From July of 1975 through April of 1990, A Chorus Line was truly Broadway's singular sensation. The recipient of nine Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1976, A Chorus Line ran for a then-record-breaking 6,137 performances, spawned national tours and international productions, and became a worldwide phenomenon. Michael Bennett, the chorus boy turned brilliant master showman who conceived, directed and choreographed what Walter Kerr referred to in The New York Times as an "absolute marvel," had audiences enthralled by a company of mostly unknown chorus dancers playing the parts of unknown chorus dancers auditioning for a chance to become anonymous chorus dancers in a big Broadway musical.
On Oct. 5, 2006, less than two decades after the original production closed, A Chorus Line returned to Broadway in a faithful revival that lovingly re-creates Bennett's staging. The national tour was launched in May of 2008. The revival was directed by Bob Avian, co-choreographer of the original production, and the choreography has been re-staged by Baayork Lee, who originated the role of Connie.
A Chorus Line grew out of a midnight gathering of some 20 dancers in a studio on Jan. 18, 1974, that concluded almost 12 hours later. As the dancers poured out their life stories, Bennett taped their words. Another late-night session and additional interviews with other dancers followed, and their words and experiences found their way into James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante's book and Edward Kleban's lyrics, set to Marvin Hamlisch's music.
"We had to audition [to play] our lives," says Lee, who met Bennett in 1963, when both were in the chorus of Here's Love. "I got to play my life, as did Thommie Walsh [Bobby], Kelly Bishop [Sheila] and Priscilla Lopez [Diana], but others didn't. Sometimes two lives were pieced together. Most of us didn't have much acting experience, but I don't think Michael expected us to act. He just expected us to be. After we opened, we had to start acting because our lives had changed. We were now in a hit, and we had to play being an unemployed dancer looking for a job." At the onset of rehearsals for the current production, Avian and Lee familiarized the dancers with the creation, development and history of the show. "Bob did an entire session on the various references in the show," says Lee, "and our dance captain, Michael Gorman, did research and handed out papers that explained who everyone was, from Troy Donahue to June Allyson, and recommended films to watch. Once the dancers had all the background, we asked them to throw away the information and bring something from their lives to their roles, so that they weren't carbon copies. Because no matter what role you're playing, you're totally exposed — not the character, you. So the role has to become you."
On the first two days of rehearsal, Avian simulated the original taping session as a way to get cast members to bond. And Lee talked about Bennett every day. "I talked about his style and where it came from," she says. "He was a Jerome Robbins dancer, a West Side Story person. He was also a tap dancer and a jazz dancer, and his vocabulary is a compilation of those styles. When Michael started creating, there was no score, only drums; most of the show was choreographed before we had the songs. For the revival we had a drummer in from day one of rehearsals, so that the dancers could start getting the pulse, the beat, into their bodies."
A Chorus Line is very much a product and reflection of its time, but it has proved to be timeless. A few changes have been made for the current production, although only the most avid fans would likely notice. The show takes place in 1975 — when it opened, it took place "now" — and to make the piece feel more current, references to specific years have been cut: rather than a dancer saying he was born in 1950, he'll say he was born 25 years ago. "Little things were changed to enhance the show, to give it a contemporary palette," says Lee. "We have starbursts at the end, we have lights at the end, we have mirrored panels on either side of the stage as well as in the back. The original choreography is set in stone for the chorus dances, but Bob has also brought out the talents of the soloists. For instance, Donna McKechnie was a fantastic right kicker, but if the dancer playing Cassie is a better left kicker, she can kick with her left foot. Minor, subtle things like that were changed."
Lee believes that the show's staying power comes from the universality of its message. "A Chorus Line is about love, loving what we do," she says. "It's about passion. People see the dancers up there loving what they do, and they want to experience that kind of passion in their lives. I used to get letters from people saying, 'I can't stand my job so I quit, because I want to be passionate about what I do. I want to love what I do the way you guys love what you do.'"
Lee, who has directed, by her estimate, between 35 and 40 productions of A Chorus Line all over the world, still loves what she does. "It's important to me to pass on Michael Bennett's legacy."