In 1975, A Chorus Line opened in New York City, and when it closed 6,137 performances later, it was the longest running show in Broadway history. It’s an unlikely show for that distinction; it runs on a bare stage, without scenery or costumes, a plot that is more of a prelude to a story, and no stars to carry the day. The show itself is in the guise of an audition, as aspiring dancers try to make the cut for a job, the practical realities of trying to make a living as an artist.
The recent staging of the show at the San Francisco Playhouse makes clear why it was always more than that. Over 130 engaging minutes, the play makes the case for a life well lived; it is as rewarding now as it ever was, and ever will be.
The story follows a director, Zack, asking each aspiring actor to tell about themselves, to share what makes them tick. The first few actors begin with childhood memories— they were dancing, spinning and prancing since they could first walk. Mike tells about imitating his older sister as the youngest of 12, Sheila tells about escaping family violence at the ballet. These are the young, fanciful dreams of young children and we feel the solid optimism of a young child dreaming of their own success. (“I Can Do That”,”At the Ballet”).
In an almost imperceptible shift, the stories begin to center on the awkwardness of adolescence, the emerging changes in bodies and the self-awareness that comes with not-belonging. (“Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love”,”Nothing”). The audience begins to grow up with these actors, as they begin to make adult choices for themselves (“Gimme the Ball”,”Dance: Ten; Looks: Three”). There’s no intermission in this play; how can there be, when we are busy walking our way through a lifetime?
Musical theater is unique among storytelling genres because an actor can stand at the edge of the stage and tell you how they are feeling and what they are thinking. That can’t happen in a movie, nor in a novel. Even in a dramatic play, it can be awkward to stage an aside to the audience. But musical theater excels at this, and A Chorus Line takes to heart what it can do best. In this performance, the actors all give solid and even performances. They make the story believable, and the time flies away. We are pulled, entertained, compelled and intrigued by the heart-stories of the actors who are, as they say, just trying to get a job.
Or are they? Towards the end of the show, we learn that it was perhaps more than that. We have come full circle, the show now asks us to consider mortality, what we do when we can’t perform anymore, what will happen when we can’t “dance” anymore. And amidst the sad consideration, we get this oblique shot: maybe it was always about love. Nobody did this for a job after all. The last third of the show presents a depth and struggle of love, of choices, of the knowledge that none of this is permanent. Nine of the actors we have cared for are dismissed, and the other eight are given a temporary reprieve. The show goes on.
And indeed it does. In the final number, the one scene in which costumes prevail, the unique stories fade to give way to a show, a golden gleaming chorus line, moving in unison and telling not their own stories, but performing with broad smiles, giving the audience just what it has been waiting for. Still, there is a little bit of loss at this moment, as there should be. The story we have been following has flitted just out of reach, the characters have shed their individual stories and become our expectations. Don’t get me wrong; we cheer immeasurably, everyone takes a bow— they have made it to the acme of success, and they are doing what they have wanted to do; they entertain us. We are part of the show, part of the dream they had.
I left the evening fulfilled, delighted, and still mulling over the arc of a show that with its barebones storytelling, pretended to be so much less.
p.s. You can also Lily Janiak’s fabulous review of this production from the SF Chronicle here.