One of the more eccentric decisions taken by the solons and sages of East Longmeadow (Massachusetts) High School in the 1980s was to bus 16-year-old us down to New York City to see A Chorus Line on Broadway. Why would you arrange it so a kid’s first Broadway musical was a show about shows? Why take us backstage before we had ever been exposed to the frontstage? It was like watching Moneyball before you’d ever seen a baseball game. “God, I hope I get it,” sing the cast. God, I didn’t get it. The show struck me as talky, dull, pointless, endless.
Once in a great while, though, life gives you a mulligan, and this weekend A Chorus Line is not only being put up in midtown Manhattan again (at City Center through Sunday night) but, in accordance with zealously enforced tradition, is being staged just like the original Michael Bennett–directed production, which was the longest-running show in Broadway history when it closed in 1990 after a 15-year run. How often do you get to relive an experience you had when you were a teen?
This time I got it: Now that I’ve seen a few other musicals, A Chorus Line reaches me right in the aorta. It’s miraculous how a combination of the book (by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante) and the songs (music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban) gives each of 17 hopefuls at a Broadway audition a chance to shine, to stand out from the pack, via varying amounts of soul-searching monologue, song, and dance. “We’re all special,” an actual line from the show, is one of those ghastly clichés, one that was just gaining strength in 1975, but in the context of the elites in A Chorus Line it is perfectly apt. A Broadway stage is Talent Olympus, an aerie of gods. If you made it this far, to the final cut of a Broadway audition, you must have been the most spectacular talent anyone ever saw in your school, your town, your state. And yet your likely fate is, at best, to eke out a living for maybe a dozen years before you give up and become a dance/music/drama teacher for the next generation of hopeless hopefuls.
A Chorus Line isn’t, contra my memories, particularly gritty; mostly it’s funny, warm, and sweet, and even the dramatic turns aren’t edgy. (If a similar show were being written today, all the girls would talk about would be sexual assault, the gay guys would bewail homophobia, and the people of color would teach us about racism. There is almost none of this in the show.) There isn’t really a set (just a series of rotating panels at the back that swing from black to mirrored depending on the occasion), and the costumes (bar one number) are just ragtag workout gear. But the theme isn’t that there’s a dark side of showbiz; merely that those people moving synchronously in the background of a Broadway musical while Nathan Lane or Bernadette Peters draws all the eyeballs downstage are people. They work hard, they have feelings, they had embarrassing puberties, and they live to entertain.
One dancer, Kristine (Kate Bailey), stars in a brilliant comic duet with her husband, Al (Joseph J. Simeone), about how she can’t sing: She talks her way through, he sings the ends of her sentences. Val (J. Elaine Marcos) gets one of the most enduringly funny numbers in Broadway history, the ode to her surgical reupholstery, “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.” Maggie (Sara Esty) sings about her broken family and her escape to dancing in “At the Ballet.” Bobby (Jay Armstrong Johnson) has a hilarious monologue about life as a young psychopath. (“I used to break into people’s houses. I didn’t steal anything; I’d just rearrange their furniture.”). As Cassie, a former star performer who has fallen on hard times and is desperate for a gig, Robyn Hurder does a spectacular solo dance that, on Thursday night, stopped the show. (So did a couple of other numbers.) The aging cynic Sheila (Leigh Zimmerman) gets the sardonic one-liners. All of these performers and their co-stars are brilliant, every last one. This show could transfer to Broadway tomorrow, exactly as it is, and it would play for years.
By the end of the evening, A Chorus Line has pulled off a huge achievement in that we feel we really know these performers, none of them a type or a cliché or a billboard for some cause or other. The trick to character is, of course, to start with real people, and A Chorus Line famously sprouted from actual interviews with actual Broadway folk. When everyone ditches the mufti and suits up a for a 1930s-style production number complete with top hats and sequins, “One,” it’s both a dazzling entertainment in its own right and a distillation of every great showstopper that ever was. The twist is that you don’t watch them as a group, as you ordinarily would. Instead, you train your eye on each of these superlatively talented individuals and appreciate how special theater people really are.