Book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Edward Kleban

INFO:

Opened at the Schubert Theatre    June 25, 1975    6,137 performances (often revived)
Original Director: Michael Bennett
Original Choreographer: Michael Bennett, Bob Avian
Original Producer: Joseph Papp
Original Leads: Cassie: Donna MacKecknie
Cast Size: Male: 10   Female: 9   Ensemble: 6 or more   Total Cast Size: At least 25, can be more.
Orchestra: 17
Published Script: A Chorus Line: The Book Of The Musical. ISBN-10: 1557833648 ISBN-13: 978-1557833648
Production Rights: Tams Witmark
Recordings: The original Broadway is fine.
Film: Directed by Richard Attenborough, with Michael Douglas. It’s okay.
Other shows by the authors: Hamlisch: They’re Playing Our Song
Awards: Nominated for 12 Tonys, winner of 9 including Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score. Won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

This is a serious dance show. It’s about the dancers who appear behind the main actors in Broadway Musicals. All the performers must really sing, dance and act. That means your available pool of performers had best be deep. A great show for larger Little Theaters and Dinner Theaters with large stages and a deep talent pool. Colleges and Universities, absolutely, especially those with real dance or Musical Theater programs. Dance-oriented stock companies could consider it. It’s always ripe for a return to Broadway or other pro venues.

Be Warned:

This isn’t just “a” dance show- this is the dance show! But your cast also must sing and act. A whole cast of triple threats! That doesn’t happen often. If you can’t deliver the goods, I wouldn’t start.

There is a monologue about being gay in the second act, and other comments throughout about being gay, that may be problematic for some audiences and groups. These are Broadway dancers, you know? If your not prepared for that sort of material, you should not do this show.

Also, this is a very popular show, and many theaters and schools have done it. (Not sure how well they’ve done it…) You may wish to find out if anyone in your area has produced it in the past 2-3 years, before selecting it.

THE STORY: (Outline by the authors, Kirkwood and Dante, with minor additions.)

A CHORUS LINE takes the audience through the final grueling audition run by the director, Zach, for a new Broadway musical. At the beginning of the show, Zach, a driven, compulsive worker, has assembled thirty semi-finalists and is putting them through a vigorous series of dance combinations, including ballet and jazz. Soon he thins this group down to the final sixteen, eight boys and eight girls. They and the audience know that eventually this number will be cut in half and Zach will choose only four boys and four girls to be in his new musical.

Instead of having them read a short audition scene, Zach wants to elicit a personal history from each one: how they got into “show business,” why they became dancers, what their hopes, fantasies and aspirations are. As he calls upon them individually, they react in every possible way, from bravado to reticence. From childhood on, their memories emerge, blending into a seamless series of musical numbers and monologues, some humorous – I Can Do That; Dance:Ten; Looks:Three, some poignant-At the Ballet, some group reminiscences when they all share their adolescent experiences-Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love and some intimate when he calls upon Cassie, his former lover who has returned from California to ask for a chorus job after having been a featured performer-The Music and the Mirror.

As their individual stories pour out in song-Nothing, and in spoken words (Paul’s monologue), interspersed by learning dance routines that reveal their ability to perform as a faceless drill team-One, the audience, as well as Zach, gets to know each one of these ambitious entertainers individually, so that by the show’s end, they can identify and root for their favorites as well as empathize with all of them because-they all need the job, they all want to work at their craft.

Paul is knocked out of the competition by an injury sustained during a dance number-The Tap Combination.

After the dancers explain why they go through a life filled with rejection and injury-What I Did for Love, Zach makes his selection, eliminating the last group who reluctantly leave the stage. The lights soon fade on the remaining eight ecstatic dancers as they are told to prepare for rehearsals of their new Broadway show. They fade only to come up as each performer, now dressed in full, shimmering finale costume, reappears to receive an individual bow before joining together to perform the brilliant dance finale and showing exactly the talent it takes to make it into-a chorus line.

