WHEN A CHORUS LINE WAS STARTING OUT By Peter Filichia
“Remember the first time you saw A Chorus Line?”
So went a television commercial that aired around 1983, a little more than halfway through the show’s then-record 6,137-performance Broadway run.
Now I’ll ask you “Remember the first time you heard A Chorus Line?”
For some of us, it came summer 1975, courtesy of a long-playing record. It wasn’t, however “long-playing” enough that it could include all of “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love.” We had to wait for the more accommodating CD to hear more of it – and the 2006 Revival Cast Album to hear more still.
Now, in celebration of the landmark musical’s fortieth anniversary, we’re getting to hear even more of A Chorus Line. This new reissue gives us twenty-seven minutes and nine seconds worth of material you’ve probably never heard — or at least never witnessed in this stage of the songs’ development. Of the eight included new cuts, three songs didn’t make it into the show while the other five that did reveal some differences – some large and some small.
All selections come courtesy of a demo – the abbreviated term for of “demonstration record” that demonstrates the score of an upcoming show. Would-be backers are given a copy in hopes they’ll invest; recording artists listen to see if they’ll like a tune and then decide to record it.
Although some demos are elaborately produced with singers and orchestras, most have the composer playing the piano while the lyricist sings. A Chorus Line was never conventional, so why should its demo be? Lyricist Edward Kleban is heard, yes, but virtually all the singing is done by composer Marvin Hamlisch. He offers a funny twang and shows some fancy fingering at the piano, with a particularly delicious glissando in “At the Ballet.”
Hamlisch’s voice is one that many of us came to know from his frequent appearances on talk shows. Actually, some of us first heard him when he gave not one, not two but three acceptance speeches in one night at the 1974 Oscars (one for The Sting, two for The Way We Were). Two years later, we again heard him speak when he and Kleban won the Best Score Tony for you-know-what.
Here you’ll hear Hamlisch deliver a slightly different lyric on “I Can Do That.” But most arresting is an ultimately dropped line of dialogue at song’s end that suggests that Mike actually wasn’t 100% happy that he could “do that” dancing.
Bennett wasn’t completely happy with “I Can Do That,” and ordered Hamlisch and Kleban to write a new song. They did: “Joanne,” which he liked even less and returned to “I Can Do That.” Now you can make up your mind if Hamlisch and Kleban improved matters, for here’s “Joanne,” in which Mike says that his grammar-school girlfriend (and not his sister) was responsible for his getting started as a dancer.
“Sing!” – in which we find that Kristine DeLuca is obviously her husband Al’s soulmate, for she can indeed complete his sentences – has a marvelous verse that will make you wonder why it was dropped. When the time comes for Kristine to sing, don’t expect her to warble “Three Blind Mice” or “Jingle Bells,” as she did in the finished show. You’ll find many other selections in place of these.
There’s a nifty reference to Funny Face, too, but there are many more references to famous properties in “It’s All in Here.” The title refers to the credits that each dancer has on his or her résumé. What they’re saying to director-choreographer Zach is that he needn’t ask them any questions because their résumés will do all the talking for them. After all, they’ve done My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar, Cabaret, Carousel, Grease, Pippin and Brigadoon.
As it turned out, the only musical that wound up being cited in A Chorus Line was The King and I, mentioned by Connie. This role was originated by Baayork Lee, who in 1951 indeed was in the original cast of that Rodgers and Hammerstein classic; she was one of the Siamese children who marched in to greet her royal daddy.
Even if those household-name musicals weren’t too inside baseball, certainly the reference to Milliken would have been; few audience members would have been familiar with this company. But Broadway insiders certainly knew about The Milliken Breakfast Show, sponsored by a Southern textile firm every spring from 1956 through 1979. Milliken offered a Broadway-styled revue at The Waldorf-Astoria Ballroom for thirteen performances; familiar show tunes were refitted with lyrics that advertised Milliken’s newest products.
Musical theater performers l-o-v-e-d to participate in these “industrials,” as they were called, for the salaries were as uncommonly large as the limousines sent for them. I saw the 1977 edition and can attest to its star-power: Ann Miller, Van Johnson, Gloria Swanson, Alexis Smith, Jerry Orbach and Mary McCarty were all top-lined. The ensemble included Mitzi Hamilton, who was on the ground floor of the creation of A Chorus Line, and Cameron Mason, the show’s original Mark. Also on hand was a chorus of children called the Millikiddies. Among them were Sarah Parker, who hadn’t yet decided to separate her name with a “Jessica,” and Jane Krajkowski, who was still retaining the “j” that is indeed part of her actual family name.
Although the reference to “Milliken” was dropped, the Breakfast Show did wind up contributing to A Chorus Line. Bennett had worked on a few of these industrials, and from one of his production numbers called “Blaze On” he recycled much of the choreography for “One,” A Chorus Line’s smashing finale. (This song is one of the extra cuts here, too, with Hamlisch of course singing the main melody and Kleban later offering the counterpoint.)
Hamlisch specifically addresses Michael Bennett on the recording before introducing “Shoes” and saying that it was going to be part of “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love.” In fact, it ultimately wasn’t. That Mary Janes are mentioned in the song suggests (although not definitely) that it was earmarked for a female. Considering its country twang, I suspect that it was written for Judy Turner, the auditionee who hails from El Paso, the Southernmost locale of any of the seventeen on the line.
The final cut is simply labeled “Finale Ballad” on the liner notes, for that’s the way Hamlisch identifies it before la-da-da-da-da-ing his way through this just-written melody. But you’ll immediately recognize it as the song that became “What I Did for Love.”
Considering that we’ve been told that Kleban never liked the idea of the song – and even stated before his death that his memorial service not include “What I Did for Love” – we have to wonder if Kleban heard this recording, sighed, sat and said to himself “All right, let’s get this thing done.” Wouldn’t it have been something if he said “I’ll do what I have to do” — which led him to the song’s most famous line: “We did what we had to do.”?
Whatever the case – and whether he liked it or not – Kleban came up with a marvelous lyric for Hamlisch’s equally marvelous melody. And at least for this one song, the famous question (posed in Merrily We Roll Along) “Which comes first – the music or the lyrics?” – is unquestionably answered.
What the eight demo cuts show is how many fits and starts composers and lyricists endure before they finally get the song they want. Needless to say, many times the songs don’t turn out as splendidly as they might, but in the case of A Chorus Line, they certainly did.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.