A Chorus Line makes a triumphant return to the West End for the first time since it premiered in the UK in the late seventies, which ties in with research I have been carrying out as part of my postgraduate studies. Until now, I had failed to realise through all my previous studies into musical theatre just what a sensation this show really was, and how special its creation was compared with other shows.
Backstage musicals are nothing new, with shows such as Showboat, Kiss Me Kate, Phantom of the Opera, The Producers and 42nd Street popular and enduring. Also worth noting is how most singers enjoy belting out A Chorus Line anthem ‘What I Did For Love’, and who could forget the finale of lines of gold sequin-clad dancers toting top hats and high-kicking? But it is how A Chorus Line came into being that makes it unique. Director/choreographer Michael Bennett first gathered a group of dancers one night in 1974 and, with a reel-to-reel recorder, documented their lives and stories regarding dance.
These performers likened the various sessions to group therapy with Bennett consoling them as they shared the good and bad of their lives. Their stories were then appropriated into the book of the musical and punctuated with memorable songs. Some of the performers they found themselves acting out fictionalised versions of their own lives, a process they called “joyful pain”. For the first time, audiences were getting an unashamed telling of what goes into the making of a show and its chorus, and just how unforgiving and brutal the world in which these dancers were operating could be. Bennett furthered this connection between performer and audience through the set design, which included mirrors reflecting the audience so they could feel included in the journey.
Prior to this show, musicals were usually created by the book-writer and composer with influences by other members of the creative team. The primary source, if not an original story, was usually a literary text such as a novel or play which was adapted for the musical stage. A musical was not based on the chorus and definitely did not include their actual words, a fact fully appreciated by original cast members such as Baayork Lee (original Connie) who recently told critic Mark Shenton: “Michael Bennett gave me a voice. Until then, dancers didn’t speak or ask questions — we did what we were told.” Dance had started to gain more importance within musical theatre with Agnes De Mille’s work in Oklahoma! and Jereome Robbin’s choreography in West Side Story, but it was A Chorus Line that helped future shows such as Cats find an audience.
The songs in this musical are amazing and the show as a whole is still the best musicalisation of the struggles faced by actors, although anyone who has ever gone up for any kind of job can appreciate the sentiment of the line “God I hope I get it”. However it is the breaking of convention in its devising that sets this show apart and cements its place in musical theatre history.