Tuesday, May 12, 2020

95. A CHORUS LINE. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Michel stuart, Donna McKechnie, Carole "Kelly" Bishop, Thomas J. Walsh, Nancy Lane, Patricia Garland, Ronald Dennis, Don Percassi, Renee Baughman, Pamela Blair, Cameron Mason, Sammy Williams, Priscilla Lopez.

"In Lieu of Reviews"

Reviews of live theatre being impossible during these days of the pandemic, THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE is pleased to provide instead accounts of previous theatre seasons--encompassing the years 1970-1975-for theatre-hungry readers. If you'd like to know the background on how this previously unpublished series came to be and what its relationship is to my three The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage volumes (covering every New York play, musical, revue, and revival between 1920 and 1950), please check the prefaces to any of the entries beginning with the letter “A.” See the list at the end of the current entry.

A CHORUS LINE [Musical/Dance/Homosexuality/Theatre] B: James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante; M: Marvin Hamlisch; LY: Edward Kleban; CN/D/CH: Michael Bennett (co-choreographer: Bob Avian; S: Robin Wagner; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Tharon Musser; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Public Theater/Newman Theatre (OB); 4/15/75-7/13/75 (101); Sam S. Shubert Theatre; 7/25/75-4/28/90 (6,137): Note: The data on the opening dates is confusing. Otis Guernseys The Best Plays of the year cites April 15 as the opening for the OB production on one page; a couple of pages later, he says that the press date, which usually marks an opening, was May 21. John Wilson's Theatre World series gives May 21 as the opening. Guernsey says in his next volume that it closed at the Public on July 13, “opened” at the Shubert on July 25, but did not have its press date until October 19, following that year's musicians’ strike. Wilson agrees that it closed on July 13 but says it opened at the Shubert on October 19 after moving to Broadway on July 25. I thank Alan Gomberg of the "Vintage New York Stage" Facebook page for bringing this to my attention.

A landmark musical of unbridled talent, sentiment, honesty, and originality that rocketed from the Off-Broadway confines of the Public Theater to the golden glamor of Broadway. There, its shimmering presence acted like a beacon to lure spectators back to the Great White Way and, consequently, to lift the theatre business to levels it hadn’t known for years.

Donna McKechnie, Robert LuPone.
Its exquisitely simple concept—a group of chorus dancers auditioning for a Broadway show with each called forth to relate something of his or her background for the edification of the dance director—was conceived by mastermind director-choreographer Michael Bennett. It was a work of homage to the unsung tribulations of the chorus dancers (Bennett having been one himself) who sacrifice themselves on the altar of their dedication to the thrill of performing.

A Chorus Line, a show that later became the focus of a rash of books, was developed for half a year in a workshop supported by producer Joseph Papp. The show’s ultimate enormous success provide Papp’s not-for-profit New York Shakespeare Festival operations with enough capital to see it move unhindered through the second half of the decade, and on through the entire decade of the 80s.

Bennett and his collaborators, book writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, lyricist Edward Kleban, and composer Marvin Hamlisch fashioned their revolutionary contribution from the actual experiences of cast members and from their own show business recollections. The material was structured to resemble an audition attended by two dozen “gypsies,” or chorus dancer-singers, from which only eight would be selected, four boys and four girls.

After the initial 24 are whittled down to 17 finalists, the dance-director, Zach (Robert LuPone), who spends much of the performance at a microphone in the rear of the house, questions them on their lives, in order to hear their speaking voices and to get some insights into their personalities. His often provocative, yet sometimes painful, questions lead to a series of solo turns, occasionally supported by other performers, in which the fears and aspirations, the heartbreaks and the joys of these performers are sung, danced, and spoken with remarkable exuberance, humor, feeling, and psychological penetration.
Pamela Blair.
For example, a dancer named Sheila (Carole “Kelly” Bishop) remembers with a dose of cynicism when she dreamed of being a ballerina; Diana (Priscilla Lopez), a perky Puerto Rican dancer, recalls the problems she had in a high-school acting class; a pretty blond, Val (Pamela Blair), explains how she surgically improved her “tits and ass” after she discovers she had been rated “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” after an audition; a Puerto Rican boy, Paul (Sammy Williams), discusses his homosexuality and how his macho father learned of it (several male characters are likewise gay).

The major continuing plot element coursing through the show is the story of Cassie (Donna McKechnie, in the role that made her a star), a beautiful, highly talented dancer, Zach’s former mistress, who once had a brush with stardom but is now vying for a spot in the chorus, much to Zach’s dismay. Her highlight comes in the marvelous solo, “The Mirror and the Dance (And the Chance to Dance for You.”

Robert LuPone and the company of A Chorus Line.
At the end, the eight dancers cast for the show come on in glittery, gold, formalwear costumes, replete with tophats, reminiscent of the “Loveland” sequence in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies to present a quintessential, oldtime Broadway chorus number, “One.” Edwin Wilson thought the finale “so sensational that it’s bound to go down in Broadway annals as one of the most exciting finishes in modern musicals.”

The unusual book was thoroughly integrated with its musical support. The music was so interconnected with the conceptual framework that the songs could not easily be extrapolated and made into hit numbers, although “What I Did for Love,” sung by Priscilla Lopez, became a standard, and much of the remaining score became instantly recognizable through fans’ frequent playing of the extremely successful cast album.

Donna McKechnie.
Surprisingly, Hamlisch’s now iconic score received only moderately favorable reviews from some critics, although others gave it much higher grades. John Simon termed it “derivative and pedestrian, but serviceable enough,” while Clive Barnes remarked that it was “occasionally hummable and often quite cleverly drops into a useful buzz of dramatic recitative.” To Douglas Watt, it was “a supple and nicely varied score, which, though notably lacking in the least melodic or harmonic originality.” Edith Oliver described it as “tuneful, varied, witty, and entirely appropriate.”