THE SONGS:

“I Hope I Get It”, “I Can Do That”, “And…”, “At the Ballet”, “Sing!”, “Montage Part 1: Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love”, “Montage Part 2: Nothing”, “Montage Part 3: Mother”, “Montage Part 4: Gimme the Ball”, “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three”, “The Music and the Mirror”, “One”, “The Tap Combination”, “What I Did for Love”, “One” (Reprise)

Hits include “One”, “What I Did For Love”, but most of the rest of the score is at least as memorable as the two “hits”.

MY OPINIONS:

As always, you can elect to ignore or skip my opinions and rating. If you then misstep and plunge headfirst into the orchestra pit of bankruptcy and bad reviews – not my problem.

This is a very good show in many regards. The book is simple, but the characters, being based on real dancers who were interviewed, feel real, amusing, and are sometimes touching. The book is simple in construction – what happens at an audition for a Broadway Musical. The only “development” involves who will succeed and fail in getting into the chorus, and why. Act I is used to introduce most of the characters. Act II plays out the drama of who will be chosen to be in the Chorus. Act II does start to feel like too much of the same thing, we’ve heard all about the character’s ambitions and their doubts in Act I. I’d move Act II along. But I will say that your audience will start rooting for various dancers, and there is a fine pay-off at the end of Act II that should not be rushed, when the dancers are selected and the others have to make their way out of the room without thoroughly embarrassing themselves. We should have come to know all the rejected dancers as well as those accepted, and be allowed a moment to watch them leave and to respond. And then, the big number with the chosen dancers, expressing the joy we all feel when we’re lucky enough to be paid to do the very thing we love to do, and have fought to do. It’s a fine and emotional ending.

What we see in this show, by the way, is not what happens at most auditions for Broadway Musicals. But it’s okay for the audience to think so as it give the industry a human face. The dialogue is pointed, fun and funny with lots of good laughs where they’re needed. (“To commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant.” Love that line.) There are a few terrific monologues here, by the way, funny and endearing, generally in Act I. It was a fine and original concept well-executed by Mr. Bennett, who was a brilliant theater man.

But one of the big reasons your audience will come to see this show is dance. And your cast is going to seriously sing and dance. The amount of ability on display on stage is going to be impressive if your production is going to work.

I think there’s too much underscoring of dialogue in the show, too much of a not-so-great thing that gets in the way. Outside of the songs, I’d edit a fair amount of the underscore out, and let the actors do some acting. The music is often uninspired and predictable. It’s catchy enough, but I think it degrades a bit too often into melodic and lyrical redundancy. I see the score’s music in particular as a mixed bag. There are stronger numbers like “Nothing”, “At The Ballet”, “Sing”, “Mother”, and “Gimme The Ball,” where Mr. Hamlisch devised something more interesting than run-of-the-mill. Well buried beneath that mill is “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen…”, a train-wreck of a number that squeezes in as many personal tales and reminiscences as possible in as short a time as possible, with the most mundane music possible. I think it’s the low point in an otherwise really good show. Firmly inside the mill is the all-too-trite “What I Did For Love”, a song that has, I’m afraid, never moved me. It’s catchy, though, and in the right singer’s hand can almost wow the audience. But as the summation of what drives dancers to dance, artists to art, or anyone to do anything, it’s too simplistic for me. Which means it’s up to the actress to sell it.

On the other hand, the show taken as a whole does investigate in interesting ways why we each choose the lives that we do. It is a smart show, asking timeless and hard questions and attempting to provide diverse answers that will make the audience consider and reconsider their own choices and lives. This is one of the fundamental purposes of art, and of theater, and this show gains genuine heart and nobility from it’s participation in this purpose.

The music in this show is dated already, and like West Side Story, will continue to move farther away from relevance every year. I’m not saying that Mr. Hamlisch’s work is “bad”, it’s not. It’s just too wedded to the period in which it was authored, as was Bernstein’s. But the book and lyrics will keep the show alive – an interesting reversal of how these things generally work. And the music will always communicate energy, and some passion. A show that features a young, attractive cast singing and dancing and getting laughs, and offering a through-the-keyhole look at the industry…that won the Pulitzer. Hard to go wrong, commercially. And it can be artistically rewarding if done well.

MY RATING: ** (An excellent show, well worth considering.)

