Until this winter, I had only seen the movie version of A Chorus Line. On February 18, I got the chance to see the musical come to life on a stage at St. Paul’s historic Ordway Theater. Though the two versions are mostly similar, they differ at certain points in the score and script, and the experience of watching the story unfold live added a sense of urgency to the story.
This musical was impressive by virtue of the fact that it did not rely on spectacular visual effects to engage the audience. We were drawn in by a story and by the skill with which the story was told. The content, costuming, and choreography evoked imagery shifting between pleasantly nostalgic, uncomfortable, and dated, with candid mentions of sexual abuse.
However, this book takes for granted that performing artists lack self-confidence, self-love, and self-respect, and alludes to the notion that all of this is reinforced by industry standards. Many of the characters in A Chorus Line are desperate, narrow-minded, and selfish. I get the sense that our industry has made progress in the last four decades; perpetuating these character archetypes seems like a step backward.
Former Broadway and National Tour cast members were involved in setting and rehearsing the dance for this particular production. I recognized certain quintessential phrases, and assumed that the choreography had been fully reconstructed until “The Music and the Mirror,” in which the choreography seemed out of context with the rest of the show. A Chorus Line is known for its dance sequences, and dancers know A Chorus Line as one of the musicals that require strong technique of the cast, so I was surprised and disappointed to find the dancing uneven.
When it came to dance chops worthy of a gig on Broadway, Renee Guittar (Kristine) was most believable. Rush Benson (Al) gave an exceptionally realistic portrayal of an Italian, Bronx resident. Guittar and Benson had great onstage chemistry in “Sing,” a cute duet and the cleanest number in the show. Other standout performances came from Pilar Milhollen (Shiela) and Tony Vierling (Larry, Dance Captain).
There were minimal scenic elements in this, like any, production of A Chorus Line. I noticed some bells and whistles, like floor to ceiling mirrors that flew in from above and moved like shutters upstage. These elements had a limited number of functions, so their impact dulled quickly. I imagine that there were unseen technical feats onstage, however, given the size of the cast and the flow of the show. Just the coordination of the performers’ wireless microphones took great skill from the technical team.
This performance made me remember how, throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was completely set on being a dancer. That was all I wanted. And my parents would often tell me, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” This hedged response annoyed me to the ends of the earth. As it turned out, I became a dancer. But, their advice impacted me nonetheless, and gives me reason to think A Chorus Line romanticizes a life that twenty-first-century performers are lucky to have the opportunity to move away from. The fatalistic and limited perspective of this show’s characters doesn’t work for me.
Perhaps that’s because this show only superficially aligns with the perspective of today’s performing artist. Our industry is now part of an ever-globalizing society. We pursue educational opportunities outside of dance training. And we have access to resources that help us live stable, healthy, and enriching lives onstage and off.
Whether on stage or on screen, I would watch A Chorus Line over another musical. It’s funny. The music makes you move and sing along. Sure, the ending is a little contrived and comes across as a last-minute—and unnecessary—addition for the sake of seriousness. But ultimately, this is a musical that strays from the fairytale formula.
Even though the show was first set more than 40 years ago, and feels four decades old, there are numbers inside it that can still hit close to home.