THE END OF THE LINE : ‘A Chorus Line,’ a symbol of Broadway, dances out of New York after 15 years
Seldom has the Inevitable come with such surprise. After a record 15 years on Broadway, “A Chorus Line” is closing on March 31. “The End of the Line” was the headline of its last advertisement.
Well, there are worse disasters, and 15 years “isn’t bad” for a Broadway show. . . .
But of course “A Chorus Line” isn’t just a Broadway show. Being about a mythical kind of musical, it became a myth itself. “A Chorus Line” seemed to always be there at the Shubert Theatre on West 44th Street, across the street from Sardi’s, where it ought to be. Other shows would come and go, in and out of other theaters, stars and composers rising and fading. But ever since 1975 and all through the 1980s, “A Chorus Line” remained, complete with the old blurbs from the old reviews in the old newspapers, etched in great mirror posters outside the theater. The show was a symbol of endurance, a symbol of Broadway musicals in a Nintendo world.
Mirrors, of course, were the scenic motif of this musical . They were all that Robin Wagner’s scenery seemed to need. Otherwise, his setting was a black box. When
director-choreographer Michael Bennett first agreed to bring the musical uptown from Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre, where it had originated, he wouldn’t consider any theater that couldn’t be blacked out entirely. His staging concept was dependent on dramatic plunges out of the darkness and into a brilliant stageful of dancers. The plunges worked and the tears flowed, even now in the show’s last weeks, as they had worked and flowed at the Public Theatre some 6,000 performances earlier, when “A Chorus Line” first opened in April, 1975.
In the days before that night, the word was already out among New York’s theater folk. It passed from the stage gypsies and the floating community of out-of-work actors to the choreographers and directors who lived in such unemployed terror that they could only hope for everyone else to fail. Usually, in the musical theater, only the writers seem to wish each other well. They cheer each other on with shared vulnerability, flashing common scars, but on the opening night of “A Chorus Line” at Papp’s Public Theatre, even the bitchiest of choreographers seemed to be cheering for Michael Bennett’s show.
The cozy Newman Theatre, with its bare brick walls, only seats some 300 people, but on that opening night they all seemed to be composers, directors, choreographers, performers, or producers and every one of them seemed to have come to watch the story of his own life, set to drum beats and follow spots. For this was no mere glitzy premiere (although it was very glitzy, black tie). From Day 1, “A Chorus Line” had been different. It had started life as a “workshop"--a new expression, those days--as yet unwritten and uncomposed. It was the era of encounter groups, and Bennett began by just sitting around with Broadway dancers talking about dancing--as children and as professionals.
Six months later, with 40 hours of tapes, the memories were married to a script, dropped like tiles into a production mosaic by co-authors James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante. Only afterwards, and thus unlike all the musicals that went before, did Marvin Hamlisch begin to fit his music to the staging. And only then did Edward Kleban polish the crisp lines of his lyrics for numbers that sometimes went on like little operas. It was a musical that did not exist on paper before rehearsal began. It was a show created in performance, created on its feet. That was new. It allowed a flow of music, dialogue and dancing as never before.
So “A Chorus Line” was ready for business, an artistic musical about commercial musicals, and poised to become the ultimate Broadway musical, the “There’s No Business Like Show Business” of musicals. Everyone in that opening-night audience seemed to know it already. That was why they were there.
As that premiere performance ended, or seemed to end, with the final eight dancers being chosen by the unseen choreographer, the lights coming down on their ecstasy and relief, the applause began. Then the lights came up again for that now legendary culminating chorus line, a finale, “One,” that made even “Oklahoma!” seem routine.
The audience did not stop applauding in recognition that this was a finale and not curtain calls. They rose to their feet and continued their applause, these tough Broadway customers, so inured to hokum, so quick to scoff at sentiment, they kept on clapping, weeping on their feet. Even while the dancers in that final chorus line were building to a climax beyond reason, dipping in their gold satin costumes, lifting their shiny gold hats, high kicking, even still the applause continued. That applause became an underscoring beat beneath the singing, continuing through the whole number, a standing ovation turning back on itself, the audience applauding for itself and for show business and for the wonderful luck to be in it, foolish and dopey as it was.
And the metaphor of it? What did it mean? Humanity, as Bennett claimed? Is that what the applause and tears were for? No, better. The applause and tears were for glitzy finales, for such outrageous and ridiculous joy, and it was the most paralyzing moment of the most thrilling opening night of the thousands I have been to.
“No show runs forever,” Michael Bennett said on his death bed when he died of AIDS in 1987 at 44. But, of course, to run forever was the meaning of that finale, a chorus line high-kicking into eternity. After two hours and 10 minutes of extrapolating from Broadway’s classic steps, anonymous chorus players with brilliant techniques moving through the rituals of drill and rehearsal, of painful rejections and ingenuous hope--after two hours and 10 minutes of raising the familiar to the archetypal, this conclusive line of high-kicking dancers was the only option for a closing number. Bennett had achieved the essential quality of classicism. He had achieved inevitability.
The triumph of “A Chorus Line” lay in its ability to thrill most people, its greatness lay in the artistry that was necessary to achieve that thrill. Behind it was the progress that Bennett had made in the development of American musicals.
“A Chorus Line” marked a culmination of the “concept musicals,” those that are based on production schemes rather than following a traditional structure of a story with musical numbers. Traditional musical comedies and musical plays, “book musicals,” were structured for songs or dances to punctuate every scene. Authors wrote the scripts, songwriters created the scores and then the directors staged the materials. From such orthodoxy came our beloved musical-theater heritage: “Show Boat,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Oklahoma!” and all the wonderful rest.
