Pardon the Yogi Berra-ism, but some classics really are classics. During the opening scene of the touring production of A Chorus Line, stopping at the Orpheum this week, I got the same jangly, overwhelmed-with-panic emotional feeling, in my stomach, in my throat, behind my eyes, that Spider Man must get when Dr. Octopus sneaks up on him. In the opening scene, Zach, portrayed by Kevin McCready, is trying out a herd of dancers auditioning for his show. He singles a couple of performers out—“red headband, keep your head up!” But most of them go through in groups without any feedback at all. Maybe this is what was getting to me—I was having karate practice flashbacks or basketball practice flashbacks. Anybody who’s been at the back line of an aerobics or a ballroom dance class, or a soccer practice, or even a PowerPoint training seminar knows what it’s like to feel disoriented, flailing a little, a step behind the rest, struggling to tread water and remain unnoticed until you catch up, until you get it (hopefully).
So the premise is simple—these dancers are both trying to fit in and stand out. And there’s something beautiful in trying that hard and there’s a real poignancy to that feeling of being lost in a crowd of your peers. But part of my anxiety from that first scene comes just from suspense before the release of power—within the first few seconds even, you understand the capacity for what Zach eventually refers to as “unison dancing” when you get a glimpse of 20 bodies flying across the stage, each part in synergy with each other and the orchestra, forceful yet graceful legs and arms and twisting torsos all under control until they’re released with precision—BAM! John Madden could do the color commentary to this musical.
And there’s the first song, “I Hope I Get It,” first coming in parenthetical twitters from the wings, as they watch the dancers they’re auditioning against go through their paces. The song allows you into these characters’ heads—“God, I hope I get it,” pines Maggie. Another girl sings, “I really need this job. Please God, I’ve got to get this job.” After flubbing a step, a Greek chorus of boys lament, “Man, I really blew it.” By the end of the song Paul wonders, “Who am I anyway? Am I my resume?”
And that’s just the first scene.
No doubt I was thinking about the times we’re in. I don’t know how things are going for you in this economy, but this play felt relevant to me. In our office, some days it seems like everybody’s trying to read minds, of bosses and co-workers and readers, and of course there are days when it seems like everybody’s fixating completely on what’s going on in their own situations. (Do this sound familiar or crazy?) A Chorus Line won the Pulitizer in 1976 and although I’m 33 (about the same age as Sheila, the production’s veteran line girl), and in the middle of my own time, A Chorus Line seems like a solid commentary on what's going on now; back then, there was conflict abroad and a sick economy at home, and maybe they felt the self doubt of a young-ish generation trying not to think about “the new normal” and it feels like they were conflicted about how to feel about fighting for a spot in the chorus line while some people didn’t have a part at all and still others are starring in the show. At one point a character sniffs, “Oh, you’re special? We’re all special.”
The greatest thing about A Chorus Line is that for all the anxious introspection over the struggles of childhood or the doubt beyond, it is great entertainment, with real catharsis, both verbal and physical. There are quick one-liners, and moving monologues, and great pop songs. There’s room for star turns—I thought Emily Fletcher as Sheila and Bryan Knowlton as Paul were particularly funny and moving, respectively. And the dancing is incredible—clean, powerful Broadway dancing. Amurrican dancing, dammit!
But there's also something stripped down, almost Brechtian about ACL. The set is simple—just a bare rehearsal studio with a big mirror. (The mirrors split and spin, but that’s really the extent of the razzle dazzle.) The actors are all pre-Flashdance 1970s fashion plates—flared pants and flared collars and velour warm up sweatshirts (the fact that you can still get all this gear at American Apparel probably adds to ACL’s relevancy). For most of the show, Zach isn’t visible to the audience; he’s somewhere backstage addressing the 17 dancers one-by-one with a God’s mike. “Tell me about yourself!” he commands from the dark recesses of the theater as if he’s booming at the shepherds. The actors stare up into a bright light and talk about their most vulnerable childhood memories, whether triumphs or tragedies. It’s Freudian analysis, really: Zach is forcing them to talk about their psychological wounds. But Zach crosses the line from therapy into existential trial—it can feel kind of humiliating, actually. Personal dignity and individual identity are on the stand in front of everybody, all for the good of the show; actors browbeaten into more naked performance by being asked to avoid “performing.” A Chorus Line has been accused of being the ancestor of reality television and American Idol, but actually, its metaphor is much larger than Simon Cowell as Zach.
In fact, it’s too bad the movie was so terrible (I have higher hopes for the documentary about the 2006 casting of the revival of ACL, Every Little Step—I’m going to check it out tonight), because this play should be taught in civics class (they still teach civics class, don’t they?). That big back mirror is a simple but dramatic way to remove the fourth wall (shoot—used “Brechtian” already, didn’t I? I’m taxing my modernist street cred)—you’re thrown into the line with the rest of the hopefuls, and asked to consider your own psychological and physical limitations, your own wounds and anxiety over what for and what’s next as we’re all caught up in the same rat race, scrambling up the ladder from “good to better to best.” And A Chorus Line’s brilliant showstopper, “One,” is incisive in its soul searching. It’s John Stuart Mill and the individual versus the conforming influence of the masses done up Broadway-style. This play is about a massive scrum of talent all straining to be behind that one girl at the front of the line, and maybe, someday, out there themselves before they run out of chances. It’s what we’re all striving for, right? “We’re all special.”