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'A Chorus Line' remains a musical landmark

Traveling production comes to Bass this week

Clare Croft

Long before "So You Think You Can Dance," there was "A Chorus Line." The 1975 musical might be the origin of American fascination with dance's competitive side, and it was also an unprecedented look at dancers as more than a set of perfectly matched bodies with fantastic rhythm.

Choreographer and director Michael Bennett and the show's original cast, many of whom shared their autobiographies in the show, examined dancers' lives to reveal the emotional journeys behind perfectly synchronized, iconic kick lines.

"A Chorus Line" ran on Broadway from 1975 to 1990, making it the longest-running Broadway production until the late '90s. The hit show returned to Broadway as a revival in 2006 and is now on a national tour, which stops in Austin at UT's Bass Concert Hall Tuesday through Sunday.

The show is a theatrical landmark for many reasons: its long run, the incredible financial success it brought producer Joseph Papp and his New York Shakespeare Theatre Festival (now known as The Public), and the slew of Tony awards it accrued, including best director and best choreographer for Bennett.

Bennett's role in the musical has been a source of controversy, since "A Chorus Line" began as a more collaborative affair. Bennett recorded working dancers' stories as source material for the production and then rearranged those stories over the course of three workshops. While many of the dancers achieved fame from the show, the fortune belonged to Bennett and the show's producers. According to the book "On the Line," co-authored by several of the original Broadway cast members, dancers signed contracts that valued their stories at $1 per person, although workshop participants eventually received small payouts from the show's royalties. For some, this was another tale of exploitation to add to a long list of theater hard-luck stories. For others, the show became a source of pride and a launching pad for success.

The coupling of dance and personal story might sound familiar, because today reality dance shows mix dance numbers with interviews with contestants and their families. These TV shows generally disconnect dance itself from individuals' varied stories, opting instead to offer choreographed routines that rehearse again and again love stories between a man and a woman. In contrast, "A Chorus Line" used dance, song and acting to explore dancers' stories, ranging from the adolescent trauma of confronting ideals of feminine beauty to the pain and joy of coming out as a gay man.

Unlike his better-known contemporary, choreographer Bob Fosse, Bennett did not invent a particular style of musical theater dance. Instead, he furthered the integration of all of musical theater's elements, bringing together dance with music, acting and design to tell dancers' stories.

From the moment "A Chorus Line" begins, dance is center stage. The 1976 Tony Awards opened with the full cast speeding through combinations as director's assistant Larry yells sequences and corrections. As the broadcast began, the entire cast faced away from the audience, scrutinizing their every step in a wall of mirrors.

The choreographic choice to have a large cast ignore its audience as the curtain rises immediately propels everyone into a dancer's world, where mirror images — those in the mirror and the often identically skinny bodies to one's right and left — foster a constant sense of competition.

Eventually the cast turns forward, continuing into a ballet combination before singing the phrase perhaps best remembered from "A Chorus Line": "I hope I get it."

Whether you've seen the musical or the 1985 film of the same name, or heard someone utter the statement in coy parody, the line conjures the mix of hopefulness, fear and self-doubt (and maybe a little campiness) at the musical's heart. Likely as an attempt to bank on "A Chorus Line's" widespread familiarity, the 2007 Tony producers had the revival cast open that year's telecast, too, although that production garnered few Tony nominations and no Tonys.

People might know a few lines from "I Hope I Get It," but they might actually recognize choreography from "One," the musical's ode to the chorus line's aim: unison precision. The original cast's performance of the number, again at the 1976 Tonys, is one of YouTube's classic "Chorus Line" videos. The old footage is a bit fuzzy, but fuzziness can't hide the row of golden legs strutting in one line as the cast tips their hats and lifts their chins.

"One" appears twice in the musical, once early in the second act and again as the finale. The choreography centers on a group becoming, as the title suggests, a singular unit. Placing the number midmusical means the audience sees how individuals come together into a group, rather than making the group an undifferentiated line of long, pointed legs.

The song that best plumbs dance's love of unattainable ideals is "At the Ballet." Three women sing the number, including Sheila, the audition's aging dancer. (Kelly Bishop, now best known as Rory's grandmother on TV show "The Gilmore Girls," originated the role.) A local news show's recording of the song with the original cast, including Bishop, follows the women as they describe how ballet offered respite from their lives' ugliness. They stand side by side as they belt out the song's lyric, "Everything is beautiful at the ballet." The stage around them goes black, as though focusing on the ballet erases everything but the women's imaginations.

Their dreams can never be fully realized. The world of dance depicted in "A Chorus Line" is one of poverty, injury, sexism and homophobia, but the love of dance remains.

When the show's producers announced "A Chorus Line" would close in 1990, Phil Donahue devoted an episode of his show to the musical. After Donahue rehearsed the show's biography, he quotes a line from the show, "If today were the day you had to stop dancing, how would you feel?" The camera shifts to the center of the studio where the original cast stands around Priscilla Lopez, the show's first Diana, who begins singing, "What I Did for Love." Eventually the entire group joins her and a variety of voices come together as, in the words of the song "One," "one singular sensation."

`A Chorus Line'

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Bass Concert Hall, 23rd Street and Robert Dedman Drive, University of Texas campus

Cost: $20-$69

Information: 477-6060, www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com