On the other hand, Walter Kerr found it “perfect,” and Martin Gottfried observed that Hamlisch had subdued his personality to the needs of the show and thereby provided a true Broadway score. “It isn’t just a series of songs, but an evening’s worth of music designed to function as part of a stage work.” Kleban’s lyrics were “articulate, expressive, uncluttered . . . and entertaining,” wrote Watt, but Simon could say only that they were “pretty decent.”

L: Priscilla Lopez; R: Sammy Williams.
Bennett’s conception was lauded by almost every critic. His production took place on a Robin Wagner-designed bare stage in which the blackness was relieved by movable mirrors that formed varying backgrounds according to need. Jack Kroll called the set “a camera obscura . .  where reality and dream ricochet off one another like desire and frustration.” Only a simple white line downstage decorated the acting area. Combined with the infinitely versatile lighting of Tharon Musser, the décor was one of Broadway’s most strikingly effective.

Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes, essentially a variety of rehearsal outfits typically worn by dancers, added immeasurably to the visual beauty in their careful attention to the values of color and line, perfectly encapsulated in the famous photo of the show’s chorus lineup showing each dancer in a slightly different posture.

Simon, despite his disdain for the music, applauded the creators for a “know-how, coupled with ravaging frankness, that makes the show so authentic, interesting, and, finally, innovative.” He called A Chorus Line “the first musical-verité,’ and noted that it “captures admirably . . . the curious duality that makes this underbelly of show business at once exceedingly soft and hard as nails.” What Oliver deemed the “most original, joyous, generous-spirited, and dynamic new musical to come along in years” impressed Kerr by the “lightning-stroke severity, the percussive yet infinitely varied discipline . . . Michael Bennett has imposed upon” it.
Carole "Kelly" Bishop.
Bennett’s choreographic creations for the dance-dominated show drew raves. Watt said Bennett “has no equal in teasing a dance number into shape, building it from bits and pieces into a suddenly dazzling whole.” “His choreography and direction burn up superlatives as if they were inflammable,” added Barnes.

A Chorus Line was not, however, considered perfect, and a few “footling flaws” (Simon) were detected. Among them was the clash between the somewhat contrived Cassie-Zach story within the documentary structure, elements of didacticism and obviousness in a group therapy-like number dealing with the dancers’ attitudes toward the future, when age would hamper their art, excessive sentimentalism in some of their stories, and “the ordinariness” of the biographies, as Kerr put it.

Kay Cole, Sammy Williams, Pamela Blair, Michel Stuart, Nancy Lane, Cameron Mason, Renee Baughman, Ron Kuhlman, Donna McKechnie, Thomas J. Walsh, Patricia Garland, Don Percassi, Ronald Dennis, Priscilla Lopez.
The ensemble was faultless and the critics were hard put to select anyone for special commendation. Those mentioned most frequently were Lopez, Bishop, Williams, McKechnie, Blair, and LuPone. As for official recognition, the show itself won not just the Pulitzer Prize but the award for Best Musical from the Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle voters; Kirkwood and Dante took the Tony for Best Book of a Musical; Bennett, Kirkwood, Dante, Hamlisch, and Kleban walked off with a Special Citation from the OBIES; the score won a Tony; Carole Bishop won both the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and the same thing from the Drama Desk; Lopez snared an OBIE for Performance; Lupone was nominated for a Tony; McKechnie won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical and the Drama Desk Award for the same thing; Williams got the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, as well as an OBIE; Bennett was Best Director of a Musical, said the Tony voters, and landed a similar honor from the Drama Desk; he and collaborator Bob Avian shared the Best Choreographer Tony; Aldredge was nominated for a Best Costume Tony, Musser won the Tonys’ Best Lighting prize; and Wagner’s set was recognized with a Joseph Maharam Foundation Award.

Previous entries:

Abelard and Heloise
Absurd Person Singular
“Acrobats” and “Line”
The Advertisement/
All My Sons
All Over
All Over Town
All the Girls Came Out to Play
Alpha Beta
L’Amante Anglais         
American Gothics
And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little       
And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers
And Whose Little Boy Are You?
Anna K.
Anne of Green Gables
Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead
As You Like It
The Au Pair Man

Baba Goya [Nourish the Beast]
The Ballad of Johnny Pot
Barbary Shore
The Bar that Never Closes
The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel
The Beauty Part
The Beggar’s Opera
Behold! Cometh the Vanderkellens
Be Kind to People Week
Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill
Bette Midler’s Clams on a Half-Shell Revue
Black Girl
Black Light Theatre of Prague
Black Picture Show
Black Sunlight
The Black Terror
Black Visions
Les Blancs
Blasts and Bravos: An Evening with H,L. Mencken
Blue Boys
Bob and Ray—The Two and Only
Boesman and Lena
The Boy Who Came to Leave
A Breeze from the Gulf
Brief Lives
Brother Gorski
Bullshot Crummond
The Burnt Flower Bed
Button, Button
Buy Bonds, Buster

The Cage
Candide (1)
Candide (2)
The Candyapple
Captain Brassbound’s Conversion
The Caretaker
La Carpa de los Raquichis
The Carpenters
The Castro Complex
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The Changing Room
Charles Abbott and Son
Charley’s Aunt
Charlie Was Here and Now He’s Gone
Chemin de Fer
The Cherry Orchard
The Chickencoop Chinaman
The Children
Children! Children!
Children in the Rain
Children of the Wind
The Children’s Mass