Last week A Chorus Line celebrated a twenty-fifth anniversary.
Not of its opening, which happened more than forty-one years ago. But a quarter-century ago on October 30, 1991, a plaque was installed in the lobby of the Shubert Theatre. It states that here was “Home of A Chorus Line, the longest-running show in Broadway history.”
Well, it was then. As the plaque states “July 25, 1975–April 28, 1990” resulted in “6,137 performances” – which now means sixth place. Next June, Phantom will have literally run twice as long.
The plaque also shows the seventeen dancers who made up the chorus line – which made me think of that original cast.
Dancers Tony Stevens and Michon Peacock started the ball rolling after their disastrous experience with the closed-in-previews flop Rachael Lily Rosenbloom (and Don’t You Forget It!). They called Michael Bennett, thirty-one years old but already a three-time Tony-winner. Their discussions led to taping sessions in which, Stevens reported, Bennett wanted “some enemies in the room” to make matters more interesting.
When Bennett called Thommie Walsh to invite him, Sammy Williams happened to be in Walsh’s apartment. Walsh said, “Sammy’s here,” so Bennett said, “Bring him along!” As Williams – the eventual Tony-winner for Paul — would later say, “Talk about being at the right place at the right time!”
Similarly, Jackie Garland asked to bring along her sister, Trish, who wound up as Judy –while Jackie wasn’t cast – even though Judy’s story was actually Jackie’s.
When faced with the tape recorder, all were initially reticent, but within an hour, they were babbling like brooks. Steven Boockvor said that he “heard stories from people I didn’t care for, but who I started to love and understand that night.”
After a second session, Bennett brought the tapes to producer Joe Papp, who needed less than an hour to give Bennett a theater to workshop whatever this show would be.
Those on the tapes still had to audition. A good storyteller isn’t necessarily a good actor, dancer or singer. Each one chosen was given $100 a week (which now, adjusted for inflation, is about $489 — still not much). But there was never any doubt on who’d play Cassie, the aging dancer who needed a job: Donna McKechnie, who’d worked with Bennett on many projects. In the ‘60s, when he told her he planned to choreograph a show with dancers, no sets and just mirrors, she said, “It’s good to have a dream.”
Soon characters began to emerge through composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Ed Kleban, bookwriter Nicholas Dante (and later James Kirkwood, too). Al and Kristine were based on the married Boockvor and Denise Pence. They’d told of the anguish when one got a part and the other didn’t – and neither got Al nor Kristine, which respectively went to Don Percassi and Renee Baughman.
Originally, Al was cut much earlier because he said he hated gays, which led to a fistfight with Greg. (Aren’t you glad that that scene didn’t remain?)
Baughman almost spurned the taping because she felt fat. Bennett apparently thought otherwise, but soon found that Baughman couldn’t sing. So “Sing!” was written for her. That Al should end her sentences was a suggestion made by Linda Kline, Kleban’s longtime girlfriend. Everybody helps!
Jane Robertson was cast as Bebe, but friends had written a musical and wanted her in it. She felt loyal to them and instead did A Matter of Time, which ran a single performance.
So Nancy Lane became Bebe. The road to that happening started in 1974, when Peacock told Lane she wasn’t going on tour with Seesaw. Because Lane thought that she resembled Peacock, she auditioned, got the part, bonded with its stager Michael Bennett – which led to Chorus Line.
When Baayork Lee became Connie, she was already a show-biz vet of twenty-four years, having started as one of the Siamese children in The King and I. When it closed, the eight-year-old collected unemployment.
Originally she and Richie had a number in which each wondered which of them would be chosen as the token non-white minority. That went, but Bennett made Lee dance captain, which led to her being the Chorus Line keeper of the flame. She’s staged dozens of productions around the world, including the 2006 Broadway revival. But Lee said that her greatest pleasure was creating a role for an Asian woman. Hundreds have got jobs – some for years – because of her.
At one point during the show’s evolution, the script revealed that Don and Sheila once had an affair until he married someone else. That did bring in some extra drama, but so much else was happening that the idea was dropped.
Christopher Chadman originally had the part of Greg, but left to play Fred Casely in Chicago. Can you blame him? Bob Fosse, Kander, Ebb, Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach – doesn’t that sound like the season’s big hit? But the original Chorus Line ran seven times as long as Chicago, proving you never know. (Of course, the Chicago revival has already run longer than Chorus Line’s original and revival runs put together.)
