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The Start of A Chorus Line By Peter Filichia

Were fifteen in attendance, twenty-two or some number in between?

Accounts vary among those who participated. Only one thing is for sure: January 26, 1974 — forty-four years ago this week – saw a group of Broadway pros meet at the Nickolaus Exercise Center on Third and East 23rd. In the words of Thommie Walsh, they would “try to stay up all night, talk about life and what it’s like to be a dancer.”

Nobody knew that the gabfest would lead to what would become the longest-running show in Broadway history. And although A Chorus Line’s 6,137 performances have now been eclipsed by five other musicals (and will fall prey to a sixth by the summer when Wicked surpasses it), it’s still far more beloved than one or two musicals that have bested its run.

No question that it would be the biggest show that any one of the eventual twenty-six cast members would ever know. But as I’ve run into them over the years, I’ve enjoyed asking “Okay, everybody in the world has heard of A Chorus Line. What Broadway musical did you do that only Broadway diehards have ever heard of?”

Donna Drake, A Chorus Line’s original Tricia recalled that “My most obscure show was It’s So Nice to Be Civilized, she said, referring to the 1980 Micki Grant musical. “It was a black show, and I was the only white girl in it. It ran a week.”

When I asked if, during rehearsals, she thought it was a stinker, she said, “I thought ‘Thank you for the work.’ I’d got Chorus Line right as I got off the bus. It was a real fairy tale. This was five years later, so I was glad to be part of another show.”

Sammy Williams, the original Paul, told me “Well, I did Applause, Seesaw and Hello, Dolly! for a while, so I guess the most obscure musical I did was The Happy Time. It was my very first show.”

He’ll surprise many with his next statement: “David Merrick was very nice to me.”

Really? The producer known as “The Abominable Showman” was nice?

“Yes,” he insisted with a definite head-swoop. “I was all of eighteen when I went into his office. And he gave me his rapt attention whenever I spoke to him.”

Williams’ other Happy Time memory: “When we were trying out in California, Gower Champion gave everyone a week off. I bought that the show was in such great shape it just didn’t need all its rehearsal time. I was naïve, and didn’t realize Gower needed time to figure out everything wrong with the show.”

Some have blamed the theater named the Broadway being too big for an intimate musical. Others have faulted the book. But few have criticized the score, which still ranks as one of Kander and Ebb’s best.

By the time Baayork Lee was Williams’ age, she had been in six Broadway musicals, for she’d started at the age of four as one of the Siamese children in the original production of The King and I. 

When it closed, she was collecting unemployment insurance at the ripe ol’ age of eight.

That was a hit, as was her next one: Flower Drum Song … and then, in 1962, came Bravo, Giovanni.

“We opened in May at the Broadhurst,” Lee recalled. “In July, the producer told us that we’d close for the summer and reopen in September.”

“And,” I asked, “did you think it would?”

She laughed at both the question and herself. “I was very naive then, so yes, I did.”

Lee turned out to be right. The show did reopen on September 6th –for eight days, amassing only seventy-six performances. Still, The Tony nominating committee certainly liked Milton Schafer’s music and Ronny Graham’s lyrics. It chose their score in lieu of Stephen Sondheim’s for the show that wound up winning Best Musical: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. 

So blame the book again. Actually, we must, for it concerned a restaurateur whose business is failing to the better restaurant next door. So he decides to steal his neighbor’s food by digging a tunnel to the restaurant’s dumbwaiter.

(That dumbwaiter couldn’t have been as dumb as the plot.)

“Baayork, can you still do ‘The Kangaroo?’” I asked, referring to the big first-act production number.

“Yes,” she said before reciting (but not singing) “‘You hop; you hop; you wriggle and you hop.’ Carol Haney choreographed. She’d taught me how to walk in high heels when I did Flower Drum Song.”

Actually, after Lee was in Here’s Love — which, despite a glorious title song, only ran a season — she had a bigger flop: A Joyful Noise. During the former, she met co-dancer Michael Bennett; in the latter, she danced his choreography. It was Tony-nominated, which is pretty impressive for a musical that could only muster twelve performances.

Lee’s association with Bennett would lead to his casting her as A Chorus Line’s original Connie. Since Bennett’s untimely death in 1987, she’s has been the keeper of the musical’s flame by directing and choreographing many a production (including a new tour that went out last week).

Priscilla Lopez, the original Morales, also had a bit of naïveté about her:  “My first three shows were Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Henry, Sweet Henry and Her First Roman,” she said, citing musicals that had averaged thirty-two Broadway performances each.

Nevertheless, Lopez “believed that Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the greatest show ever. I thought reviewers in Philadelphia and Boston were so mean, terrible and rotten. Years later Michael Kidd, who choreographed it, was directing and choreographing me in Irma La Douce, so I asked him, ‘Was it really that bad?’ He said, ‘Yes, it was.’ But I still don’t remember it that way.

“It was Henry, Sweet Henry where I met Michael Bennett. (It was his second straight flop – but his second Best Choreography Tony nomination, too.)

“Actually,” remembered Lopez, “I was the swing. When I went to the audition, I didn’t even know what a swing was. Michael said, ‘How’d you like to be the swing?’ I said ‘Sure, I love to swing.’ I was nineteen at the time, so I wound up covering all the little girls and all the chorus women, too. So every night I came in, I had no idea if I was going to put on a short schoolgirl’s uniform or a long dress.”

And Her First Roman? “That was the best fun I ever had on any stage,” she said. When I told her that had not been my experience when I saw 1) the backers’ audition, 2) the Boston tryout or 3) the first Broadway preview, she responded good-naturedly, “I mean that! I’d been one of these shy types, and it took me until my third show to relax and say, ‘I’m going to be all right out there.’ Even when (Cleopatra’s nurse) Ftatateeta was killed and we had this big funeral for her, I was having such a ball.

“You know,” she said, “I talk about this in my one-woman show.”

“What’s it called?” I asked.

She smiled and looked a little embarrassed to be telling me what seemed too obvious. “I named it after one of my big Chorus Line numbers: What I Did for Love.”

To which I replied, “It’s better than calling it by your other big Chorus Line number.”

That, of course, was “Nothing.’”

Kelly Bishop, the original Sheila, was in one of Broadway’s biggest bombs: “Rachael Lily Rosenbloom and Don’t You Ever Forget It,” she said, referring to the 1973 musical so plagued that it shuttered during previews.

“All the drugs!” exclaimed Bishop, “I was waiting in the wings in a beautiful Neiman-Marcus evening gown and the stage manager ran out and threw a popper out my nose. There were a lot of drugs around that Jesus Christ Superstar era – and apricot brandy at every lunch hour.”

“But,” admitted Bishop, “we had huge audiences because people wanted to come and laugh at us.”

Bishop had the last laugh two-and-a-half years later when she won her Best Featured Actress Tony. At the podium she said “I have to accept this along with the rest of the cast because it’s impossible without them. I’ll keep it at my house.”

In a way, it should be kept at the Nickolaus Exercise Center.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.