PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Chorus Line: Gypsy Feat

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Chorus Line: Gypsy Feat
 
That’s right: Another “Singular Sensation” has hit town. The fourth longest-running show in Broadway history—A Chorus Line, which logged up 6,137 performances at the Shubert Theatre between July 25, 1975 and April 28, 1990—reformed Oct. 5 just around the corner at a theatre recently renamed for The Shubert’s chairman of the board, Gerald Schoenfeld, and gave, after a 16-year intermission, its 6,138th Broadway performance.
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Of chorus, of course. We’re home again. A Chorus Line IS Broadway, and it’s back where it belongs—the top of the Theater Directory in The New York Times. This is no mere happenstance. The show’s creator, the late, great Michael Bennett, deliberately contrived a title that would place it at the top of ABC’s theatrical listings in The Times.

As a director and choreographer, he contrived a show that celebrated theatrical life from the vantage point of the ensemble dancer—a gypsy’s eye-view of the world; a valentine to those who gave as well as to those who received; a human musical with kicks and glitz.

It may well be the last great American musical before the Brits and the French invaded Broadway and ran roughshod over the top ten list, leaving Sondheim to soldier on alone (although, lately, that’s mostly just revivals and Bounce, with the emphasis on the former).

Thus, the second Broadway coming of A Chorus Line is, by definition, a black-tie event. The welcome-back wagon was glamorously bedecked with some very well turned-out celebs: a Bill-less Hillary, Liza with a Jason escort, Rosie O’Donnell and Kelly Carpenter, Sarah Jessica Parker minus Matthew, Joy Behar, Bernard Gersten (associate producer of the original), Joan Rivers, designers Arnold Scassi and Michael Kors, Frank Wildhorn with fiancee Brandi Burkhardt of TV’s “Passions,” Tovah Feldshuh, Jacques d’Amboise (a proud Papa, he!), Diane Judge, Douglas Sills, Terrence Mann, Turner Classic Movies host-with-the-most Robert Osborne, Dee Hoty with new Equity president Mark Zimmerman, Brian Stokes Mitchell and, last but not least, an actual Chorus Line virgin (Sandra Bernhard, of all people!).

Honored guests of the evening were members of the original Line: Cassie, Paul and Sheila (Donna McKechnie, Sammy Williams and Kelly Bishop, who all won Tonys for those performances), Diana (Priscilla Lopez, who was nominated and won her Tony for A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine), Zack (Robert LuPone, another nominee who now is artistic director of Manhattan Class Company, teaches at the New School and acts when he wants to), Bobby (Thommie Walsh, who won Tonys for co-choreographing A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine and My One and Only), Mike (Wayne Cilento, who really could do that and won Tonys for choreographing The Who’s Tommy), Connie (Baayork Lee, who re-staged Michael Bennett’s choreography for this production and 41 other productions over the years), Tricia (Donna Drake, who has directed her share of Chorus Lines), Roy (Douglas Scott Allen), Richie (Ronald Dennis), Tom (Brandt Edwards), Judy (Trish Garland), Don (Ronald Kuhlman), Bebe (Nancy Lane), Butch (Chuck Cissel), Lois (Carolyn Kirsch), Al (Don Percassi), Barbara (Carole Schweid) and Frank (Michael Serrecchia). There were four no-shows: Kristine (Renee Baughman), Maggie (Kay Cole), Vicki (Chrissy Wilzak) and Swing (John Mineo). Three of the original cast are deceased: Greg (Michel Stuart), Mark (Cameron Mason) and Larry (Clive Clerk). Gone, too, are producer Joe Papp, lyricist Ed Kleban, bookwriters James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, and lighting designer Tharon Musser. Two Tony-winners from the original were put conspicuously in place by John Breglio, Bennett’s attorney in his producing debut: composer Marvin Hamlisch, who didn’t change a note, and Bob Avian, who co-choreographed with Bennett the original and took over the direction of the revival, leaving the choreography re-staging to Baayork Lee.

Also reprising their original work: orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, vocal arranger Don Pippin, set designer Robin Wagner, Tony-nominated costumer Theoni V. Aldredge, wardrobe mistress Alyce Gilbert (now just supervising, since Wicked keeps her so busy).

McKechnie, who was Bennett’s muse for many years and his wife for one, caught the closing performance of A Chorus Line in 1990—and now this, its re-opening, “I just sat there like a happy audience member with great anticipation and let it waft over me,” she said. “What a great show! I mean, to see all of Tharon Musser’s lighting [adapted by Natasha Katz], to see Michael’s staging—all the layers he was doing. I was so happy that Michael’s work was on Broadway again because it’s been too long. We’re very lucky to have the original creators like Marvin Hamlisch, Bob Avian, Robin and Baayork. You know well Baayork has been carrying the flame of A Chorus Line all over the world.”

