Lessons from A Chorus Line on its 40th Anniversary
If you’ve gotten to read my “Meet the Bloggers” page, you might have stumbled upon my list of favorite musicals – and “favorite” is most certainly an euphemism here, as I am totally obsessed with those – which include A Chorus Line.
There might be such a universal truth – especially to performers – conveyed through that libretto, music and lyrics, that anyone can unequivocally relate to these songs, even 40 years after, in a more contemporary setting. The amazing twitter intervention by Lin-Manuel Miranda – who proceeded to answer tweets using exclusively lines from the show – and the Hamilton cast’s moving tribute on A Chorus Line’s 40th anniversary day just prove that.
And I can only agree with the fact that A Chorus Line changed the landscape of musical theater through its storytelling. What moves me most about that musical? The same qualities that draw me to contemporary musical theater: truth, honesty, humanity. Of course it is a stunning show with thrilling choreography, but it’s not just all glitter, set and spotlights. With a simple plain line and mirrors on a bare stage, you get to discover, free of artifacts, the humans behind both the in-life and on-stage triple-threat performers, telling their own stories.
A Chorus Line is a really specific example, as it was written and workshopped using the recounting of its original cast, from childhood stories through teenage experiences and first auditions. And even though it mainly focuses on the story of performers trying to make it on Broadway, anyone can relate to the drive it takes to go for your dreams. The insecurities, goofiness, expectations and questions raised during the whole show have been experienced to a certain level at some point by anyone in their life. From a universal questioning in “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen,” to pondering parent/child relationships once you’re grown-up in “At the Ballet” or Paul’s monologue, A Chorus Line addresses so many tangible issues that it is difficult not to be moved by the storyline.
Contemporary musical theater songs address the same type of issues. Characters present a slice of their life, stripping their feelings bare to the audience. And A Chorus Line brings a great illustration of two interesting lessons that can be applied to contemporary musical theater:
1. Comedy relies on honesty.
The storyline and words might be funny or hilarious from the audience’s point of view, but from the character’s mind they are as honestly raw and real as can be. Take “Dance 10, Looks 3” or “Sing,” which are amongst the most hilarious pieces in the musical. They are incredibly funny but actually come from an originally emotional place for the characters: disappointment, shame, or even pain. But the characters came to embrace these stories as part of their life. And what is actually hilarious is the gap between expectations and reality: the endearing honesty of the character telling their personal story versus how that issue is valued in the view of the general public. Take off the honesty and innocence and most of the funny lines drop dead.
– “It isn’t intentional.” – “She’s doing her best.”
2. You have to be yourself and commit to strong personal choices.
A Chorus Line is all about how people fit into an ensemble, but also about… individualities. Who are these people and what unique perspectives can they offer to the story? Performers must to be able to be in sync and in harmony, but they also have to bring their personalities to the stage. Even with a set storyline, there is space for interpretation and an opportunity to make it personal.
In Every Little Step, the 2008 documentary that follows the audition process for the 2006 Broadway revival, you get to witness the blurring frontiers between the performer’s real life and past experiences and what it’s like being involved in the audition process. The actors bring all what they have into the room and fuel the characters with their past experiences, both as a performer and a human being.
The London revival cast presenting their stories
And that’s also what you have to achieve in contemporary musical theater. The songs are a world of endless possibilities. As Judy Garland said, “Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else.” We all are fond of YouTube performances, but it should not trap us into providing renditions that are too similar. As a performer, you’ve got things to say. So get back to the score and song analysis process and embrace the wonderful freedom of fueling in the performance with your own backstories and interpretation.
What do you think A Chorus Line brought to musical theater? Can you relate? How do you feel about interpretation of contemporary songs?
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