the raw material for the show by pouring out their souls to Michael Bennett. Everyone needs a dream, everyone needs a job, everyone needs to kiss today goodbye. And everyone wanted to hear the cast say so in the songs of Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban, in the script conceived by Michael Bennett and written by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, and in the choreography devised by Bennett and Bob Avian.
Can you “revive” a history like that? Avian and lawyer John Breglio, who together oversee the Bennett estate, are betting that they can. Their production of A Chorus Line, with Avian directing and Breglio producing, opens October 5 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, after six weeks at San Francisco's Curran Theatre and two weeks of New York previews. In a nice bit of historical symmetry, the studio in which the production was taking shape last summer was at 890 Broadway, the building that Bennett, who died in 1987, bought and converted into a dance and theater hub with his Chorus Line royalties.
Avian, who is returning to the show for the first time since he worked on the original, and Baayork Lee, who has made a career of restaging the musical since leaving the original cast in 1976, were watching the company run through “One” when I walked into the studio. It looked ragged, but that was by design. In this part of the show, the characters are learning the number that provides the finale of both the fictional musical they want to be in and the non-fictional show they actually are in. So it's full of flubs, some of which the cast had improvised, some of which Lee was carefully orchestrating from her “bible,” the thick binder whose plastic-encased pages document every moment of the show.
One dancer dropped a hat, another was behind the count, another took off on the wrong foot. Charlotte d’Amboise was making another kind of mistake: In the pivotal role of Cassie, originated by Donna McKechnie, she was dancing with too much style to be a mere gypsy, and the domineering director, played by Michael Berresse, was going to call her on it.
For d'Amboise, A Chorus Line provides some ironies. A gifted pro best known for taking over lead roles rather than creating them, she's getting a rare Broadway opening night—her first since since 1995 (see “Star Quality,” Aug. 2005). But Cassie is someone who prefers the ensemble to the spotlight, and it's a role indelibly marked by McKechnie’s performance in the original.
“There is no way I can dance like Donna McKechnie,” d’Amboise said after the rehearsal. ”The way she moves is her own.” McKechnie returned the compliment in a telephone interview. “I've always been a little territorial about that part,” she said. “When I heard Charlotte was doing it, I was pleased, because I’ve seen her, and I know with her experience she will make it her own.”
That’s how Avian wants it too, and he has tailored the number for d’Amboise. “Of course it follows the same outline as what we did originally,” he said. “But I made tremendous adjustments. Donna was very long in the torso and had tremendous port de bras. So everything was geared to her body. Charlotte’s got these endless legs, so I’ve taken out a lot of the back work and put in a lot of extensions, playing into her strengths.”
Rejiggering A Chorus Line for a new cast and a new audience is not how Avian was planning to spend his late 60s. He'd retired in 2000, after a career that took him from the ensemble to the choreography credits on A Chorus Line and other shows, like Miss Saigon and Sunset Boulevard. “The magic, the passion, the hunger was gone,” he said. “I just thought, ‘I don’t need to do this any more.’ ” And retirement agreed with him. “Florida in the winter, Connecticut in the summer,” he said. “It’s bliss,” When Breglio broached the idea of a revival, Avian was not exactly gung-ho to direct it. ”Finally,” he said, “I agreed, because I thought, ‘It will be easier to direct it myself than to sit behind someone else and poke them in the shoulder and tell them what to do.’ ”
That grudging assent didn’t turn into real enthusiasm, he said, until the first audition. “As soon as I saw the kids coming into the room again,” he recalled, “it just turned me on. And all of a sudden I was falling in love with all these kids. I’d have them learn all the material, and then they would come in and give me a new take on it all.”
Some 2,000 dancers auditioned, he said, and he was floored by what he saw. “The bar is so much higher now—certainly than when I was a dancer and also since we did A Chorus Line originally. They’re so much more equipped in terms of their dance training and their singing. We got some wonderful little actors, too.” And those who made the final cut do indeed provide a new take on the familiar line. In some cases the race or ethnicity of the characters is different. In others it’s just the look. “I didn’t want to typecast them,” Avian said of the aspirants. “I wanted to be open. Whoever came in the door, if they were talented, I would consider them for the role.”
While he’s tinkering with the choreography—“there are things I've been waiting to get my hands on for 30 years”—and altering the makeup of the chorus line, his collaborators are taking advantage of new technology to revamp some of the musical and design elements. But Avian has decided that the characters will still be living in the '70s. The dancers in the rehearsal room may have cell phones, piercings and tattoos, but the characters in the show won't.
“We tried updating once in the early '80s,” he said, “with one of the road companies. We changed the clothes to make them more contemporary, and we started taking out outdated references, like Robert Goulet and Jill St. John. It caused this giant domino effect—it all started backfiring on us. Because we didn’t know any more what we were talking about. The show reflected the morality and sexuality of that time.”
The sexuality of our time will be showing up in the costumes, however. “They’re iconic, so I don't want to fuss with them too much,” said Avian. “But we’re making them suit the bodies of these kids. We're using modern fabric on the pants for the guys, so they won’t sag so much. We’ve changed the neckline on some of the girls to make them a little sexier. We're so used to seeing everyone walking around naked today.”
It made him sound a bit like a crotchety oldtimer, but he didn't look like one as he and Lee demonstrated some moves for D’Amboise. Still slim and agile, and dressed in jeans and sneakers, he exuded calm. The vibe in the room was fairly mellow, considering that within a few weeks the show would be opening in San Francisco. “Baayork and I are a dynamite team,” Avian said. “We go back 40 years.” But the real key to the harmony, he said, is the same one that emerged in those bull sessions 30-plus years ago, when he and Bennett listened to their gypsy friends talking about their inner lives. “When you’re a dancer,” he said, “you feel like you're part of a secret club that no one else is part of.”
Sylviane Gold has written about theater for Newsday and The New York Times.