Every Little Step
A Chorus Line opened on Broadway in 1975, played 6,137 performances at the Shubert Theater (where I saw it about a year into the run) and has been playing continuously somewhere on the planet ever since. To say it was revolutionary is quite an understatement. Musicals up until then relied on cheery songs, lots of scenery and spectacle. A Chorus Line happened on a bare stage with 19 people standing on a line painted on the boards, auditioning for a job. The script was the result of the director, Michael Bennett, getting together a group of Broadway gypsy dancers and having them talk about what their lives were like. He put those stories together and Marvin Hamlisch wrote the songs, Edward Kleban the lyrics.
What a hard life these people have. What incredible dedication. What towering talent. First you have to be one hell of a dancer. Then you have to be able to sing. For these roles you have to be able to act. And it doesn’t hurt if you’re beautiful. And even if you have all that … your chances of getting the job are very small.
So when someone decided to revive the musical in 2006, someone else had the absolutely brilliant idea of filming these people trying out for a show about people trying out for a show. When they had the casting call, three thousand people showed up, in a cold rain! I’m sure there were a few hopeless cases in that line, but I’m just as sure that the huge majority were dancers and singers with enough talent to make you weep. And they had to be whittled down to 19 survivors.
What a terrible task for those who had to choose! The movie shows some of the early, fairly easy decisions, and then some of the heartbreaking ones. How do you tell a supremely talented dancer that somebody else is just a teeny, tiny bit better than she is? I’d hate to have to do it. There are some tears, but by the time you reach this level you’d better have a pretty hard shell, because you’re going to be turned down for 90% of the roles you try out for. Maybe more. Maybe 100%. The selection process here went on for eight months! And you keep doing it because you can’t imagine doing anything else, you love it more than life itself … and then you’re 30, and washed up. If you’re lucky you can make a living as a dance teacher, and if you’re lucky and very, very good, you can maybe have a shot at being a choreographer.
I know there are athletes whose career arc is similar. Gymnasts, for instance who can be washed up at age seventeen. But all a gymnast has to do is the physical part, the perfect control of her body. She doesn’t have to sing, she doesn’t have to act. How can one person be superlative at all three things? Well, not many people are, but it’s way too many for the available parts.
My hat is off to them in a big way. This movie is really terrific at showing how awful and wonderful it can all be, because, in the end … maybe you’ll be dancing on Broadway! There are several segments when we can hear the original tapes Bennett made, hear these real dancers telling their stories, and we can see that Bennett’s only real work (and it was a lot of work, no question), was to cut it all down to size. Some of the stories were transferred virtually word for word to the final script. There really was a gay boy who was humiliated to find himself in full drag in front of his parents. There really was a Puerto Rican girl whose terrible dance teacher asked his class to pretend they were bobsleds, and who felt nothing. There’s no doubt in my mind that it was this actuality that made the play so intensely real, so moving, to the point that my heart went out to all of them, I wanted all of them to land a part, both in the play and here at the real audition. But that’s not the way the world operates.