 

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

Hamlisch was a rehearsal pianist for Funny Girl, early in his career, and understood all too well the audition process, as well as the rehearsal process. The music is often the sort of thing that might accompany an audition – a bit shapeless, a bit thoughtless, without emotion, not about emotion – just a beat for the Choreographer to work with. That makes some of the music pretty forgettable, especially the background stuff. You’ll need to provide it the correct level of commitment, it needs to engage the audience. Or cut some of it.

Vocally, this show is all about belting and harmonies. Some upper register is required for “At The Ballet”, and a few other parts.

Zach – Spoken role.

Cassie – Mezzo soprano with a good belt, good emotion while singing.

Bobby – Baritone.

Sheila – Alto with good high notes, able to harmonize well, a nearly classical quality.

Val – Alto with a big, solid belt, clear expression of lyrics, fun voice, kind of sexy.

Paul – Baritone.

Morales – Alto, fine belt, clear expression of lyrics, emotional when singing. Perhaps your best singer.

Al – Lyric Baritone with strong clear high notes. Helps his wife sing “Sing”.

Kristine – Spoken role, good sense of spoken lyric and of rhythm.

Mark – Tenor.

Connie – Alto.

Greg – Baritone.

Don – Baritone.

Maggie – Mezzo.

Bebe – Alto.

Mike – Tenor. “I Can Do That”. Good, aggressive quality as a vocalist.

Judy – Mezzo.

Richie – Tenor, good R&B chops, strong, soaring upper register.

Larry – Tenor.

Other dancers – Various, all must belt.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

Very, very hard. You’ll need pro dancers, or at least experienced and capable dancers, for almost your entire company. This is a full-on dance show. You can be fairly sure the Choreographer will be involved in the flow and movement of the entire show. Your Director really needs a dance background, and ideally, would be your Choreographer as well.

The dance in the show ranges from ballet combinations to tap to modern jazz and dance, all the forms one might have seen on Broadway when the show was authored. There’s no set, no real costumes, no real tech on the show,. It’s all about the dance, singing, and acting of the cast, and the quality of the writing. So your Choreography must be absolutely top drawer.

Normally in this section I break down ideas for choreography number by number. Almost the entire show needs to be choreographed top some extent, and I don’t think that anything I write here will help. If your Choreographer doesn’t know what to do with this material, get another Choreographer. And I’m not kidding.

CASTING CONCERNS:

A general note – this is an ensemble show. The roles are entirely individual, but the performance must make a cumulative, ensemble effect. The cast needs to work well together just to pull it off. That starts at the top, with the Director and Choreographer. Create an atmosphere of collaboration and cooperation.

Zach – 40s. Cool, direct, professional, aloof, the Director of the show with a vision he pushes ever towards. Usually a voice on a mic, but perhaps not the best way to do this, though it does isolate the dancers. The man always seems like he’s under the gun, in a hurry to get it all done. Yet he has moments of gentleness, though they are rare. He is aware of the pain and discomfort he’s causing in asking for accounts of the dancer’s lives. He should pay an inner price. He has paid for the relationship he had with Cassie when she left him, and makes her pay during the audition. Driven by career, has paid for it in his own way. He can be quick, brutal in his commentary. Cast for acting, some movement.

Cassie – Mid 30s-early 40s. A near-star just moving past the age where dancers get work, and who needs a job – any job, including in the chorus. But she’s too good a dancer for the chorus, and should dance with too much flair, it should be real work for her to fit in. requires a good actress who can play self-pity and ambition without whining or drawing the audience’s rejection. Cast for dance, voice, acting, type – must be styong at all of them.

Bobby – Raised by an uber-conservative upstate New York family, with a very funny version of his upbringing. Great comic timing required, a truly funny role as he “invents” an interesting past for himself to win a role.

Sheila – An aging dancer (at least 30) who sings “At The Ballet”. Tough, edgy, sexy, aggressive, got a mouth on her and is direct.

Val – A fine dancer who could not get work until she has plastic surgery, which as she says “changed her life.”  It has indeed.

Paul – A gay Puerto Rican, High School drop-out and survivor of a difficult upbringing, who injures himself. Longed to be Cyd Charrise as a child. Has a long, dramatic monologue about being gay. Cast for acting, type, dance, voice – must do all well.

