Without Missing a Step


Sometimes existential philosophy circulates in university classrooms and libraries, or hangs out on the foreign-language shelves of used bookstores. And then, sometimes, it lands on Broadway, dressed in a gold vest and leggings and a gold top hat-as in the current brash, diverting revival of the legendary musical A Chorus Line.

A glitzy stage extravaganza might not seem a likely vehicle for ideas about individual freedom in a potentially absurd universe, but then A Chorus Line occupies a theatrical niche of its own. During the play’s incubation three decades ago, director/choreographer Michael Bennett conducted lengthy taping sessions, gathering personal histories from actual dancers. Versions of these sagas found their way into the musical, which depicts the triumph and despair of a large casting call for Broadway hoofers. With a score by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban, and a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, A Chorus Line opened in 1975 and went on to nab the Pulitzer Prize for Drama; the production ran for nearly fifteen years. Now the show is back, in a version directed by Bob Avian, who co-choreographed the original.

Though it ostensibly concerns an audition, A Chorus Line really has a far broader scope: it’s about any person’s battle to define his or her life and achieve success. That symbolic network of meaning is very much on view in the revival, which gets off the requisite bang with the opening number, “I Hope I Get It.” As a jangly piano tune kicks into gear, followed a little later by the orchestra, the stage is suddenly awhirl with flailing young dancers desperately following the commands of a snappish director (“Turn, turn, touch, down, back, step, pivot...”). There is too much activity for the eye to follow-you try to absorb the whole, and yet find yourself noticing the idiosyncratic styles of various performers.

No metaphors so far: the sequence is about dance. But minutes later, a boyish auditioner named Paul (Jason Tam) asks a question that hovers in the background for the rest of the production: “Who am I anyway? Am I my resumé?” As a philosopher might be quick to answer, the answer is no: no one has an essence that can be summed up in such a limiting way. Visual emphasis on this point arrives at the end of the number, when the dancers cover their faces with glossy headshots, as if to highlight the discrepancy between a full human being and a representation.

The message also finds its way into the seminal sequence “The Music and the Mirror,” featuring a strong-willed character named Cassie (the vibrant Charlotte d’Amboise), who is struggling to prove to the autocratic director, Zach (Michael Berresse), that she is not overqualified for a chorus-line job. Clad in a bright red dress, the lithe blonde executes a sinuous dance solo as long mirrors at the back and sides of the stage capture her reflection. The tableau seems to throw the focus on Cassie’s freedom to define her destiny in this moment; she is more than the sum of her past experiences, whatever Zach might think.

It might seem far-fetched to read too much metaphysical significance into a Broadway spectacular-but surely in our era of rampant reality television, A Chorus Line has to seem rife with abstractions. After all, programs like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance? have scrutinized the nitty-gritty of the talent competition process: the hubbub of the early stages; the gradual elimination of candidates; the suspenseful minutes of judgment.

None of this is too dissimilar from the overall arc of Bennett’s show, as it wends its way toward the high-energy finale (realized, in the current revival, by dancers wearing gold costumes and top hats). When Zach announces which young hopefuls he’s decided to hire, the pronouncement is so cold, you might almost imagine it on the lips of Idol’s harshest judge, Simon Cowell.

But the winnowing in A Chorus Line takes place over two hours, not a span of months, and the portrait of rivalry and disappointment is correspondingly less detailed than that of a reality TV offering. As a result, the Survivor-trained spectator will be all the less inclined to take Bennett’s masterpiece at face value. This musical was always about more than a dance audition-now its metaphysical overtones are arguably stronger than ever.

Meanwhile, as if in compensation, reality TV is warming to the topic of theatrical casting: In Britain, a program titled How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? recently chronicled the contest for the lead role in The Sound of Music. America will soon get similar small-screen fare: The NBC series You’re the One That I Want, launching in January 2007, will document the search for principals in a revival of Grease. If only someone had filmed a reality TV show about the casting of A Chorus Line itself. That really would have been-to quote the show’s finale-a singular sensation.

Published in the 2006-12-01 issue: 

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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