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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows, and various online archives preserve still more vintage productions. Even as things return to normal we continue to review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

A Chorus Line
Public Theatre 1975 and YouTube   June 2023

You want to see this video.

It is a grainy, overexposed, washed-out, black-and-white copy of a copy of a recording never intended for public showing in the first place, and the audio is not a whole lot better than the picture.

It is missing the first few and last few seconds and, as a final insult, it is repeatedly interrupted, sometimes in mid-song, by intrusive advertisements.

So why bother? Because this is the original cast of A Chorus Line in one of its pre-Broadway Public Theatre performances as close as you can get to experiencing one of the American Musical Theatre's greatest accomplishments before anyone knew what a classic it was going to be.

You have to strain your eyes and your ears, but it's all there, almost fifty years later.

For those from Mars, and perhaps those under thirty, Director Michael Bennett sat in on some group discussions among Broadway back-up dancers and shaped an evening around them, recruiting composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Edward Kleban, writers James Kirkwood Jr and Nicholas Dante, and co-choreographer Bob Avian.

Using the premise of an audition at which the director gets to know his potential dancers, A Chorus Line gives faces and voices to the performers whose job is to not be noticed as individuals.

They talk and sing (and dance) about how they began dancing, why they keep at it and what would happen if they had to stop.

The excitement in 1975 was that A Chorus Line was indeed showing us a part of show business we hadn't looked at before and was making us see these faceless back-ups as individuals.

(In one iconic and heart-stopping moment they all line up holding their 8x10 glossy headshots in front of their faces and then take them down, as if to say 'And now look at the real me.')

Of course it didn't hurt that the songs were good and the dancing even better.

Between the brassy fanfare of the opening, a stageful of people dancing in what is arguably the greatest opening number in Broadway history, and the earworm vamp of the exultant finale come the elegiac Everything Was Beautiful At The Ballet, the defiant Nothing, the unrepentant What I Did For Love and a half-dozen others.

And then there was the roman a clef element.

While some of the characters were generic or composites, you didn't have to be too much of a show biz insider to spot that the character Cassie's story of moving up from the chorus to featured roles but finding a very low ceiling had some resonances in the career of Donna McKechnie who played her, or that the most dramatic monologue in the show, by Paul who found a family in the gay world he couldn't have at home, was very personal to co-author Nicholas Dante.

Connie, fighting for recognition despite being short, could be Baayork Lee, while Jennifer Lopez and her feisty character Diana have a lot in common.

No revival, however star-studded, could ever have that kind of reality and enough of it comes through despite the technically bad recording for this to be a must-see.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of A Chorus Line (1975) 2023