'A Chorus Line' Continues Its History at the Olney
You don’t see “ A Chorus Line ” too often anymore, certainly not in many regional theaters.
“It’s not that people have forgotten it, or that it’s not a popular show,” said Christopher Youstra, associate artistic director and director of musical theater at Olney Theatre Center, where the ground-breaking, and record-breaking Broadway musical is getting a vivid staging. “It’s a very difficult thing for regional theaters to do properly, it’s a big cast, it’s physically demanding.” “The show also places some special demands on casting,” said Youstra, who’s worked at Round House Theatre and Studio Theatre and is a fixture on the Washington area theater scene. “You’re looking for triple threats—acting, singing and dancing, and especially dancing, because that’s what the show is about.”
“It’s a mega show. It’s a musical about show business, specifically about all those people who went to auditions to flesh out chorus lines in musicals,” he said. “In that sense, it’s a little bit of a history piece—those kinds of splashy, big musicals with those kind of musical and dance numbers are not so much in evidence any more, and Broadway itself has changed.”
It’s true enough. You don’t get much talk about the dancing in mega-hits like “The Lion King,” “Spiderman” or “The Book of Mormon.” Revivals and new stagings of the likes of “Anything Goes” only serve as reminders of what Broadway musicals used to be.
The denizens of Broadway included exactly the kind of people who were essential to the legends and lore of Broadway musicals—remember the director’s admonition to the chorine who has to take the place of the star in “42nd Street”? “You’re going out there as a chorine, but you’re coming back a star,” he said.
That was the dream of every guy and girl auditioning for the chorus. It was the late director Michael Bennett—with the help of a process that included actual interviews of actors and gypsy chorus aspirants-who turned the material—with a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, lyrics by Edward Kleban and music by Marvin Hamlich—into Broadway gold.
With Donna McKechnie in a star turn as Cassie, with glamorous production numbers and solos, and an often heartbreaking but always honest and gritty story line, “A Chorus Line” began with workshops and an Off-Broadway run before opening on Broadway on July 25, 1975. It was a huge success at a time when Broadway and Times Square were going through a decline. The production got 12 Tony Award nominations and won 9—and earned a Pulitzer Prize. When it was all over and said and sung, it had rung up 6,137 productions, sailing past the previous record holder, “Grease,” with ease. The run was finally surpassed by “Cats” in 1997, but it still remains the sixth longest-running Broadway show in history. “A Chorus Line” was revived in 2006 and just recently, another revival opened in the West End of London.
“The show revived Broadway, it brought people to Time Square, who, even if they couldn’t get tickets to it, went to another show,” Youstra said.
“A Chorus Line” is about show business, about dancers in particular, and in that sense, the world the characters in the show occupy has changed radically. McKechnie, a gifted dancer along the lines of Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon, won a Tony award for her performance in “A Chorus Line,” but there were not too many shows calling for star dancers on the horizons, except for revivals. The age of great dancers and dance producers and directors was coming to a close at the time—there were few Gower Champions (who famously died of cancer just before the opening of “42nd Street”) or Bob Fosse of “Chicago” fame. Fosse, who had a sterling film career directing “Cabaret,” “Star 80” and “All That Jazz” equally famously died on his way to the opening of the revival of “Sweet Charity” at the National Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue, accompanied by his ex-wife Gwen Verdon. “Sweet Charity” starred McKechnie.
In the end, “A Chorus Line” is an echo of Broadway past and theater now—“What I Did for Love” is a standard, but it’s also unique to the show, just as is the “One.”
Broadway musicals, and the people in them, have a life of their own, and the stories go on. Sometimes, they come back. McKechnie will add a flavor to the times, bringing her own cabaret show, “Same Place, Another Time,” to the Olney on Sept. 1. And this production of “A Chorus Line” brings with it its own lore: Nancy Lemenager, originally cast as Cassie, had to leave the show due to injury. Michelle Aravena, who had been cast as Morales and a Cassie understudy, took over, with Jessica Vaccaro, who played Morales at Paper Mill Playhouse, stepping into the role at Olney.