Many years ago — before his current incarnation as a Scientology guru-cum-acting coach in Hollywood — I took acting classes with Milton Katselas in New York. Among my classmates was a tall, dark-haired gypsy named Bea. One evening, she gave an oddly flat monologue from Romeo and Juliet, sat down afterward for her critique, and began to cry. Milton asked her what the problem was. She was exhausted, Bea said. She had spent the last three days auditioning for a musical — told every evening to report back the next morning to dance again. She ached. Her feet were bleeding. But as she danced, she saw the pool of hopefuls steadily dwindling, and finally there were only five of them left. She knew the casting director needed three, and she began to allow herself to hope. Until he nodded at her to leave the stage.
"I know you're never supposed to ask why," Bea said. "But I was so tired, and I needed to know. So I did ask. And he said, 'Why? Why? Because I don't like your nose, that's why.'"
She started crying again. We were all silent, each of us remembering the crowded rooms of our own cattle calls, the routine rejections. Milton asked Bea to repeat her monologue, using the emotions she'd just expressed. She did. Speaking Juliet's words, she was lovely — gentle, vulnerable, heartbreaking. Perhaps she found acting work after that, but she never found sustained success.
A Chorus Line
Presented by Denver Center Attractions through May 17, Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
A Chorus Line was built on stories like Bea's, collected when Michael Bennett conducted interviews with a group of gypsies and their words provided the material and shape of his show. It was a natural approach given the spirit of the times, with women exploring their lives in consciousness-raising groups and the arts emphasizing cultural-political equality, the personal experience of the little guy. A raft of monologue-heavy, off-off-Broadway productions had already arisen from the memories and improvisations of actors. But these earnest efforts attracted tiny audiences, and their content didn't compare with the seductive mix Bennett cooked up. A Chorus Line, which debuted in 1975, was a high-gloss musical, filled with big numbers but based on individual angst. Bennett's choreography was exciting and explosive, and the songs, by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban, alternated between wit and pathos, lovely melodies and clever contrapuntal passages; both are preserved in the current revival.
The play opens with a bevy of dancers being auditioned. We watch them struggle to catch the beat, wince at their missteps. Along with the shouted directions and propulsive "one-two-three-four," we hear their anxious thoughts: "I hope I get it," they sing. "How many people does he need?" One of the best things about this musical is how it explores and celebrates the dichotomy between the synchronized perfection of the final number and the individual effort that goes into creating it.
The director, Zach, wants to understand the inner lives of these performers, so he lines them up and interrogates them, one by one. It's an ugly exercise of naked power — they must sacrifice either their privacy or a chance for the job — and Zach's authority is emphasized by the fact that through most of the evening, he's represented only by an amplified, disembodied voice uttering commands.
I've always seen A Chorus Line as a study of the artist's powerlessness, but watching it at the Buell, I found my perspective had shifted. These characters are far more than simply victims. They respond to Zach in various ways — they flirt, over-perform, taunt him, comfort each other, break down and weep — and then, no matter what, they dance. For the rest of us, there's something godlike about dancers, their strength and beauty, their ability to leap, turn and soar, to embody music, to do the physically impossible and to keep on doing it, head high and smiling, even while being yelled at and humiliated.
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The characters in A Chorus Line became dancers for various reasons, often to escape personal insecurities or unloving homes. The best bits of dialogue are when a dancer reveals an unexpected flash of humor, insight or pride. One of those auditioning is Cassie, a fiery dancer with whom Zach once had an affair. Zach feels she's too good for the chorus line, but Cassie has been out of work for two years and is longing for a job, any job. In "The Mirror and the Music," she expresses the emotions at the core of this show: the gypsies' vulnerability, gutsiness and longing, the sheer rawness of their passion to dance. Though Nikki Snelson is charming and touching in the role, she doesn't communicate the depth of feeling that would make this number a blowout.
Still, every member of the cast is a standout. Kevin Santos does Paul's monologue beautifully — although it still feels like one of those ghoulish interviews in which Barbara Walters goes fishing for tears. Emily Fletcher's sarcastic Sheila is terrific; I've never seen "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" (aka "the tits- and-ass song") done as well as it is by tiny, deliciously vampy Natalie Hall; Gabrielle Ruiz knocks "Nothing" out of the ballpark; I love Denis Lambert's suave Greg; and I could watch Anthony Wayne dance all night.
At the end, having coaxed the gypsies to reveal their vulnerabilities, Zach makes his selection and dismisses the others with the usual banalities about how they're wonderful and he wishes he could cast them all. The dancers who provided the stories at the heart of A Chorus Line must be in their fifties now, but I'm guessing the casting process for both the New York show and this excellent touring company was one that they, and Bea, would recognize.