Back on the Line

Special Features   Back on the Line A watershed in American musical theatre returns to Broadway.
Charlotte d'Amboise as Cassie.
Charlotte d'Amboise as Cassie. Photo by Paul Kolnik

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In the beginning, Bob Avian was there. He was there in 1975, as co-choreographer, when Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line opened at the Public Theater, moved to Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and nine Tonys - including the award for Best Choreography, which he and Bennett shared.

He was there in 1983 for performance number 3,389, when A Chorus Line surpassed Grease and became what was then the longest-running show in Broadway history. And he was there in 1990 at the Shubert Theatre, when A Chorus Line closed after 6,137 performances.

But when the producer John Breglio approached him a couple of years ago and asked him whether he wanted to direct the first Broadway revival of the show, which many people believe revolutionized the way musicals are staged, produced and written, Avian at first wasn't sure he was interested.

"I had retired in 2000," Avian recalls, "and I thought that I didn't want to work anymore. In fact, I wasn't excited until the very first audition. And then all these dancers started to walk into the rehearsal hall. And then these kids started dancing. And I realized that in the last 30 years, the bar on talent has risen so much higher. They're like athletes. They've all gotten stronger and stronger and better and better. I looked at them and I thought, 'God, they're good.' I thought, 'There's someone who'd be a perfect Paul. And there's someone who'd be a perfect Judy.' And by the time rehearsals started, I was so enthused, so excited." And so Avian is back, directing the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, just around Shubert Alley from the show's original Broadway home. It stars Charlotte d'Amboise as Cassie, the role created by Donna McKechnie, and re-staging the original choreography is Baayork Lee, who was the assistant choreographer as well as a performer in the original.

A Chorus Line is based on the real lives and experiences of Broadway dancers, or gypsies - their hopes, dreams, fears, desires, successes and disappointments. It's about 17 of them who compete for eight jobs in a Broadway show - about their adoration of musical theatre, which is so overwhelming that they stay in show business and audition and perform until their bodies give out. And it's about their personal lives, what they have had to go through to reach that audition, to stand on that chorus line, where a demanding director will decide their fate.

"I remember the first time Michael Bennett told me he always wanted to do a musical about dancers," says Avian, whose other Broadway credits include the original productions of Company, Follies, Ballroom, Dreamgirls, Miss Saigon and Sunset Boulevard. "And then all of a sudden we had a title."

Bennett had directed George Furth's Twigs, four one-act plays, on Broadway in 1971. Its original title was A Chorus Line. "Michael knew that title wasn't right for George's plays, but he asked George if he could use that title for something else."

Avian remembers Bennett getting dancers together in a rehearsal hall for an all-night audio taping session, which led Joseph Papp to give them space for workshops. "It was the first time Actors' Equity allowed anybody to do a workshop. We didn't know if it would appeal to anybody except theatre insiders." And he remembers the first performance at Papp's Public Theater. "And the rest is history."

But the question remains - is A Chorus Line merely history? It's so very much a musical of the 1970's, and the 1970's was long ago. Will it hold up in the world of 2006?

Avian has no doubts. "I think it's still very relevant," he says. "The audition process is still the same. The emotions are still the same. America lives with the audition process every day, whether it's 'American Idol' or Miss America."

Yes, he says, the show is a reflection of 1975. "At that time we were at the peak of the sexual revolution. We were saying things onstage that had not been said before. Now we are much more jaded, more accepting of all revelations of sexuality.

"But what inspired a lot of A Chorus Line was its honesty. In 1975, New York was going bankrupt, there was corruption, President Nixon had recently resigned, the country was trying to get itself out of a war, Saigon was falling, everybody in government was lying - and we were trying to speak the truth onstage. Now things are not much different. The country is trying to get out of a war, America is very disenchanted with its government. And no one is telling the truth. And here we have simple chorus dancers onstage, telling the truth from the deepest part of their being."

Avian says he is not interested in updating the musical. "I've been asked so many times whether I'm going to reinvent the show," he says. "Well, it takes place in a black box. There's no scenery and not much in the way of costumes. So there isn't much to reinvent. A lot of the choreography was mine from the beginning. And it's Michael Bennett's masterpiece. That's what I'm trying to preserve."

Or, as McKechnie, who won a Tony Award as Cassie, put it back in 1990 on closing night: When people sit in the audience at A Chorus Line, "they see something they can identify with immediately."

"It's about dreams," she said. "Everybody has dreams. We're all in the chorus."

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