"Before it opened, I knew that show business folk would like it, but I had no idea that its appeal would be so broad," says Bob Avian, who co-choreographed the epoch-making 1975 production with the late Michael Bennett. Three decades later, Avian is directing the much-talked-about revival of A Chorus Line, which begins previews tonight at the Schoenfeld Theatre after a highly successful pre-Broadway run in San Francisco. "At first, we were apprehensive as to whether it was time to bring the show back," he says. "But when tickets went on sale in San Francisco, the response told us, 'Yes, it is!' "
With TV shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance? all the rage nowadays, this may be a particularly good time for a revival of the musical, which is basically about a talent competition among dancers vying for Broadway employment. But unlike the producers of the upcoming revival of Grease, the powers behind A Chorus Line drew the line at becoming directly involved in any of the TV contests. According to Avian, "We were approached by one of those shows and asked if we would allow one of the prizes for the winner to be a role in A Chorus Line, but we said, 'No, we can't do that!' "
The triple-threat performers who were tapped for the revival got their jobs the old-fashioned way. "Casting was a very lengthy process," says Avian. "We saw something like 1,700 people. In the beginning, I was open to anybody; but they had to be able to dance very well, and I wanted strong voices in this production. With the original cast, we catered the show to their gifts. Performers today come into auditions much more equipped than they did 30 years ago. The training is better. I noticed that, as I eliminated further and further down to find the people I needed to play these roles, the show almost cast itself. It demands certain ranges, certain techniques."
Among the standouts in the company are Deidre Goodwin (Chicago, Nine, etc.) as Sheila and Jeffrey Schecter (The Pajama Game, Wonderful Town, Beauty and the Beast) as Mike. "The reaction to our first performance in San Francisco was insane," says Goodwin. "There was so much love coming from the audience, we were all just trying to keep it together and not start crying." Says Schecter, "I got to watch the first performance because I was injured; I had sprained my ankle. I thought I was going to be sad to sit out there and not be part of the show that night, but it was pretty freakin' thrilling. I was sitting next to this woman and, every time something great would happen on stage, she'd go, 'Yes!' I was so proud of the company."
Given that the revival is pretty much a recreation of the original production, how much freedom have the cast members had in creating their own interpretations of their roles? "I think we've had a lot of freedom," says Goodwin. "Sometimes, the stamps were so strong -- on certain characters in particular -- that it took a little while for both sides to trust and say, 'Yeah, we can go that way.' I think it's a different show because we are different people. It's been really exciting to see the whole thing blossom and bring a new life to it." Adds Schecter, "For my audition, I did what I do well -- a lot of jumps, a lot of turns, this sort of Gene Kelly thing. When we started rehearsing my number ['I Can Do That'], Bob incorporated some of that stuff, which was cool."
Says Goodwin, "I think A Chorus Line created the idea that you really have to train yourself to do anything on Broadway. And now we've got to add instruments," she says, referring to director John Doyle's productions of Sweeney Todd and Company, in which the actors double as the orchestra. "I play a mean cowbell," she says. "And I play the triangle," Shechter chimes in. But isn't A Chorus Line the one show that would never be given the Doyle treatment? Both reply in unison: "Never say never!"
Though the show is very much of its time in terms of style and content, those involved in the revival have no fear that it's dated in a negative way. But this is not to say that audiences will react to A Chorus Line in exactly the same way today as they did way back in the 1970s. "The show opened during the sexual revolution, and it said things that had never been said before on the stage, especially not on the musical stage," says Avian." At the time, part of the appeal -- or lack of appeal, depending on the city we were in -- was the shock value. People loved the show on Broadway, but when we played the Opera House in Washington, D.C. on our first tour, some people walked out. They were offended by it. Now, it seems so tame; audiences have become used to that sort of language. Look at HBO! What's acceptable in entertainment has definitely changed."
What accounts for the marathon run of the original production and the fact that, judging from the success of the San Francisco run, people are still enamored of A Chorus Line? "I think it's because the show is so specific," says Goodwin. "A lot of shows that are created today try to please everybody, so they're watered down. Even though A Chorus Line is about dancers, you can see your own connection to the dream, whether you're a truck driver or a doctor or whatever." Notes Schecter, "For me, one of the most interesting things about the show is that, when I was a kid, there were certain characters I liked most -- but now that I'm an adult, those aren't necessarily still my favorites. Maybe that's one reason for the show's longevity; you can relate to different characters at different times in your life. You can be a gay man when you go in to see the show and, by the end, you're a straight woman!"
For all of A Chorus Line's popularity on the world's stages over the past 31 years, the ill-conceived 1985 film version -- directed by Sir Richard Attenborough -- was a failure. So, is there any chance of a cinematic remake? "Anything is possible where money can be made," says Avian, "but I think the show is the ultimate theatrical event because it's sort of a documusical. Seeing it is like being in a theater and looking through a peephole, watching from a secret place. It's magic. If you transfer it to film, you lose that quality. When Michael Bennett and I were originally pitching ideas for the movie, he said, 'You know how I'd like to do it? The movie should be about all of the kids who've ever done the show auditioning for the movie version.' That's how Michael's head was working; he was trying to adapt the reality of the show to film terms. At heart, A Chorus Line is a backstage musical. And that's what audiences love about it."