Truly a singular sensation

I knew it when I was in the front...For some people, seeing old movies can take them back to a time and place and replicate a moment in their lives. For me, it can be theatre.

Sadly, I have often been very disappointed to go back to a new production of a favourite musical and be sadly disappointed that it has been tampered with so much I hardly recognise it. Not so, with A Chorus Line, the unique and iconic musical that is getting a much overdue revival in Melbourne at the moment, with an almost certain Australian and international tour to follow.

A Chorus Line has always been on my list of top ten musicals, ever since I saw it in London in 1976. It has come into my life at different times with different productions over the years, either here or in New York and each time I see it, it’s like a reunion with an old friend. It is a familiar lifetime theatrical touchstone. Granted, each time I see it now, I’m always a little thrown by the thought that most of the casts of the show today weren’t even born when I first encountered its brilliance, thirty six years ago.

A Chorus LineThis new production is a pleasing reversal of the failure of some of the big budget shows we have seen falter in the last twelve months. Carefully budgeted with even more careful and modest seasons planned, producer Tim Lawson has been very clever.

If the show didnt take off in Adelaide (its first port of call) and Melbourne, that would be the end of its brief return. Yet, after a successful season in Adelaide, the show has gone through the roof in Melbourne, which has guaranteed an extension and a possible lengthy tour.

Lawson was very right in his early thoughts, the show has enormous attraction to an audience, who, today, are familiar with talent quest shows: shows where a performer has to audition endlessly to stay in the (mostly ghastly) reality TV talent programs that have become so popular in recent years. With all that can be said against talent reality shows, it seems to have taught audiences one thing; that the battle for success and talent recognition is a tough call. The themes explored so effectively in A Chorus Line seem more relevant today to what theatre people like to call “the great unwashed” (ie the audiences who watch shows, but have little idea of the world of theatre and show business and how it all works).

Chorus Line was developed from a series of interviews conducted by original creator, the late Michael Bennett, who wanted to hear and see what chorus dancers felt and thought about being in a show, but also about their lives and how they became dancers. Dramatised into a theatrical whole, the show is contrived at times, but captures much of the thoughts of those original interviewees many of whom went on to become members of the original broadway cast.

A Chorus LineThe show has played all over the world and until the arrival of the British mega musicals, it was the longest running musical in the history of Broadway and as of now, it is only seconded by Chicago as the longest running American musical in New York theatre history. (There is great irony in Chicago now holding that honour, but that’s another story for another day).

The current Australian production is the third in local theatre history. The original 1977 Australian production introduced many new faces to the industry who have since become well known; Pieta Toppano, David Atkins, Karen Johnson Mortimer (who replaced the original American Cassie), Angela Ayers, to name a few. A second commercial production premiered in 1993 and this new production is sure to introduce some new names into the stratosphere.

I have seen the show in New York several times  (including the recent revival which inspired the wonderful documentary Every Little Step) a couple of rather tired productions during the latter part of the original Broadway season, but my greatest Chorus Line memory was early in 1977 in London.

A New York touring cast had opened the show, but after six months it was expected that a British company take over. There was a lot of controversy surrounding this change, as the feeling was that the Brits weren’t ready to take over and British Equity was insisting the new company take over on the appointed day. I was in the audience on the night the brits took over for the first time, a night fuelled by the drama that had gone before. Yet, as you can imagine the audience was overwhelmingly supportive, but none more so than when a young Diane Langton (who went on to become a major West End theatre star) totally stopped the show singing “Nothing”. The audience would not stop clapping, leaving her to gesture to their cries of “more”- “they won’t let me!!”- a great theatre memory.

My only bad memory associated with this wonderful clever theatrical masterpiece is the terrible Hollywood movie version made in 1985. Richard Attenborough, a fine director of british movies and epics (such as Gandhi) took the project on. Clearly knowing nothing of the Broadway history of the show (nor of what the show was even about), he jettisoned all the original Bennett choreography, replaced it with choreography by Jeffrey Hornaday (whose only claim to fame had been the movie Flashdance and nothing since), cut numbers, changed numbers and then committed the unforgiveable act of turning “What I Did for Love”, the song that expresses the whole theme of the show (why performers do what they do and what would happen, if they cant perform anymore) and turned it into a love song between Zac and Cassie. Thankfully, the movie bombed and the original creative team disowned it. Lovers of Chorus Line have longed for a new film version preserving Bennett’s choreography and faithful to the original intent of the show. At least they have the Every Little Step documentary which goes a long way to preserving the show on film and Bennett’s memory.

A Chorus Line cannot be changed as a stage show. Bennett’s estate insists the show remains as it was written and danced and original cast member Baayork Lee tours the world checking the productions remain faithful to the original. Baayork came to Australia to steer this new company, but I must mention here the superb work of Siobhan Ginty who has really sharpened the show and readied it for the Melbourne premiere. She is one of our foremost theatre choreographers and her talent shines through every moment of this sparkling new production.

Whatever you have to do, dont miss it.

3 thoughts on “Truly a singular sensation

  • I have to agree with everything you say. I stepped off a plane from Oz in 1976 and was told I had to see it. I knew nothing about it. The song, the mirrors and the dance just blew me away. I then went to see the Brit cast and then on my return to Oz, the original Australian cast. the love affair was rekindled with Every Little Step. last night I sat up in the gods with several dance school groups. From the first eat and lights up the audience just “went off”. Sound technology has changed but the show is as great as it was. Don’t have second thoughts – Go!
    Alex Duncan

  • Yes Les. The irony of Chicago surpassing a Chorus Line as the longest running American musical on Broadway had not escaped me either. Worthy of an article maybe? It would be a fun story to tell. 

  • Hope it comes to Sydney!!!!!!!!


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