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Thursday, July 15, 2004 12:29 am

On the line with the chorus

When A Chorus Line opens Friday night at the Springfield Muni Opera, I wonder, how will the show play to a new generation? Will they realize that they're witnessing what was a groundbreaking musical when it premiered almost 30 years ago?

A Chorus Line tracks the fortunes of a group of Broadway dancers auditioning for a new show. It begins with a big group going through an opening number ("I Hope I Get It"). Of these dancers a final group of 20 is chosen to go through one more audition. From that group, eight are chosen.

I was a college student when A Chorus Line was first staged. Like most people my age who were interested in theater, everything about A Chorus Line was new -- especially the way in which it was created.

The idea for the show grew out of a gathering of dancers and choreographer Michael Bennett in January 1974. The dancers talked about their childhood, their families, their art -- and what compelled them to dance. The session began at midnight and lasted until noon the next day. A second meeting was held a few weeks later. The two discussions were tape-recorded with the intent that the material would somehow be used as the basis of a show.

The project took a year to develop. Though there wasn't even a script yet, two rehearsal workshops were held in the summer and fall of 1974.Playwright and novelist James Kirkwood was tapped to mold a script out from the material on the tapes with dancer and writer Nicholas Dante, who had been one of the dancers at the session and whose story is paramount to the plot of what eventually became A Chorus Line. Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban were then brought in to write a musical score.

After many starts and stops, Joseph Papp, producer at the off-Broadway Public Theatre, gave Bennett a place to perform. Everyone involved knew they were working on something special, but they also felt it might be too personal for the public to care.

Of course the show became a history-making musical, winning golden reviews and awards and playing to sold-out houses. It eventually moved to the Shubert Theatre on Broadway, where it played for more than 6,000 performances.

So Muni finally stages this landmark musical, co-directed by Doug Hahn and Gary Shull, the team who in recent years have brought us A Little Night Music, Anything Goes, and Into the Woods.

What is it about A Chorus Line that strikes such a strong chord with audiences around the world? It is said that we all can identify with the dancers who are auditioning for jobs in the chorus of a Broadway show, that all of us, no matter what kind of work we do, find ourselves on the line.

Perhaps that's true, but I also think the personal stories we hear from all the different people on the line are the reason the show has lasted so long. Their stories are personal, emotional, funny, poignant, bitter, inspiring, and sad. Their stories are our stories -- and we find ourselves rooting and cheering for these dancers, hoping they get the part.


A Chorus Line runs Friday-Sunday, July 16-18, and

Wednesday-Sunday, July 21-25. Call 793-MUNI for ticket information.


Contact Phil Funkenbusch at pfunkenbusch@illinoistimes.com.

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