Why Is Ryan Murphy Turning A Chorus Line Into a Netflix Series?
America's most prolific TV producer looks to Broadway for new material.
"The New King of Television," reads the cover of this week's Time next to a photo of Ryan Murphy. With no fewer than 15 projects currently in the works, Murphy is undoubtedly the most prolific TV producer in America. One of those projects, revealed in that same Time story, is a 10-part miniseries based on the Broadway musical A Chorus Line, which is set to stream on Netflix at a yet-to-be determined date in the future.
Is this a reason for theater fans to rejoice, or will it be the Waterloo for the Napoleon of TV? The opinion of TheaterMania's readers is sharply divided: "He's going to ruin one of the greatest musicals ever written," writes Christopher Arroyo in the comment thread under the original news article about the project. Jennifer Neal Creasey is more bullish: "Sounds like he'll expand all the characters and we'll see the action to the actual monologues," she speculates, adding, "seems pretty cool."
I'm with Jennifer, although I can understand why viewers would be wary of a Murphy-helmed Chorus Line. In this Story of the Week, I'll explain why.
What is A Chorus Line?
Originally conceived, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett, A Chorus Line tells the story of a group of actors at an audition for a Broadway musical. Hotshot director Zach is looking to cast a chorus of eight (four "boys" and four "girls"), and he uses an unorthodox method to winnow them down: He asks them to talk about their pasts and how they ended up as dancers. Each dancer gets a song explaining his or her backstory, illuminating the individuals who will be step-ball-changing behind the star in a Broadway show.
The music is by Marvin Hamlisch, with lyrics by Edward Kleban. The book is credited to James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante, who drew inspiration from a series of taped workshops with real Broadway dancers, including several who appeared in the original cast.
The show was a huge hit when it debuted off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 1975, quickly transferring to Broadway where it ran a then-unprecedented 6,137 performances. Totally unlike any Broadway musical that came before it, A Chorus Line expanded the form in ways that still reverberate today.
Could a musical like A Chorus Line ever work as a TV miniseries?
Absolutely. In fact, it has the potential to work much better than the unloved 1985 film adaptation. The episodic nature of A Chorus Line, with each song highlighting a different character, lends itself to expansion, as Jennifer pointed out above. A song can turn into an entire episode, and one can easily imagine a full hour devoted to Diana Morales struggling through performing arts high school, or Paul's early career as a drag performer. Since he has 10 episodes, Murphy and his writers have the ability to expand upon a preexisting story, offering something new for old fans while introducing A Chorus Line to a new generation.
So I think A Chorus Line could be really great, provided Murphy is able to restrain his own worst impulses.
Is Ryan Murphy the right person to bring A Chorus Line to the small screen?
Murphy undoubtedly has an appreciation for Broadway, which has manifested itself in both his casting and writing choices. His high school drama Glee has arguably turned millions of young TV viewers into theater fans by featuring a cavalcade of special guest stars from the stage, and covers of Broadway show tunes.
Murphy is now a Broadway producer in his own right, having picked up a Tony from the 50th anniversary revival of The Boys in the Band (which is now becoming a feature film for Netflix). He regularly works with theater actors like Cheyenne Jackson, Lily Rabe, and Billy Porter, and he's currently turning The Prom into a film starring Meryl Streep. If any TV producer can turn a Broadway musical into a miniseries, it's Ryan Murphy.
I'm often impressed with the way Murphy is able to infuse his shows with cutting edge social commentary. American Horror Story: Cult was a shrewd encapsulation of mass delusion and the politics of resentment in the Trump era, while The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story unsheathed the double-edge sword of ambition that hangs over both immigrants and gay men. One hopes that Murphy would bring that kind of insight to A Chorus Line: Certainly, the creator of Nip/Tuck should have an interesting take on "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three," a song about an actor who resorts to plastic surgery to up her score with casting directors.
Still, I'm just as frequently baffled by Murphy's propensity to resort to cheap sensationalism: I tuned out of Cult after an episode featuring a sex slave in an attic — a lurid diversion with no redeeming dramaturgical value. Lady Gaga's bloody vampire orgies in AHS: Hotel felt even more superfluous, abandoning the artful tease of the horror genre for revolting buckets of gore. Like a good striptease, horror is more about what you don't show than what you do.
If Murphy can avoid the sensationalism of his American Horror Story franchise and the preachy sentimentality of Pose (a likelier temptation here), A Chorus Line could be spectacular. Hamlisch's music is quite sentimental enough, and doesn't need any help.
When are we going to see A Chorus Line?
It may be years before we ever see an episode of A Chorus Line. Murphy is developing it as part of a $300 million contact with Netflix, which involves a slew of other projects including The Politician (starring Ben Platt as a high school politico) and Hollywood (starring Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor). A Chorus Line may need to wait until Murphy moves a few items off his already full plate.
No casting has been announced yet, but you can bet there will be one or two usual suspects in the mix: Will Lea Michele headline as Cassie? Neil Patrick Harris as Zach? I would love to see some new faces from Broadway: Perhaps Tommy Bracco can reprise the role of Mike, a part he absolutely slayed at the City Center revival last year.
Whatever the case, you can bet that the theater community will be following the development of A Chorus Line closely: We've all become accustomed to musicals becoming movies and vice versa, but the prospect of a musical becoming a successful television miniseries presents a world of exciting possibilities.