'CHORUS LINE' FILM TAKES CENTER STAGE

The Mark Hellinger on West 5lst is one of the dwindling number of landmark Broadway theaters, spacious (1,600 seats) and ornate, a relic of some more flamboyant past. "My Fair Lady" commenced life on its stage 30 years ago.

The Hellinger shows the wear of these years and more. But presently the proscenium columns have been regilded and painted, a limited cosmetic doll-up for the purposes of photography. Here, amid the ghostly echoes of other decades, other musicals, Sir Richard Attenborough is directing the film version of "A Chorus Line," which will be one of the main arrivals for Christmas, 1985.

There is a uniformed guard, chosen for his amiability, in the outer lobby, and the foyer is mud-tracked and cluttered with cables and gear. A small, hand-lettered sign reads "Guests Please" and points to the balcony stairs. Against the current tradition of the closed set, "A Chorus Line" has welcomed a stream of visitors, on the grounds that it is never too early for word-of-mouth attention. (One recent watcher was Al Pacino who, trying to loiter inconspicuously at the rear of the orchestra, created as much attention as a streaker.)

"A Chorus Line" has long since become the most successful and longest-running musical in U.S. history. It opened in 1975 and has been on view ever since. It has a Pulitzer Prize and a nine-Tony sweep. Its bizarre birth pangs as a film, previously chronicled in Calendar by Michael London, are a redolent and tangled history of starry involvements, conflicting ideas on how the film should be done and ever-escalating costs before a camera rolled.

The present producers, Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and many another Broadway production, had offered $150,000 for the film rights while the musical was still in previews at a small off-Broadway house, before the acclaim began. Their offer was refused and the rights ultimately went to Universal for a slightly larger price, $5.5 million.

For the next seven years, the "Chorus Line" film engaged the best efforts of Michael Bennett (who directed the stage version), Mike Nichols and Bo Goldman, Sidney Lumet, Allan Carr and Joel Schumacher (who had directed "The Incredible Shrinking Woman"), Peter Guber and Jon Peters, Jim Bridges ("Urban Cowboy") and such stars as John Travolta and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

By 1982, Universal was out, PolyGram was in but unhappy, the investment in salaries and unusable scripts had doubled, and still there was no clear idea of how to do "A Chorus Line" as a film.

Then Feuer and Martin, who are not without patience, re-entered the negotiations and created the deal under which "A Chorus Line" began shooting last Oct. 1, with Embassy Pictures now the distributor and Attenborough directing his first film since "Gandhi," with a script by Arnold Schulman.

After all the plans to open up the musical and get it off the rehearsal stage where it all took place, Feuer and Martin sensibly decided that it was a kind of folly to run away from the structure that gave "A Chorus Line" its idiosyncratic but monumental appeal.

Did you have to, in the name of cinema, depart from that potent concentration: the kids in the line stepping forward one after another to tell their stories, amid the larger suspense of the casting call ("I need this job") and against the revealed relationship between the tough choreographer Zach, a voice in the orchestral darkness, and Cassie, one of the auditioners who has been at the dance wars longer than most of the youngsters?

No, the present principals agreed. The opening up will be minimal: a cross-cutting sequence at the start of Cassie fighting through traffic to make the call and some glimpses of the Zach/Cassie relationship. The sound track throughout, Attenborough says, will be the noises of the rehearsal stage; one way or another, we won't get out of the Hellinger.

This is Attenborough's second musical. He made his debut as a director with another blindingly difficult adaptation of a very stylized musical, "Oh What a Lovely War!" in 1969, a savagely anti-war piece based, heavy with symbols, on the slaughter of a whole generation of the finest young Britons in the 1914-1918 war. It was not a commercial success but its emotional wallop and its images linger in mind.

The production budget of "A Chorus Line" is $16 million, modest enough for a musical that will include more than four months of principal photography, finishing in early March. Not only that, Attenborough said last weekend, it will come in under budget, despite being five days behind schedule because of sporadic outbreaks of flu in the cast.

Like the original cast, Attenborough's is an ensemble. Its starriest name, Michael Douglas as the heard-but-until-the-end-unseen Zach, will be listed alphabetically. So will Audrey Landers, who has been Afton Cooper on "Dallas" for four years but is on a six-month leave to do the film. Landers plays Val, who does the famous "Dance Ten, Looks Three" and worries explicitly about her measurements.

Attenborough, choreographer Jeffrey Hornaday and their aides looked at 3,000--count 'em 3,000--dancers on both coasts, taught 700 of them the audition routine, screen-tested 63 of those, Attenborough says, and cast the 17 chorus liners from them.

Five of the dancers had been in "Chorus Line" companies. Vicki Frederick played Cassie in New York and Los Angeles, will be Sheila in the film. Alyson Reed, who toured with "Chorus Line" and was "Marilyn" on Broadway, will be Cassie.

Pam Klinger toured for three years and Justin Ross was in the New York company. Matt West will be Bobby, as he was on Broadway. Among the newcomers is Nicole Fosse, the daughter of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. She is the wife in the husband-wife couple auditioning for Zach.

Staying faithful to the stage concept has had its costs for everyone. "When you're shooting most films," Attenborough says, "you get a new charge of energy when you move to a new location. Here we are, every morning since August when we started rehearsing: same 17 youngsters, same 17 costumes, same sets. If it weren't for the extraordinary adrenalin supplied by these remarkable young people, I think it might have been insurmountable.

"I've never worked before in what is an American form of production. It hardly exists in Britain and I think not at all on the Continent. I mean the workshop approach. What's happened is that they were cast as dancers, that was the absolute first requirement, but as a result of this continual ensemble playing, they've developed their acting abilities to a fine degree. They're giving performances that are very exciting.

"Six months ago I was working very hard to get at the right readings. Now they're much surer of the person they're playing, but they also have feelings of great confidence in themselves as actors.

"What's astonishing to me is that I could've cast the film many times over. I don't think the richness of talent, disciplined, trained and multifarious talent, exists anywhere else in the world. Even legitimate actors I'm afraid tend to ignore the kind of discipline these dancers have. My God, they're in here two hours ahead of everybody else, doing their warm-ups. When we're ready to go they're more than ready to go. You don't have to wind the whole company up as you sometimes do."

Attenborough and choreographer Jeffrey Hornady have evidently worked well together. "None of this, 'Here's the dance, now shoot it,' " Attenborough says. "On Friday I asked Jeffrey if we could reverse a whole piece of choreography because it would work better with what I hoped to do next. Neither he nor I have resented each other's input in the other's area. I think he can't be sure if he wants to go to film making or stay with choreography. But in my view it would be a tragedy if he left choreography too soon; I have no doubt he'll make a mark like Fosse or Robbins. And the bugger's only 29."

Indeed, Attenborough has become so impressed with the contributions of the choreographer that he thinks it should be added to the list of Oscar categories.

He seized an evening to see Sir David Lean's "A Passage to India" and thinks it has "magnificent stuff" in it. He is particularly pleased at the acclaim for Dame Peggy Ashcroft. "You haven't really known her over here, but she's been a legend in our time, and now here she is in the mainstream, with 'Passage' and 'The Jewel in the Crown.' We still think of her as the greatest Juliet there ever was."

Meanwhile, Attenborough is a long way from Gandhi's India. There are snow flurries on West 51st. But the dancers on stage seem to stay in motion between takes, clowning, trying steps, improvising pieces of business. As Attenborough observes, the adrenalin level is high. If the camera preserves the spontaneity of it, it could make for a merry next Christmas.

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