With our screens saturated with talent contests featuring people who dream of becoming a star, Michael Bennett and Marvin Hamlisch’s groundbreaking and resolutely unsentimental 1975 musical A Chorus Line now feels more important than ever. This is no rags-to-riches tale of instant gratification; certain television casting show contestants might behave as if walking straight from drama school into leading roles is nothing less than what they deserve, but the sixteen finalists in this show, many of whom are veteran dancers in spite of their youth, are scrabbling for a place in the chorus, right at the bottom of the pecking order. The chorus’s job is to provide smiling and radiant but mostly anonymous support for the leads – it isn’t a place for anyone who expects to be the centre of attention.
Like West Side Story, A Chorus Line is so closely tied to its original production that it could feel suffocating almost 40 years on. Supervised by Bennett’s co-choreographer Bob Avian (one of the few surviving members of the original creative team) and original cast member Baayork Lee, no updating has been attempted on the unmistakably Seventies style, yet it still feels like a living, breathing thing rather than a well-preserved artifact, thanks to the integrity of Bennett’s vision and the utterly convincing cast (it probably also helps that it hasn’t been seen in the West End for well over a generation).
Originally devised ‘group therapy’ style in which several performers played versions of themselves, it’s a show based around a scenario rather than a story. Director/choreographer Zach (a forceful John Partridge) bellows through the theatre like the voice of God in an interrogation of sorts to find out what makes them tick (the stuff that isn’t on their resumé). It’s a moment in the spotlight that no one particularly wants as stories of how ballet lessons were a respite from warring parents, bullying and sexual angst emerge, turning the Broadway dream on its head.
It doesn’t feel right to single out individuals, but there’s a particularly striking turn from Leigh Zimmerman’s model-like, caustic Sheila, a creature for whom the term ‘leggy blonde’ could have been coined. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is terrific as Diana, the strong-willed Puerto Rican who almost gave it all up when mocked by a pretentious drama teacher, before discovering the more effective method of acting on instinct. Gary Wood is touching as ex-drag artiste Paul, the boy who always wanted to be Cyd Charisse, and Alexzandra Sarmiento, Daisy Maywood and James T Lane are eye-catching in the smaller roles of Connie, Bebe and Richie.
It’s a surprise to learn that the overqualified Cassie, arguably the show’s pivotal female role, barely gets a line until halfway through. A rising featured dancer (not a star) and Zach’s ex-lover who left New York for Los Angeles where she failed to land so much as a toilet paper commercial, she embodies the conflict between aspiring to become a star versus performing to the best of her abilities. What seemed like odd casting on paper for Scarlett Strallen, the most accomplished West End soprano of her generation, proves a revelation, as she throws herself into ‘The Music and the Mirror’ as if her life depended on it.
As a musical without a romance (Zach and Cassie’s relationship is well and truly over), the love story is that of the sacrifices made by the dancers for very little in return. The final reprise of ‘One’ is one of the most misunderstood numbers in theatre; it’s visually pure 42nd Street, yet has the lump-in-your-throat bittersweetness of Carousel. A paean to the unseen leading lady’s star quality (I imagine it being Gwen Verdon), ‘our’ dancers take their places as seen-but-not-heard extras reining in their individuality to adhere to the show’s standardized style – much more piercing to the heart than any flashy special effects and what theatre in its purest essence is all about.