The passing of composer Marvin Hamlish has left me feeling reflective about one of the great musicals of the 1970s: A Chorus Line. The smash hit broke box-office records, prompting a barrage of national tours. From 1975 until 1990 A Chorus Line thrived on Broadway, and it did it without elaborate hydraulic sets, big name stars, or singing cats. Audiences responded so strongly to A Chorus Line because the characters were very real; their monologues were funny, gritty and heartfelt, a stark contrast to goofy, stylized musicals of yesteryear. The lessons one learns from A Chorus Line are sometimes painful, sometimes sobering, but always worth considering, especially if you are pursuing a dream.
Lesson #1: Individuality Is Not Always As Profitable As Conformity
Throughout A Chorus Line, Zach (the director/choreographer) is looking for four males, four females to be in the chorus of a new musical. He does not want dancers who will stand out. He wants performers who will blend into the background. Thus, seasoned professionals such as Cassie (who had once been a leading lady) are not as employable. For the majority of performers seeking a steady paycheck, learning the art of conformity is often a key ingredient to success.
Lesson #2: Success Can Set You Up For Failure
You would think that creating a smash hit would inspire the writers and directors involved to follow-up with a series of other brilliant works. However, director Michael Bennett had trouble recovering from the incredible success of A Chorus Line. In fact, the show was so popular, that he spent months and years working new cast members into the show, as well as directing the many national tours that followed. When he finally directed another Broadway show, it was a commercial flop about Ballroom dancing. For more about the origins of this musical, as well as Bennett's work, check out the documentary Every Little Step; it's about the revival of A Chorus Line, but it includes a lot of great interviews about the original as well.
Edward Kleban, the man behind the lyrics of A Chorus Line, also had difficulty creating a follow up. In fact, it wasn't until a decade after Kleban's death that another musical (A Class Act) was developed from his collection of “unused” songs from failed shows. Throughout A Class Act, Kleban's life is explored, and the pressures of illness, ambition, and success are fully explored.
Lesson #3: Blunt Feedback Prompts Transformation
One of the most vivacious characters in the musical is Val, a sexy dancer who openly discusses her reasons for plastic surgery. In her earlier days as a dancer, she couldn't understand why she was not getting any work. After all, she was one of the best dancers at the auditions. Finally, after a number of rejections, she sneaks a peek at the casting director's score card. It read: Dance = 10, Looks = 3. Because she scored so low on physical appearance she decided to get breast implants. Now, Val's lesson is certainly not the storybook sort that I want my daughters to listen to before bedtime. However, there is a sad reality in the world of theater: Looks matter. So does talent. If more of us knew what directors, choreographers, employers were really thinking, we might better learn how to compete more effectively (hopefully without surgical enhancements).
Lesson #4: Desire Is Not Enough
Maybe we want something desperately. Maybe we need that job. (“God, I hope I get it. I hope I get it!”) Maybe we want fame, respect, money, applause. Having that drive is an essential ingredient for artistic and commercial success, but it is not the defining quality of excellence. Just because you really, really, really want to achieve something does not necessarily mean that you will fulfill your dream. All of the dancers in A Chorus Line are passionate about their craft. However, only eight will be cast in the musical. The rest are sent home. In fact, at least one dancer (Paul – a young man who injures an already damaged knee) ends his career. The losers wanted it just as badly as the winners. But sometimes – no matter how badly we long for acceptance – desire is not enough.
Lesson #5: Do It For Love
After poor Paul is dragged off to the hospital, the choreographer asks the dancers, “If today were the day you had to stop dancing, how would you feel?” The question is answered by the musical's most beautiful and poignant song. The message is simple: Do what you love and there will be no regrets. This is vital lesson to counter some of the more jaded ideas mentioned above. Even if traditional forms of success (money, fame, Tony Awards) aren't achieved, true fulfillment manifests when we infuse our work with love.