By Kallee Lins
With “A Chorus Line” choreographer Michael Bennett not only created work for dancers but a tribute to them.
Director and choreographer Donna Feore has taken the opportunity to use Stratford’s Festival Stage as a way to amplify choreographer Michael Bennett’s hopes for “A Chorus Line.”
Bennett co-choreographed and directed the original production which won nine Tony Awards and the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Rather than impose an “updated” agenda on the show, Feore’s interpretation highlights the deeply confessional stories that reveal the dreams and disappointments in the lives of chorus line dancers—the veritable athletes of Broadway.
More than simply staying true to the spirit of the original, Feore’s production is intended as “a tribute” to choreographer Michael Bennet.
Conversations about a Stratford re-working of the show began back in February. John Breglio, “A Chorus Line’s” original (and ongoing) producer and lawyer visited the Festival Stage before passing on his approval.
Donna McKechnie, who collaborated with Bennett when she originated the role of Cassie, was also involved in ongoing conversations about the production. While the process of seeking support from the original creative team was an intense one, all parties were fully on-board with Feore’s vision. “They told me just to go,” she said.
And onward she went, not only with the reworked staging for the newly added thrust, but also with completely new choreography and revamped lighting design.
Lighting has always been central to the look of “A Chorus Line,” which was the first production on Broadway to make use of a modern lighting console. With the openness of Stratford’s thrust stage, designer Michael Walton was able to intensify the effect of lighting in this particular production.
Members of the Stratford company in A Chorus Line.
Photo by David Hou.
The re-choreographing of the show is indicative of Feore’s overall philosophy of re-working this iconic performance. “A Chorus Line’s” choreography is deeply tied to the specificity of New York in the 1970s (the beginning of Electric Boogaloo’s heyday) and its updated choreography displays a commitment to maintaining the look and feel of this time.
Bennett was the number one competitor of Bob Fosse, and Feore recalls the time in NY when dancers’ allegiances were firmly split between the two camps: “there were Fosse dancers, and then there were Bennett dancers.”
Bennett’s signature style with its incredibly technical, sharp, and dynamic movements has been maintained throughout the show, and some of the most iconic sequences like the very first six counts of music—identifiable to anyone whose dabbled in musical theatre dance—and portions of Cassie’s solo have been retained.
Feore posits that when Michael wrote the show, he wanted to do something that was “honest” and showed the reality of the entertainment industry at that moment in 1975. There was a general distrust of pomp and spectacle, she suggests — Watergate had just happened, and Broadway was struggling. He wanted to do a show that not only created work for dancers during such a tough time economically, he also wanted to create a tribute to them.
While acting and singing are certainly not easy, “dance is the discipline that has an expiry date: a ligament only lasts so long,” says Feore.
From her own experience as a dancer, Feore notes that professional dancers are “no better off than athletes” when it comes to the threat of career-ending injuries.
As a Dancer You Are a Commodity
As a dancer, “you are a commodity,” she confides, “that hasn’t changed in 40 years”.
Those are the basic facts that make “A Chorus Line’s” stories so intense and gut-wrenching for anyone with an intimate knowledge of the dance world.
Cassie, a former principle dancer whose trying to find her next break after a romantic fallout with the director, “will rip your heart out. [The show’s] not warm-hearted.” And to the suggestion by multiple reviewers that the show has an interior warmth Feore vehemently disagrees, but concedes, “I guess that’s what dancers do—they make it look easy.”
As a dancer/choreographer turned director, what Feore hopes the audience will take away with them, at a bare minimum, is how incredibly talented the performers of Stratford’s production are. You can hear her brimming with pride as she speaks of the technical skill that they bring to such an exacting and demanding piece of choreography.
The pieces are not only hard, but long, Cassie’s solo, both danced and sung, lasts a full six minutes. This is a marathon for musical theatre numbers.
Photo by David Hou.
Feore has also upped the ante in certain parts of the choreography. She’s added more pattern work and increased the difficulty of the opening so the performers have no choice but to focus and attack the top of the show each time. “I made the opening so tough. It was one hundred percent strategy,” she says, so that the dancers will never find themselves complacent in the production even after they have done it for the 50th time.
As Feore notes during our conversation, “stepping up to the line” at the front of the stage is a not simply an instruction from domineering casting director Zach, it’s a metaphor for both the physical and emotional demands placed on dancers to bring all of themselves to the job.
Open Call Auditions
While not necessarily the norm, Feore exclusively conducts open call auditions which are not wholly unlike the experience presented in the show. She may not be as prying as Zach, but does she talk to the dancers? “Absolutely. I have to spend three months with these people,” she notes.
What could be the greatest strength of “A Chorus Line” is that it is highly specific to the lives and pursuits of Broadway dancers of a particular time and place, yet their desires and fears, in broad strokes, are just as relatable to people outside of that world. It really is a timeless show, acknowledges Feore. “We all understand Broadway. Broadway represents the dream,” she says. The themes of “sacrifice, failure, and disappointment” reach people. No matter what an audience member may be pursuing in life, that struggle to succeed is relatable.
Photo by Ann Baggley.
This connection with the show is also profoundly intergenerational. Feore talked about how much laughter can be heard during matinee shows with school groups in the crowd. Mark’s monologue about his experience with puberty (in which some misguided research led him to a self-diagnosis of gonorrhea) is where the teens in the crowd often roar with laughter. After all, “puberty hasn’t changed [since 1975],” says Feore.
Because of the familiar themes that cut across age, as well as the intimate staging, a feeling of a “communal space” is often present in the show, says Feore. Not only does the thrust stage create a physical immediacy with the performers, it also makes the audience more visible to each other.
Feore made a point of watching every preview from a different part of the house. “I’m always over there,” she says of the far edges of the audience, and adds that while it is not a lesser experience, it is certainly a different one. You experience a whole different layer of the characters by witnessing “what’s going on behind them”—perhaps they fidget when they’re nervous, or obsessively mark out steps; there is always something to mine in an otherwise sparse set design.
Feore maintains, however, that it is the honesty demanded of performers on the Festival Stage that is its greatest asset. There is no proscenium to hide behind. As she puts it, if you’re not honest “that stage will spit you off”—a truth that’s remained at the heart of “A Chorus Line” ever since its debut.
By Kallee Lins
Kallee Lins left her hometown of Castlegar, BC, to continue her contemporary dance training in Montréal while studying political science and theatre at McGill University. An MA in Performance Studies (York University) followed, and she is now a PhD candidate in York University’s Department of Dance.
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