So Bennett chose Michel Stuart for Greg. In the ‘60s, when Stuart choreographed West Side Story, he chose Bennett as his Baby John, and later, when directing Fiorello! chose Bennett as his assistant. So after Bennett leapfrogged over him, he remembered that kindness and gave him Greg.
Tony Stevens was cast as Larry, Zach’s assistant choreographer – until he left to be an actual assistant choreographer in – yes — Chicago.
Although Maggie (Kay Cole) told of likening her father to an Indian chief, that came from McKechnie, who on the tape sessions revealed – and I quote – “I don’t know what they were for or against. My father said ‘I thought this was going to help, but …’”
Mark was played by Cameron Mason, who said, “It wasn’t till Chorus Line that my father and I established a relationship of mutual respect.”
Mike and three other male dancers originally backed up Cassie in “The Music and the Mirror.” When they were dropped from the number, Cilento was infuriated and felt the reason was that they were showing up McKechnie’s dancing.
“Nothing,” the first of Morales’ two numbers, was originally conceived as a choral number where the auditioners played her classmates who mocked her. For a while, the song was cut. Priscilla Lopez, playing Morales, went to Bennett’s co-choreographer Bob Avian, who talked Bennett into reinserting it.
In 1965, Sammy Williams went to New York’s Shubert Theatre to see a friend in The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd and said, “That’s where I want to be!” And that’s where he was precisely ten years later, center stage, giving Paul’s monologue.
The first spring of the show’s run, Bennett asked Williams to do a public appearance; he refused, so Bennett said Williams couldn’t perform until he apologized. Now this was precisely when Tony voters were coming to see potential nominees, so Williams, of course, wanted them to see him. So he apologized to Bennett and won the Tony.
In “Hello, Twelve, Hello, Thirteen, Hello, Love,” Walsh and then Cilento were given the “Gimme the ball” section. But Ron Dennis as Richie was the one who finally made it work. It was originally a woman’s role. Candy Brown had the part but left to do – you guessed it – Chicago.
As for Sheila, Kelly Bishop actually said at the tape session, “I’m going to be thirty real soon and I’m real glad” — but meant it seriously, because she said it made her feel like an adult. Leave it to Bennett to turn it into a negative statement!
When Bishop auditioned, she wore a too-tight leotard to show off her figure. After she got the part, she came to rehearsals wearing a leotard in her actual size. Bennett noticed the difference and insisted that she wear the too-small one – which she did for hundreds of performances. (Careful the things you wear — stagers might like ‘em.)
Bishop and Lopez, longtime friends, were Tony-nominated as Best Featured Musical Actress. Said Bishop, “Lots of people wanted to see our gorgeous friendship torn asunder.” And it wasn’t — even after Bishop won.
Pam Blair, who played Val, said of herself, “I have a face like an angel and a filthy mouth.” So she was right for Val, who enhanced her breasts and gluteus maximus. This was actually Mitzi Hamilton’s story that she told at the second session prior to actually showing everyone the results (well, balcony, not orchestra). Hamilton didn’t attend the first session because she was recovering from actual plastic surgery.
Hamilton wasn’t cast as Val, because, as she later explained, she’d stopped going to dance class. She’d met a guy, had fallen desperately in love with him and spent time with him instead of working.
Zach, the director-choreographer, was played by Robert LuPone — but not immediately. He was cast as Al, and Zach went to Barry Bostwick (best known as Brad Majors in The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
Bennett eventually thought that Bostwick was “too nice” — probably because the director-choreographer had to be Bennett-like — so LuPone inherited the role. He certainly wasn’t portrayed as nice during early previews; at one performance, he went on stage and was so mean to Cassie that when he returned to the back of the house, a theatergoer sitting on the aisle purposely stuck out his leg and tripped him.
Another actor was almost Zach. Bennett thought he’d be perfect until he was shown not to dance well enough for the opening number – which at that time Zach was doing, showing the auditioners dance steps. So as much as Bennett liked this Kevin Kline, he couldn’t hire him.
Later Bennett realized that Zach would be more effective as a disembodied voice and that Larry would do the on-stage teaching. Had he made that decision earlier, Kline would have been part of the original cast.
Well, you can’t expect that every Michael Bennett decision – even on A Chorus Line – could be a winner. But there were certainly enough winning decisions to keep a plaque in the lobby of the Shubert for the last twenty-five years.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.