Morales – Latina, 20s-early 30s. Fiery, no-nonsense. Very expressive in everything she does, clear, intelligent. A fine singer. Cast for dance, type, voice, acting – should be good at all of them. One of your best singers and performers. She sings the hit song, so get her right.

Al – An Italian dancer, straight, married to (and in love with) Kristine. He can sing well. A sweet man who truly loves and is endlessly amused by his wife.

Kristine – Mid-late 20s. Al’s wife – she can’t sing. The actress must sing well to sing badly, and do it in a very funny way. Overly-nervous, perhaps chirpy, but that’s an obnoxious choice so consider avoiding it and finding a smarter way.

Mark – Late teens-early 20s, the youngest dancer, a good comic actor who can play panic convincingly.

Connie – An Asian who appears ageless, and may be in her 40s or higher. With a sense of humor and some pent-up anger.

Greg – Jewish, gay.

Don – A married man who once worked in a strip club. Seems amused and even entertained by his own life.

Maggie – A sweet woman who grew up in a broken home.

Bebe – A young dancer who only feels beautiful when she dances.

Mike – A tapper who learned to dance at an early age. Good tap-soft-shoe dancer. Experiences some joy while dancing.

Judy – Tall, gawky, a quirky dancer.

Richie – Former kindergarten teacher, Black. Great energy and commitment when performing. Knows his basketball.

Larry – Zach’s assistant. Must dance very well.

Other dancers – Various who get cut, all must sing. About 6-8 of them.

SETS:

A bare stage! Back wall revealed, work light set at the back. A non-set that can be done by any designer! Or no designer. Maybe a roll on dance bar. Talk about inexpensive! An easy show.

COSTUMES:

Tuxes for the one big number, usually gold lame, with matching top hats, for the 8 “winners”. Probably can be rented.

Dance wear, every dancer has their own. A few specialized blouses or shoes. That’s it! An easy show.

PROPS:

Almost none, outside of hats and canes, a clipboard for Zach and for Larry. An easy show.

LIGHTING:

I’ve seen this show very under-lit, which is shocking to me, given how simple all the other technical requirements are. It is an amateur mistake. The show should be bright, even if much of the light is ungelled. The stage is lit for a big audition, and the Choreographer would need to be able to clearly see everything and everyone. And folks, this is a Musical being performed for the audience. They will want to be able to see it all and not be lulled to sleep in the dark. The lighting should pop.

What’s more, when we move into the character’s minds and hear their thoughts, their dreams, the lighting can become increasingly presentational, while the audition remains representational in its approach. This will help the audience distinguish the two states in the show. The lighting should become more theatrical, more gelled, more interesting in private moments.

This is the one tech area where creativity and planning will pay off for this show. Get a Lighting Designer with ability and experience, and a sense of subtlety.

MAKE-UP:

Utterly unobtrusive. An easy show, they should look like they’re wearing street make-up, nothing special.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):

Director, Choreographer, Lighting Designer, Cassie, Zach, Morales. The whole company must be strong.

MY THOUGHTS:
Some of the references in the script date the show, like replacing “Jill St. John” as an actress in a show. These should be looked for and updated for new productions. There is a danger, given the type of music Mr. Hamlisch composed for this show, and some of the dialogue, that this show could become dated. But the characters are real enough, and the subject matter deeply enough investigated, that a new production updating dated references should be more than okay.

Your dance should sparkle, be crisp, and somewhat emotional. Your music should move along, with very clear delivery of lyrics and firm voices expressing melodies in a manner meant to demonstrate the cast are true believers.

A Chorus Line was and is one of the most successful shows of all time. There are compelling reasons why this is so. A good production will (as always) minimize a show’s weaknesses, and emphasize its strengths. The strengths of this show include getting to know the characters, and time should be invested into the Act I monologues and scenes that permit this, in rehearsal and in performance. Another strength is obviously the dance, and it should be top-drawer.

Also, this show made a fortune for the producers.  The tech on it is very simple and cheap.

The boys and girls of the chorus stand in for all of humanity in this show. They are a symbol, in the bigger picture, for all our wishes, our efforts and dreams. Your cast, and then your audience, should be subtly made aware of this. Then, your Chorus Line will truly sing and dance.