Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line
Part II: The Story & Songs
By William J. McKay
(Note: The photos for A Chorus Line were taken by Martha Swope. All the photos below are thumbnails click on them to see larger versions.)
Instead of a standard plot, A Chorus Line had what might be called a "staging scheme." Presented without intermission, that scheme was a simple one. At an audition for an upcoming Broadway production, a director and a choreography assistant choose seventeen dancers. The director tells them he is looking for a strong dancing chorus of four boys and four girls, and he wants to learn more about them. They are then told to talk about themselves.
"I Hope I Get It" is a ten minute sequence, one of the most exciting openings in all musical theatre. We are watching the beginning of the final phase of a Broadway tryout. A rehearsal piano plays as Bennett fills the stage with flying arms and legs, as groups of dancers in rehearsal clothes vanish and reappear. The dancers eventually surge forward into a line, holding their eight-by-ten inch head shots in front of them. In A Chorus Line and the Musicals of Michael Bennett (St. Martins Press, NY 1989) author Ken Mandelbaum writes
This moment one of the show's most celebrated represents the perfect blend of theme, staging concept, musical underscoring, lighting, and set design that marks the entire evening.
After the director (Zach) informs the dancers that he wants to know more about them, they begin with great reluctance to talk, revealing portions of their life stories. In order to get this job, they must put themselves on the line. While the show uses different characters to move through the audition, the overall pattern of stories progresses chronologically from early life experiences through adulthood to the end of a career.
"I Can Do That" has Mike recall his first experience with dance, watching his sister's dance class when he was a pre-schooler. Certain he could do it too, he took her place one day when she refused to go to class and he stayed the rest of his life. This song was the first opportunity for the typical audience members to relate what they are seeing onstage to their own life experiences. Almost everyone has had an "I Can Do That" moment, which gave the song's title a comfortable second layer of meaning.
"And" lets the audience in on the seventeen dancers' inner misgivings about this strange audition process.
"At The Ballet" is a poignant tribute to the escape Sheila, Bebe, and Maggie found in the beauty of ballet.
"Sing" comically makes it cringe-ably clear that Kristine is tone deaf while her husband (Al) helps her through it.
"Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" is a montage sequence, Bennett at his best. All of the dancers share memories of their traumatic early teens. The number is constantly surprising and alive with shifting emotions, symptomatic of the years it thematically epitomizes. This is the first of several places in the show where homosexuality is dealt with in a matter of fact style. A Chorus Line was the first Broadway musical to do that.
The montage wipes into "Nothing,"Diana's recollections of a horrible high school acting class, and then "Dance Ten, Looks Three," Val's explanation that talent doesn't count for everything with casting directors. (The song is perhaps better known by the "biological" title "Tits and Ass.") A wrenching monologue follows in which the emotionally vulnerable Paul comes to terms with his early career, manhood, and sense of self.
"The Music and The Mirror" was the longest solo ever created for a musical. It tells of Cassie's love of dance. She is a terrific veteran "gypsy" who has had some notable successes as a soloist. She may be, in fact, too good for a chorus part. But she needs the work. Even more, she needs to dance. Donna McKechnie played this role in the original cast, a role built in large part around her actual life experiences as she related them in the workshops. It is worth noting that McKechnie and Michael Bennett were actually married twice.
That complex real-life relationship comes into play in the first rendition of "One," where Zach and Cassie confront each other and their romantic past. As Mandelbaum writes
By setting this personal argument against the rehearsal routine . . . Bennett brings out the director's complete immersion in the work, which led to a rift between him and Cassie as well as Cassie's isolation in front of the mindless dance into which she is unable to blend.
This was originally written as a dialogue scene, but Bennett combined it with a musical number, thereby giving both extra feeling and symbolic significance as the "schmoozes" are countered by the ghostlike images of the chorus dancers.
After Paul falls injured and is carried off, the director asks the remaining dancers what they will do when they can no longer dance. "What I Did For Love" expresses the emotional drive that keeps these dancers focused, ever hopeful and free of regrets. (Lyricist Kleban is on record with this unexpected quote: "I think it's a dreadful song.") This number fades into the final elimination process as the final eight dancers are selected. In the workshop stages, Bennett had Zach read off different names at each performance/rehearsal, and cast members were often hurt when not among the "chosen." Now the names are pre-set.
"One," the finale, is Bennett's masterpiece of style and irony. It begins with an individual bow for each of the nineteen characters, their hodgepodge rehearsal clothes replaced by identical spangled gold costumes. As each dancer joins the group, it is suddenly difficult to distinguish one form the other. Each character who was an individual to the audience is now an anonymous member of an ensemble.
The number offers the flashiest choreography of the show. The dancers form a triangular wedge that flies off into a kick circle, celebrating the glitz and excitement of Broadway. But there is an underlying irony that individuals we know to be special had to become parts of a line, anonymously working in synch to back some star. In a final, unforgettable image, the dancers form a kick-line that technically never ends since the lights fade as the cast kicks on. Bennett said
I want the audience to walk out of the theatre saying, 'Those kids shouldn't be in a chorus!' And I want people in the audience to go to other shows and think about what's really gone into making that chorus . . . It fades with them kicking. That's it. That's the end of the show. There are no bows. I don't believe in bows, just the fade out. That's what a dancer's life is.