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Forty Years, Forty Facts for A Chorus Line

By Peter Filichia

Actually, the title of Tom Rowan’s A Chorus Line FAQ does prove once again that you can’t judge a book by its title.

“FAQ,” of course, stands for “Frequent Asked Questions.” But Rowan doesn’t structure his book as questions and answers; he simply gives a straightforward account of how one of the most beloved of Broadway musicals got started and succeeded.

True, many of the nuggets can be found in previous books authored by Denny Martin Flinn, Baayork Lee, Ken Mandelbaum, Robert Viagas and Thommie Walsh. But this new package and its plenty of details make for gripping reading.

In honor of the show’s fortieth anniversary, here are the forty facts from A Chorus Line FAQ that most interested me:

  1. Baayork Lee, the original Connie, calls A Chorus Line “the first reality show.” (All right, not quite, but I see her point.)
  1. The real Coco Chanel liked director-choreographer Michael Bennett so much that she “tried to persuade him to give up the theater in favor of the fashion industry.”
  1. Co-librettist Nicholas Dante’s real last name was Morales – a name that was certainly put to use in the finished product.
  1. Dante was one of two finalists for the ensemble of Applause; the other was Sammy Williams, who five years later would tell Dante’s story as Paul in A Chorus Line.
  1. Co-librettist James Kirkwood’s life story is one, as Jack Kruschen sings in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, “that only Turgenev maybe could write.” (How harrowing! I won’t spoil it for you here.)
  1. Bobby Thomas, a drummer, turned out to be far more important to the show than the average drummer is on a musical. (Once again, I won’t give away the story.)
  1. “Hamlisch was irritated by Kleban’s smoking.” So should we all have been; it cost the lyricist his life at the much-too-earlyage of forty-eight.
  1. Many who were involved early on doubted that the show was ever going to amount to anything, but the day that Hamlisch and Kleban performed “At the Ballet” gave them newfound hope.
  1. For the finale, the original plan was to have Zach, , the martinet director-choreographer, choose a person from the audience who would then be the centerpiece and star of “One.” (This isn’t in the book, but Number Eight started me thinking: How about a benefit performance of A Chorus Line in which our favorite female stars – Chenoweth, Foster, LuPone, McDonald, Menzel, Peters, et al. – take turns in being the star celebrated in “One”? As H.C. Curry says in 110 in the Shade, “I’d like to see that.”)
  1. There was much discussion on whether to keep to the time-honored two-couple structure of the average musical; you know, Billy and Julie aren’t alone in Carousel, for Carrie and Enoch are there, too. For a while, the Chorus Line creators thought that Zach and Cassie shouldn’t be the only ones with a romantic history, but that Sheila and Don should have previously been lovers, too.
  1. Don Percassi, the original Al, said that he was glad that he was cast late, for that excused him from baring his soul in the tape sessions.
  1. Percassi was very instrumental in the creation of “Sing!”
  1. Renee Baughman, the original Kristine – the character who wasn’t able to “Sing!” – first heard the song over the phone when she called Bennett from her temp job to see how the show was coming along.
  1. Richie was originally a part for a female character named Angel, but Candy Brown, who was to play her, defected to appear in Chicago.
  1. For a while, there was no Zach, but solid silence would represent the questions he asked of the audfitioenrs, which they would then answer. Talk about holes in a plot!
  1. Barry Bostwick, who’ll always be known as Brad Majors in a film that debuted three weeks after A Chorus Line took to the Shubert, was the original Zach.
  1. Bostwick felt frustrated during the workshops because he felt that “a lot of time was being wasted.” Yeah, imagine how successful A Chorus Line could have been if Bennett hadn’t squandered those days and hours.
  1. There was much discussion and debate over whether Zach should be straight or gay.
  1. At one rehearsal, Robert LuPone, the actor portraying Zach, played it overtly gay, which infuriated Bennett. This would be a heterosexual director-choreographer.
  1. Ronald Dennis, the original Richie, claims that HE wrote some of the music for the “Gimme the Ball, Gimme the Ball” sequence of “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love.”
  1. If the actress playing Connie Wong can’t go on – and if there’s no Asian-American understudy – a Caucasian assumes the role and the character suddenly becomes Connie Mackenzie.
  1. Cameron Mason resented how little he had to do as Mark. He was lucky and didn’t know it, for years later he so badly needed work that he returned to play an dancer who gets cut in the opening number.
  1. Clive Clerk, the original Larry, thirteen years earlier had been offered a job in the original production of Little Me by Bob Fosse – but he was a mere fifteen at the time, and his parents wouldn’t let him do the show.
  1. In “I Hope I Get It,” the first solo voice we hear – Tricia, who sings “I really need this job! Please, God, I need this job! I’ve got to get this job!” – doesn’t get it.
  1. Michael Serrechhia, the original Frank, as a result of a severe childhood illness, couldn’t walk until he was thirteen.
  1. You may have never noticed that there are differences in the costumes between the logo and those on the line, but Tom Rowan did.
  1. Tharon Musser, the lighting designer who won three Tonys for Best Lighting (including one for A Chorus Line), grew up in a home with no electricity.
  1. A Chorus Line was the first Broadway show to use a computerized light board.
  1. There was a song called “Inside the Music” that didn’t make it into the show, but Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie, liked it enough to use it as the title of her nightclub act.
  1. Cassie doesn’t ever sing in “I Hope I Get It.” (I never noticed this; did you?)
  1. As many of us have known for decades, “Bennett resisted (hiring Cassie) at first, claiming it was unrealistic that a dancer who had done featured role would ever again be hired for the chorus.” But I’ll rebut that by citing the experience of Irwin Pearl, who was a wonderful Chico in Minnie’s Boys in early 1970. A year later, I saw him in the chorus of Lolita, My Love. And I’m sure that’s not an isolated incident.
  1. “Five, six, seven, eight!” isn’t quite what a director-choreographer would say for a song in 6/4, which is what “I Hope I Get It” is.
  1. Some of the taps you hear on the original cast album were contributed by Michael Bennett himself.
  1. Although Patricia Lopez told the story of a difficult teacher at The High School of Performing Arts to lyricist Ed Kleban, she never used the word “Nothing,” which became the title of the song relating the incident.
  1. Co-choreographer Bob Avian staged “The Tap Combination” before there was any music; he simply set it to “Tea for Two.”
  1. Five years after the show had debuted, topicality demanded that some names be changed. So Steve McQueen was replaced by Roger Moore; June Allyson by Sandy Duncan; Gwen Verdon by Ann Reinking. Says Rowan of that last one, “That particular change may seem cruelly ironic to anyone who knows the history of the people involved.” (Translation: Verdon gave way to Reinking in Bob Fosse’s bed, too.)
  1. Because the cast performed better when they knew Bennett was in the building, conductor Alphonse Stephenson bought the same cologne that Bennett used; he splashed it backstage to make everyone assume that Bennett was in the house. Sharper performances resulted.
  1. When Donna McKechnie returned on Sept. 1, 1986, the stage manager reported that this was the first time in ten years that no one had called in sick – because all wanted to work with the original Cassie.
  1. There was a tremendous slugfest that occurred at the after-party for Performance 5,000. (Far be it from me to tell you what happened.)
  1. And then there was the issue of – what else? – money. The original cast members who told – and sold — their life stories to Bennett for buck weren’t happy when the wild financial success of the show was secured. All those who’d received a buck demanded a new agreement be reached.

That brings us to what really has been a Frequently Asked Question about A Chorus Line over the years. The closest we get to an answer comes from Pam Blair, the original Val. You decide if the figure she gives us is good enough, blatantly unfair or somewhere in between.

 

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