Such shows are called book musicals because they are based on stories. But when Jerome Robbins created the wall-to-wall dancing of “West Side Story,” a new kind of musical began to take shape, a musical in great part created by the director. And so musicals became something of their own, different from plays. In the past, high praise for a musical (such as “South Pacific”) was that it was so good it could be performed without the songs. Today we realize that a musical’s script would be no good at all if it could be done without the songs and dances. That would only prove that the musical part of the show was unnecessary and artificial; it would prove that the script had no musicality. “West Side Story” by no means changed all of that in one great dance step, but by putting creative control in the director, it steered the musical theater away from writing and toward production.
As Jerome Robbins made movement and production more essential to “Fiddler on the Roof” and as Harold Prince stepped into his place, following Robbins’ retirement to the ballet, concept musicals followed. The ensuing series of great Harold Prince-Stephen Sondheim musicals polished and strengthened the idea. “Company” introduced a non-linear script, one that occurred in flashback and memory--not a narrative story, but a series of overlapping incidents. “Follies” was also a memory musical but one set in ashes, using theatrical nostalgia as a metaphor for lost youth. Bennett choreographed both, also co-directing “Follies.” And he learned from Prince.
The mirrors used in “Follies,” and its ghostly dancers in the dark, are seen again in “A Chorus Line.” “A Chorus Line” was the musical that Bennett would do next. “Follies” was its progenitor.
But even though the Sondheim-Prince shows laid the groundwork and built the first structures for these concept musicals, and even though such examples as “Follies” and subsequently “Pacific Overtures” and “Sweeney Todd” brought the development to fruition, “A Chorus Line” accomplished one thing none of the others did.
It was a huge hit.
For a small word, that is a very big achievement. In more than just the simple sense, a hit is the difference between success and failure, for Broadway is a commercial theater and commercial success is its driving force.
In a commercial theater, there cannot be a succes d’estime. There can perhaps be a prestigious flop. A show can get fancy reviews and not draw an audience and close early and win a prize. Or a show can win a prize and run a year and lose every cent. But on Broadway, such shows are not successes, of estime or anything else. They are flops. That is why, in a commercial theater, a show can’t be really great unless it is not only great by artistic standards but by commercial ones as well, such as “Guys and Dolls,” “My Fair Lady” or “Fiddler on the Roof.” Audiences must love the hell out of the show, they must storm the box office, and that is why “A Chorus Line” is the quintessential concept musical.
It was the first since “Fiddler,” the first full-scale one, to succeed commercially as well as artistically. It was the first to generate such emotional heat, to work such passion and stimulate such audience transport.
It was the same on the road, all across the nation. “A Chorus Line” captured the country as no show had in years. In Los Angeles, a company was in residence at the Shubert Theatre for 18 months--the longest run the musical had anywhere outside New York.
Watching the 6,069th performance of the show on Broadway recently, the power was still there.
Of course, the performance was sold out. Closing notices shake the audiences out of the movie theaters and restaurants--those who had to see the show just one more time or those who had never seen it at all. From the sounds of fresh laughter in the theater, there still were people who had never seen it, and from the sounds of fresh sighs and fresh applause the years had not sapped its potency.
Yet no surge in ticket buying was going to rescue this show; along Broadway, everyone knows that business improves, even for a flop, when a closing is announced. If “A Chorus Line” was extended, it would only be for a couple of weeks. There were rumors of its being brought back to the Newman Theatre where it had originated, but as Joseph Papp appropriately said, “Why step back? It’s the symbol of Broadway.”
The symbol of Broadway. That was why its movie version failed. Every major American director seemed to have considered doing the movie, starting with Bennett himself, but they all withdrew because this show was the theater’s tribute to itself (although Richard Attenborough’s eventual version captures more of the show than might be remembered).
Even seeing “A Chorus Line” at the end of the line seemed an exercise in history. The Broadway musical that it celebrates does not exist anymore except for the occasional “Grand Hotel,” which prodigiously demonstrates director Tommy Tune exploiting Michael Bennett’s schemes. For the most part, today’s Broadway has gone on to the more rhapsodic, less choreographic “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables,” “Aspects of Love” and the blockbuster-to-come “Miss Saigon.”
The Broadway musical that Bennett was lifting beyond itself was the musical of gritty hoofers, of greasepaint dancers in tights and leg warmers. He was not celebrating the stars but the company; not Carol Channing or Angela Lansbury, but the dancers backing them as they sang “Hello, Dolly” or “Mame.” That is what “One"--the number being practiced through “A Chorus Line"--is about, the star turn without the star. The dancers behind . And when Michael Bennett allowed his dancers their ghostly drills, when he moved them without music while fragments and splinters of memories floated in the eerie stage light--when Bennett did that, he was taking show business to the top.
As the show plays out its final performances, the tears flow anew. They are good, cheap tears, not for pain or tragedy but tears for the baloney of show business, good harmless sequin tears for the thumping hoofers and the rising trumpets, the dancers edging out of the upstage darkness toward the audience. “I can give the audience a rush whenever I want,” the show-wise Bennett once boasted. In “A Chorus Line,” he made good on that boast.
Not to worry, there will always be revivals. As long as there are theaters, there will be productions of “A Chorus Line.” But there will never again be the same original production running in the same original Shubert Theatre across the street from Sardi’s--running, we thought, forever.