A Chorus Line

A Chorus Line is one of the most influential musicals in the history of the form. Guided by director/choreographer Michael Bennett (who, coincidentally, choreographed that sweet little musical Henry, Sweet Henry), book writers James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante, composer Marvin Hamlisch, and lyricist Edward Kleban combined the stories of real Broadway dancers into a remarkable musical. A group of dancers are lined up for an open call to play in a Broadway show. They are asked by an unseen director very personal questions about their lives and work until he makes the final cuts.

When this show is done right, it's gut wrenching. You have a line full of triple threats who never leave the stage singing, dancing, and acting their way through some heavy subject matter. Take, for instance, the trio "At the Ballet." Forgive the video quality; it's actual footage from the original Off-Broadway production and shows this song in context better than any other video I can find.

That was three women explaining their family situations by way of discussing their childhood history with dance. It's a brilliant conceit that drives me wild. For some people (myself included), performance becomes an escape. When you're onstage, you don't have to be yourself. You don't have to deal with your issues and you don't have to be judged as anything other than the character you are portraying.

That's the entire conceit of the show. The director doesn't want to just hire dancers or actors; he wants to hire people. He wants their stories because he wants them to let their guards down and be human. That's contradictory to a lot of what you are taught as a performer. When you go into an audition, you practically have to act like you can produce rainbows with your smile without seeming like you're fake. You might get cast if you're talented enough to overcome these expectations, but it sure hopes if you can be a natural-acting bright and cheerful person. A little personality is good if it's not mopey, sad, or depressing.

A Chorus Line has to cast incredible dancers and singers who are capable of building up this wall every night and only to tear it down by the end of the performance and be nothing but perfect shells. It's the type of show that is just draining to perform. You have to give so much as a performer and build layers upon layers of character just to be broken down by a very realistic script by the end of the night.

If you want to know the impact of this show on Broadway and the musical theater genre, you need to look at it in the right context. I'm a fan of using this analogy. Think back to the first season of MTV's The Real World. These total strangers had no idea what they were getting into by agreeing to be filmed 24/7 for a few months. Their lives--good, bad, and ugly--were broadcast to a national audience as entertainment. People could relate to the characters because they were actually people.

A Chorus Line goes for that same effect. When it premiered, a good number of the dancers in the show were the dancers who were interviewed during the development of the book. These are their stories--merged, rewritten, and transferred to other characters--being performed as if they were being told for the first time every night. They feel real because most of them are based in actual events that happened. This didn't raise the curtain into the casting process; it tore down the theater and invited the nation to watch the real lives of professional performers. It rings so raw and honest that you can't look away.

Then you get to that ending. That iconic ending where everyone who was forced to tear themselves down to their emotional core is now required to put on a gold lame tuxedo and dance in perfect unison. That's the biggest emotional blow of all. These people were torn apart for two acts just to be put back together into the polished chorus line of a big Broadway show that could have been running next door. They have plastered on smiles and not a genuine emotion in their bodies. They are robots, mass-produced to entertain eight times a week with minimal variation. If they step out of line just for a second, they have ruined the illusion. But A Chorus Line destroys that illusion by spending most of its running time forcing the dancers to step out of line and be real. It's jarring.

It's a fantastic production number (and one of the iconic elements of the show that barely even gets tweaked thirty-plus years later. For some people, it's the bright happy ending the show needs. It's a crowd pleasing number at the end of a very different show. There are people who see A Chorus Line and take a very different thing away from it than what I wrote above. That's what is ultimately so great about this musical. It's so deep and polished that everyone can go in, take away something different, and realize they saw something special.

So are you a fan? Sound off below with your own thoughts on this show.

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