[Composer Marvin Hamlisch died on Monday, 6 August, in Los Angeles. He was 68 years old and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award, three Oscars, four Emmys, four Grammys, and two Golden Globes—virtually every musical honor available in the Unites States. (Hamlisch is one of only 11 people ever to have won all four industry performing arts awards, known as EGOT: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony. He and Richard Rogers are the only two to have won those four plus a Pulitzer.) He’s probably most well-known for his score for the Broadway megahit (and subsequent movie musical) A Chorus Line. Hamlisch, an accomplished musician who began as a concert pianist (and, at age 7, the youngest student at the time ever accepted at Juilliard), also wrote pop tunes for singers like Leslie Gore, Aretha Franklin, and Carly Simon, and movie scores, most notably The Sting, and the theme songs for The Way We Were and The Spy Who Loved Me (“Nobody Does It Better”). He also conducted for several major orchestras, but despite his periods of residence in L.A. and his work in pop music, he always said his true home was New York City, his birthplace, and his first love was writing for theater and film.
[A Chorus Line, with a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, music by Hamlisch, and lyrics by Edward Kleban, opened at the New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Joseph Papp Public Theater) in the East Village on 15 April 1975 after a development process of workshops director-choreographer Michael Bennett conducted with chorus dancers from Broadway shows. Bennett collected over 30 hours of taped interviews with 24 gypsies, as they’re known in the business, and with Kirkwood and Dante, wove their stories into the deceptively simple plot of a backstage play about auditions for the chorus line of a new Broadway musical. An immediate hit with reviewers and audiences, the new musical moved uptown to the Shubert Theatre where it opened on 25 July 1975. It stayed for 6,137 performances before it closed as the longest-running Broadway production at that time on 28 April 1990. The production won nine Tony Awards including Best Musical, five Drama Desk Awards including Outstanding Musical, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and a Special Tony Award in 1984 for becoming Broadway's longest-running musical. (A Chorus Line is now the fifth-longest running Broadway show in history. It was revived on at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in 2006 for 759 performances. The film version was released in 1985.) Hamlisch’s latest theatrical score is for the stage-musical adaptation of the movie The Nutty Professor which opened in Nashville on 31 July for a limited run through 19 August.
[I saw A Chorus Line on Broadway on 5 March 1976, a little less than a year after it opened there. I wrote a short review, unpublished until now, and as a tribute to Hamlisch, I’m posting it on ROT in his honor.]
To have seen A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett’s smash hit at the Shubert Theatre, is to have witnessed a Broadway phenomenon. The show has played to sold-out houses since it began its life at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater almost a year ago. It has captured the imagination—and the hearts—of audiences both downtown and uptown. In the past, musicals that have so caught the attention of theater-goers have been endowed with engaging stories (Shaw’s Pygmalion for My Fair Lady, King Arthur’s court for Camelot), innovative staging (Pippin), new musical concepts (Hair), great scores (Bernstein’s West Side Story), a superstar in a tour-de-force performance (Streisand in Funny Girl) or combinations of these. But A Chorus Line has none of these. Why, then, is it such a success?
There is no mistake about that fact. It is a success. The show catches you. It grabs you and holds you for two hours without intermission. But how? It reveals no profound truths, has no spectacular songs, no superlative performances, no enthralling plot.
What it does do is show people whose lives are on the line. And it does it well. The people are ordinary—except that they are dancers; but they might be any group of people trying to do what they do best. They come from varied backgrounds, but they have one common denominator: they have to dance. Dancing defines them; if they can’t dance, they are nothing. They find themselves auditioning for the chorus line of a new show. When one of their number falls and injures his knee, they are struck dumb. No worse fate could befall them and they watch the fallen dancer carried out, knowing it could have been them. And when the choreographer asks them what they would do if they suddenly couldn’t dance anymore, they stutter and stammer, unable to face the possibility, unwilling to consider it. Then Diana Morales (Priscilla Lopez) reminds us that what they do, they do for love (“What I Did For Love”), and we know why they won’t consider the possibility of being unable to dance. For them, there is nothing else, Cassie (Donna McKechnie) says it, too: ‘Give me “The Music and the Mirror” and a chance to dance, and I’m alive and happy. Otherwise I’m lost.’ Dancing makes everything beautiful. As Sheila (Kelly Bishop), Bebe (Nancy Lane), and Maggie (Kay Cole) tell us, “At the Ballet” they belong, they’re home.
The story is simple enough, developed by Bennett from interviews and “rap sessions” with dancers and created into a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante that is a composite experience of all the auditions any dancer ever went to. Whereas Marvin Hamlisch’s music is not spectacular, the songs, with lyrics by Edward Kleban, were each part of that collective experience. “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” (the original title of the show) was a flip expression of the way dancers are treated as hunks of meat; “Nothing” describes the way many artists feel when faced with the kind of empty, vacuous teachers shoved at them in pretentious academies and “I Hope I Get It” tells it like it is for every performer who needs a job to define his or her existence.
Standing out among the gallimaufry of characters and personalities at the audition is the performance of Sammy Williams (Paul) who strips himself to the bare truth in front of the choreographer, Zach (Robert LuPone), and then injures his knee in a fall. Standing alone on the empty stage, responding to Zach’s disembodied voice, Williams’s Paul relates his work as a female impersonator in a revue and how his parents found out what he was doing. Though the job had no dignity, Paul explains, it was, at least, dancing. Donna McKechnie, as Cassie, makes a poignant plea for work—even chorus work—when Zach, her former lover who had previously made her a featured dancer, tells her she is too good to dance in a line again. And Kelly Bishop (formerly Carol Bishop), as Sheila, an aging chorine, shows us the bitterness of a woman whose career has stalled and begun to decline.
Robin Wagner’s set, rotating mirrors of a dance studio, is simple and elegant and makes the most of Tharon Musser’s lighting. The rainbow-colored squares of light that turn the studio floor into a frozen kaleidoscope, constantly turn the studio into a dream-world of the dancers’ collective subconscious.
The dancing of course is the main attraction. Bob Avian’s choreography is varied, including a tap routine and a cake-walk, but what is most noteworthy is the dancing that is not in the dance numbers. In the audition dancing, it is all there: the stumbles, lost steps, and missed beats. Auditioners watch their feet, move their lips as they count beats, or improvise to cover slips. These are people engrossed in their life’s work.
When the show ends, though all but eight of the auditioners are rejected, there is the flash of elation, created in the glittering, sparkly finale number (“One”), when we understand that for most of them, there will always be another chorus line somewhere. It is with this sense of fulfillment—somewhat tarnished by the process of arriving at it—that the audience leaves the theater. We have shared with these dancers a part of their lives. For them it was worth it. It was for me, too.
[Hamlisch (b. 1944) was the last survivor of the creative team that produced A Chorus Line. Lyricist Edward Kleban (b. 1939) died in 1987, as did Michael Bennett (b. 1943); co-librettist James Kirkwood (b. 1924) died in 1989; and co-librettist Nicholas Dante (b. 1941) died in 1991. Producer Joseph Papp (b. 1921), who gave Bennett the psychic and artistic space to come up with the idea for A Chorus Line and pursue it, also died in 1991. Tharon Musser (b. 1925), the lighting designer, died in 2009. (Set designer Robin Wagner, b. 1933, and choreographer Bob Avian, b. 1937, are both still alive.)]