"A Chorus Line": Thirty-Seven Years Old, But Still Ageless
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Chorus Line
Paper Mill Playhouse
Millburn, New Jersey
I had a lunch interview with Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote the music for the smash 1975 Broadway musical A Chorus Line, twenty years ago at Windows on the World restaurant, the eatery on the very top of the World Trade Center. After lunch, we walked over to the restaurants window walls and looked out over Manhattan. We were so high up that planes and helicopters flew beneath us. We had been talking about his work, that included songs that would win three Oscars, Four Emmys and Four Grammys.
I asked him something about staying successful in such a tough business for so long. He laughed and said something like, “You’re only as good as your last song.”
“You’re wrong,” I told him. “A Chorus Line will live forever.”
It has. Hamlisch, one of America’s premier composers, died last August, but his music, especially his songs from A Chorus Line, lives on.
Yet another revival of the musical just opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse, in Millburn, N.J., and like the Broadway show, this one is a winner. It's staged like the 1975 version, with emotional acting from an ensemble of dancers. The Hamlisch music is still both dazzling and poignant and, even though it's thirty-seven years old, the show shakes the walls of the theater.
The musical is the story of several dozen dancers trying to win eight roles in a new play. They not only have to show the dance director that they can hoof it, but must reveal their innermost secrets so he can get a feel for their personalities. Each character has problems of some sort that come out in monologues or songs. Some, like "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three," better known as the Tits and Ass number, are funny; others, such as "Nothing," are sad. Many tell the dancers’ history, such as "Everything Was Beautiful at the Ballet," the story of how a girl spends her life in dance school to keep away from her troubled family. Some, such as "What I Did for Love" and "One," the finale, are downright sensational.
It also is the story of the American dream. The dancers battle truculent parents, angry bosses, untalented high school teachers, bullies and obstinate directors. The whole musical, with its tunes, re-emphasizes the American dream.
The play debuted in 1975 and won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award. It has toured the world and was revived on Broadway for a short time in 2006, and was even a movie (a bad one, at that). By any measure, it has been a landmark event in show business.
Still, the musical has aged. There are people and events mentioned in the script that are hardly known to today’s younger generation. A singer talks about Robert Goulet as a famous movie star. How many people remember the late Goulet? (Or even Will Ferrell as Robert Goulet on SNL?) A girl said she wants to grow up to be Gwen Verdon. Young people today probably know more about Cleopatra than they do about dancer Verdon. There is a long and tearful monologue by a man about how difficult his life is as closeted gay. Today, he could marry his boyfriend in many states (including New York).
The music and story, though, haven't aged at all. Hamlisch’s songs were elegant, moving and, stitched together, made up the score of a revolutionary style of musical, an ensemble studio show with no sets until the finale and an interplay not of stars, but of background dancers. At the Paper Mill, Mitzi Hamilton, a dancer in the original workshop production of A Chorus Line, works as the director to re-stage the show. She leaves the classic elements alone, but polishes everything nicely.
She gets laudable performances from Jessica Lee Golden as Cassie, Martin Harvey as Zach, Rachelle Rak as Sheila, Ashley Arcement as Val, and Gabrielle Ruiz as Diana, plus fine performances form the entire ensemble.
Americans are probably most familiar with chorus lines from the 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals, those huge, fabulous shows that were filmed by cameras from various angles, including the sound stage ceiling, to give the dancers a dramatic effect. In 42nd Street and other movies, Berkeley made chorus lines a staple of entertainment. At the same time Fred Astaire was starring in films like Flying Down to Rio, where the gifted Astaire danced with Ginger Rogers. Audiences were enthralled by Astaire’s hoofer skills and the large, lavishly costumes men and women in the chorus line behind him. These films cemented the musical as a staple of American entertainment.
What the creators of A Chorus Line did was write the back story of the making of the musical itself, combing the dancers’ stories. It worked in 1975 and it works today, too.
PRODUCTION: Produced by the Paper Mill Playhouse. Sets: James Dardenne; Costumes: Theoni Aldredge; Gail Baldoni; Lighting : Tharon Musser, Julie Duro; Sound: Randy Hansen; Musical Director: John O’Neill. This show is directed by Mitzi Hamilton. The original director was Michael Bennett.
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