Bennett occupies a chunk of her autobiography, "Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life," just published by Simon and Schuster. Particularly fascinating is the creation of the character of Cassie, which is an amalgam of both her and Bennett. The characters are based on taped interviews with dancers, and much of McKechnie is in the character, but she considers it the most fictionalized. Cassie went through numerous changes going from script to stage—a different entrance, a different solo spot and a different end. (Spoiler: It was only because Marsha Mason, then married to the show-doctoring Neil Simon, told Bennett she thought the show was downer that Cassie wound up making the cut.)

McKechnie has been drumbeating the book in a very unusual way, with a little help from her friends. She has been reading passages from her book , then her original co-stars step up to mike and sing their big hits: Harvey Evans and Kurt Peterson do “Waiting Around for the Girls Upstairs” from Follies and Priscilla Lopez does her “What I Did for Love.” Usually Pamela Myers does “Another Hundred People Just Got Off of the Train” from Company, but at the Oct. 6 performance at Lincoln Center’s Barnes & Noble at 7 PM that number will be done by Angel Desai who will do it soon on Broadway in the Company revival, which commences officially Nov. 29 at the Barrymore; it being a John Doyle show, she’ll bring her own piano-player (who co-stars), Matt Castle.

A big one-two emotional punch is built into the final third of the play. One is the friction of exes (Cassie the fallen star and Zach the rising director; Charlotte D'Amboise and Michael Berresse in the revival). Two is a heartbreaking horror story delivered by Paul (Williams in the original, Jason Tam in the revival), a Puerto Rican gay whose parents accidentally collide with him when he’s in Anna May Wong drag. “Only the first paragraph of that monologue was dropped,” said Williams. “It began with a story of him being molested by his cousin, and they thought that was too hard for the times, so they just concentrated on the scene with the parents.” The anecdote runs under ten minutes, but it was enough to get Dante (who was a dancer and not a writer) co-writing credit and, subsequently, a Tony Award.

The Al in the Broadway revival who finishes the sentences of his wife, Kristine, has, off-stage, strayed to the camp of Val. Tony Yazbeck and Jessica Lee Goldyn happily confessed they’re “an item.” She previously played Val in an Ohio production directed by Donna Drake; it got her her Equity card, and now it’s getting her her Broadway debut. Yazbeck, who danced with distinction in the chorus of four “Encores!” shows, had mom on his mind: “My mother’s the one who supported me through the years and pushed my ass and really got me where I am today. She was here tonight, and I was pretty much in tears during ‘What I Did for Love.’ I’m just happy that I could really give this to her."

Lopez, who looks pretty terrific these days, was frontal about her reaction to the show: “I wish I’d been up there—that’s what it felt like. I’d loved to have done it myself. That means I would have had to be twentysomething years old.” Paging Natasha Katz!

Sheila, the zaftig broad with attitude, is given a contemporary ‘tude by an African-American actress who has set Chicago (the stage show) afire on occasion, Deidre Goodwin. The casting was a puzzlement for the Tony-winning original.

“I thought it was an odd choice,” confessed Bishop. “Everything about Sheila seems to be WASP. It just seems strange for me personally, but that’s the way they wanted it.” The original Tits-and-Ass girl, Pamela Blair, hasn’t lost allure over the years. To understate, she’s still a stunner—and, when I encountered her at the party, she was brushing away a sentimental tear not related to A Chorus Line—in fact, 180 percent not related to A Chorus Line. Someone had just complimented her on her performance of the ill-fated Mae in Of Mice and Men—a play she was going to the Kennedy Center with when the call to A Chorus Line came along. “After I did A Chorus Line, I couldn’t do plays. I couldn’t get auditions for straight plays. I became labeled this sexy, cute, perky Broadway baby. But one of the things that I’ve learned in life is that you need to be grateful for whatever comes your way, and everything happens for a reason—or so I choose to believe tonight.”

She is now a massage therapist—not a natural outgrowth of that show. “Would you like for me to work on your scapula to prove it?”

Did I say “What’s a scapula?” or did I say “Yes”?

Top: The cast of the new <i>Chorus Line</i> revival; Below: Members of the original Broadway company.
Top: The cast of the new Chorus Line revival; Below: Members of the original Broadway company. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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