There are quite a few one-offs in the history of the Broadway musical, hits like Oklahoma, misses like Allegro or Pacific Overtures. But A Chorus Line (1975) stands out.
Different in every way from a standard plot show, yet a tremendous smash, ranked 7th among the longest-running musicals ever, A Chorus Line originated as a kind of therapy session for Broadway gypsies. You know who they are – the background dancers/singers who may double up in a small character role with a line or two, but who are the backbone of any musical that has dancing in it. They are the chorus: the dancing waiters in Hello, Dolly; the secretaries in How to Succeed in Business; the bottle dancers in Fiddler. They're not the stars, but they're the face and heart of any good musical.
Lyricist Ed Kleban held an aural history seminar with Broadway gypsies in the early '70s, recording their personal, intimate stories about why they dance, what it means to them, and how they feel about their place in Broadway's long history. Sitting in on these sessions was Tony-winning Broadway director/choreographer Michael Bennett (Company, Follies, Seesaw), who along with Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins was the hottest pro on Broadway. He saw the potential in these background players' stories and immediately set about making a musical about them. Bennett so loved dancer Nicholas Dante's tale of growing up gay and working in seedy drag clubs – and wisely sensing that his story was the emotional core of the musical – he asked him to co-write the play. Always thinking ahead, Bennett also asked novelist James Kirkwood (P.S. Your Cat is Dead) to oversee the writing, just in case novice Dante couldn't accomplish it. All three of them would later win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Chorus Line.
Produced by independent New York impresario Joseph Papp's Public Theatre, with songs by Academy and Grammy award-winner Marvin Hamlisch, the musical burst over Broadway and around the globe. No other show before had ever celebrated “gypsies,” given them their due, made them the stars. It was a revelation. It still is and will remain so as long as musicals are produced.
A phalanx of dancers are in the final try-outs for an upcoming Broadway musical. All are veterans, either dancing in out-of-town runs or on Broadway. They're near the end of their careers, and they know it. They need this job, which is the subtext of Chorus Line. Hire me, please, they fervently pray. Married, single, gay or straight, they need this gig to pay bills, to continue their career, to be relevant. If the run's a success, they'll be fine for a while; but if it closes out-of-town, well, maybe, there might be another audition, if their body holds out. They can't think of that possibility, not now while their future is “on the line.”
Director Zack (Clifton Samuels, a.k.a. Michael Bennett) wants to know their history. And therein lies the structure of the show. In solo numbers or overlapping scenes, each of the 17 tells their showbiz story. Zack delves deep and, like Bennett in real life, strips them of their defenses to reveal their inner truth. Whether this microscopic-probe makes them better dancers is undisputed and never questioned, as the director/choreographer is god on '70s Broadway. He controls their destiny. If you don't answer, you might not get the job. You'd better talk.
We love them all, and root for them deeply. But only eight – four boys, four girls – will be hired. Will it be Cassie (Sarah Bowden), Zach's former lover whom he previously plucked from the chorus to be a featured player, but never made it? Will it be Paul (Eddie Gutierrez), whose drag history has deeply scarred him? Will it be swishy Bobby (Logan Keslar) whose mime acting during “And” would stop the show if allowed? Will it be Sheila (Paige Faure), tart-tongued, bored, and most adult among them? What about go-getter Mike (Alex Joseph Stewart), whose “I Can Do That” is testament to his innate physical talent. Or maybe Val (Celia Mei Rubin), whose “Dance, Ten, Looks Three,” prompted her to get plastic surgery to augment her potential? Tits and ass are still necessary requirements in showbiz. Rubin's a knockout. Or will it be acting class failure Diana (Samantha Merisol Gershman), whose haunting anthem, “What I Did for Love” is the show's abiding theme? This is why they dance. This is why they must dance.
One of Broadway's greatest musicals, expertly performed and produced by TUTS (another lodestar, after winning our 2018 Houston Theater Best Season award) – directed by Julie Kramer, choreographed after Michael Bennett by Jessica Hartman, minimally designed by Ryan McGettigan with Mylar mirrors and that final golden blast of sequined background, and costumed by Colleen Grady in appropriate disco mufti – A Chorus Line gives equal voice to winners and losers.
All of them want the job. All of them need the job. Only eight, though, can get the job. The best don't always win. That's life, whether on Broadway or in our own less-starry existence. We're just like them, if we could only sing and dance.
A Chorus Line continues through September 22 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $40-$129.