“You’re too good for the chorus, Cassie,” says the director from the back of the house to the lone woman in a leotard, standing on a stark stage and pleading for work.
“It would be nice to be a star, but I’m not! I’m a dancer,” she cries.
This lead-in to “The Music and the Mirror” — one of several iconic numbers from Michael Bennett’s Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning 1975 musical A Chorus Line, currently in production at Circle Theatre in Grand Rapids — represents the heart of the story, one that is still powerfully resonant in what has become a period piece, and yet hardly seems to age.
“All I ever needed was the music and the mirror and the chance to dance for you,” Cassie sings in refrain while dancing as if her life depended on it.
The show broke records (longest-running show on Broadway in its time) and new ground in terms of narrative and staging for a musical.
The book is based on actual taped interviews with “gypsies,” Broadway’s name for chorus dancers, and shows the brutality and passion of a single audition that makes several cuts to whittle down more than two dozen hopeful dancers desperate for work to the final eight.
Interspersed between the “five, six, seven, eight” marking through the dance steps in ensemble are monologues elicited from the dancers by the auditor, elucidating their fears, traumas, origins, hopes and dreams, and bringing to life individual characters that ultimately give way to a tremendous finale in which the chosen ones work so beautifully in unison to create something larger than themselves, those stories fade into the background.
This is why this show will always matter, particularly in an age rife with narcissism and a crisis of faith in the collective. The show still resonates today, even though auditions don’t quite work the same — Broadway may not be what it once was as film and television, streaming services and the internet have gobbled up people’s entertainment time if not dollars. It’s a show about the most glamorous working class heroes the world has ever seen, and how they come together to create a whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
With little more than a marley dance floor, some stark lights, a wall of mirrors that appear and disappear behind black curtains, and a ghost light at the start and finish, Circle Theatre’s production is true to the brilliance of the original, which New York Times critic Clive Barnes described at the time as one of the greatest, simplest and most imaginative musicals ever to hit Broadway.
It’s astounding that these performers are volunteers rather than professionals, as they bring to life the deeply moving story with its challenging music and choreography with hardly a misstep. Directors Fred Sebulske and William Schutte put together a whole that most certainly is more than the sum of its parts, though its parts are really something, even the ones who are too young for their roles. Jolene Frankey is a powerfully impassioned Cassie; Todd Lewis is a magnificent Zach, the auditor; Lynne Tepper’s Sheila is well-seasoned; Macy Madias is an inspired Diana; Jeffrey Songco’s Paul tugs at the heart strings; and Maura Gill’s Val is gorgeous and plucky.
But it’s the astoundingly in-sync ensemble work, particularly in the shimmering finale “One,” that marks the excellence of this two-hour show.
And Music Director Brendan Hollins’ directs a fine orchestra that appears above the wall of mirrors upstage to great dramatic effect.
The fact is, no one’s too good for the chorus, and it takes a special drive, talent, work ethic, and love for one’s craft to commit to and strive for something that isn’t individual stardom. It’s almost unheard of today, but it’s a necessary reminder of what literal and figurative ensemble work is really about. A Chorus Line will remain vital as long as we need that reminder, and Circle Theatret has given us an excellent version of this classic.
A Chorus Line