A Chorus Line: Still Kicking

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A Chorus Line revived on Broadway, October 2006

A Chorus Line is probably the best Broadway musical that I didn't want to see revived.

The show and I go way back. I was a struggling freelance writer living in Greenwich Village in 1975, when I got in line at the Public Theater for tickets to a new musical in previews that I knew nothing about. I took a chance on it when I heard a young woman hanging around the line talking up the show. A few hours later, I found out why. She was in the cast.

A Chorus Line didn't need shills in the ticket line for long. It opened a few weeks later to raves, moved to Broadway, went on to win nine Tonys and ran for a (then, but no longer) mind-boggling 15 years. Its celebration of old-fashioned Broadway pizzazz combined with an astringent, character-driven intimacy — about the struggles, both professional and personal, of a band of aspiring Broadway hoofers auditioning for a new show — was something fresh in musicals. But a lot has changed since those pre-AIDS, pre-Andrew Lloyd Webber days. For one thing, the self-referential, show-about-a-show device has become the easiest and most insular of Broadway crutches (see The Drowsy Chaperone or Martin Short's Fame Becomes Me). As good as A Chorus Line was, you could also consider it the start of the Broadway musical's long slide toward irrelevance. Who wants to relive that moment?

Well, scratch the above qualms. Now that I've seen the new Broadway revival of A Chorus Line — directed by Bob Avian, who co-choreographed the original with creator Michael Bennett — my memories can rest easy. It's a great show, and this revival proves why.

Not because it rethinks the show in any significant way, or introduces any spectacular new talents. Even the biggest name in the new cast — Charlotte D'Amboise, as Cassie, the former headliner on her way down — has the taint of a Broadway also-ran; she was the replacement brought in when Christina Applegate fractured her foot in previews for the Broadway revival of Sweet Charity, then got the shaft when Christina hobbled back onstage faster than anyone expected. But these hard-working, high-kicking troupers earn their ovations the old fashioned way: they showcase the material with solid, energetic professionalism — which is just about right for a show that's a paean to the group ethic of the Broadway stage, where the highest calling for a talented newcomer is the ability to just fit in.

No, I loved this Chorus Line because it dashed all the fears I had that the show's inside-baseball look at the world of showpeople would look cliched and self-indulgent in retrospect. When 17 aspiring dancers line up in front of the godlike director Zach (Michael Berresse) and proceed to tell their life stories, you fear (all over again) a procession of formulaic, encounter-group confessionals. And you do get a little of that. But the amazing thing about the show (Bennett's conception, James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante's book, Ed Kleban's smart lyrics) is how seamlessly dance, song and story work together to keep everything alive, emotional and involving. Some of the revelations emerge in neat individual numbers (I Can Do That); others in fuguelike bits and pieces, linked thematically by song (Hello 12, Hello 13). Some numbers revel in the group-grope insecurities we all share (I Hope I Get It); others in brassy satire very particular to the showbiz world (Dance 10, Looks 3 — which, by the way, was called Dance 10, Looks 1when I saw the show that first time). Some of the dance-rehearsal scenes have an almost documentarylike realism; others numbers a pop-ballad sentimentality. But even the potentially soapy ex-lovers' confrontation between Zach and Cassie is turned into something touching and lovely by the contrapuntal presence of the chorus line in the background, miming their big number, One.

And One! A singular sensation of a show tune if there ever was one. That little three-note figure — doo-do-de, doo-do-de, doo-do-de — is still one of the most thrilling buildups in the history of the musical theater. But it's just the ice cream sundae at the end of Marvin Hamlisch's rich banquet of a score, with its equal helpings of Tin Pan Alley schmaltz and modernist invention. Sure, it's too soon for a Chorus Line revival. But it's also too soon to dismiss this show with mere nostalgia.