Book Review: A Chorus Line and the Musicals of Michael Bennett

I would like you to say that I am a direct

descendant of Terpsichore, and I don’t have a

mother and father, and I wasn’t born in Buffalo,

and all the boring things that are really true

about where I come from.  I wish I was born in a

trunk in a basement of a Broadway theatre, and I

crawled into the pit and looked up and there was

Jule Styne conducting the overture to Gypsy, and

I heard Ethel Merman sing, and the first moment

of like was experiencing a Jerry Robbins musical.

I can’t think of anything more perfect.

-Michael Bennett, 1983

I love learning about dance (the history, culture, and people)  just as much as I love dancing itself.  When I read about dance, I feel like I become a more educated and engaged performer.  Understanding why Fosse choreography requires turned-in feet (because Bob Fosse was pigeon-toed himself) or how come female ballet dancers wear pointe shoes but men traditionally do not (because ballerinas were idealized as ethereal) helps me appreciate every nuance of a style of dance.

Ok, so now I’ll get to the point of this blog post: please read “A Chorus Line and the Musicals of Michael Bennett” by Ken Mandelbaum.  No matter what style of dancer you are, you’ve most likely heard of A Chorus Line , the legendary Broadway musical about life as a dancer – countless auditions, overwhelming rejection, and unmitigated determination and passion.  You can (and should!) go see the live performance or watch the movie version (which does a pretty good job of maintaining the integrity of the stage show), but knowing the story behind A Chorus Line reveals the real magic of the show and why it is the quintessential dancer musical.

I’m not going to give away all of the magical mysteries of A Chorus Line, but here’s a little overview.  Michael Bennett danced on TV’s “Hullabaloo” and as Baby John in the OBC of West Side Story before pursuing his passion for choreography (Follies, Company, Dreamgirls, etc.).  A Chorus Line was his attempt to 1) hire his out-of-work colleagues, 2) reveal the recent changes in musical theater (ie. more versatile performers but fewer and fewer jobs), and 3) “examine the fierce discipline, hard work, and devotion that is required to wind up ‘only’ in the chorus, backing a star but never becoming one.”

The process started when Bennett called a group of his dancer friends to meet up one night.  They started with a dance class to “loosen up” and then sat around in a circle eating, drinking, and talking for nearly twelve hours straight.  The dancers shared their stories – their hopes and dreams, as well as their fears and insecurities.  And long story short, those stories became A Chorus Line.

Alright, fine! I’ll give you some juicy secrets.  But you still have to read the book!

  • Even though the characters in A Chorus Line were based on the stories of Bennett’s friends, some of them didn’t get cast (as themselves!).
  • Bennett was adamant about keeping the show honest and not glamorizing the audition process.  Originally, the character of Cassie (the over-qualified former star who at one time had a little romance with Zach, the show’s director) did not get hired at the end of the show.  However, this depressing ending, however realistic, was quickly changed to win over the hearts of audiences.
  • At one rehearsal, Bennett told a dancer to “fake” falling and getting injured.  When the cast crowded him and cried out  in panic, Bennett called out, “Now, do you all remember what you just did?  Let’s work that into blocking.”
  • The characters of Connie and Richie (Asian and African-American, respectively) originally had a duet about being typed as “ethnic” dancers.  They joked that they didn’t need to be the best dancers because the directors needed them in the show.
  • The set of A Chorus Line is bare – a white line across the black stage and rotating triangular pillars upstage.  The pillars’ three sides represented “the dancer’s world:” 1) a black panel (the black box theater), 2) a mirrored panel (the rehearsal studio), and 3) a sequined panel (the glamor of the stage/lights).

Are you enthralled yet? Now go read the book yourself!

Read All About It!

You’re sitting in the holding room for three hours at an Equity call waiting to (hopefully) get the chance to audition. Here’s a list of some great dance-related books to help you pass the time:

The Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron) is a self-help book to help artists cultivate self-confidence and harness their creative talents. The chapters correlate to a 12-week course which provide resources and techniques that foster artistic inspiration.

All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse (Martin Gottfried) is a thorough biography of Tony, Emmy, and Oscar-winning choreographer, Bob Fosse. Gottfried artfully accounts Fosse’s life experiences which later served to inspire his innovative style.

The Dancer’s Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body and Nutrition (Linda H. Hamilton) describes the wellness program at NYCB that was created to support the physically healthy, emotionally balanced, and mentally prepared dancer in achieving his or her goals and aspirations.

Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life (Donna McKechnie) is the autobiography of Donna McKechnie who inspired and performed the role of “Cassie” in “A Chorus Line.” Her book recounts the roller-coaster career filled with unbelievable successes and disappointments that shaped her as an artist.

Steps in Time (Fred Astaire) is an autobiography of the legendary Fred Astaire (with a great little forward by his dancing partner, Ginger Rogers).  The memoir is honest and full of personal anecdotes (and nearly 50 amazing black and white photographs!).

Dance with Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins (Greg Lawrence) tells the tale of the “nightmare genius” (Tony Walton).  While Robbins is remembered for his legendary works including West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof, his life was plagued with religious, political, and personal conflict.

Ballet and Modern Dance: A Concise History (Jack Anderson) describes the role of dance in history from the time of the Ancient Greeks and French royal courts all the way to contemporary modern and jazz styles.

Diet for Dancers: A Complete Guide to Nutrition and Weight Control (Robin D. Chmelar) was the first published nutritional guide based on research and outlining topics specific to dancers.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (Jeff Chang) provides an extensive overview of the evolution of Hip Hop and its influence as a social and cultural movement.

That’s the Joint: The Hip Hop Studies Reader (Mark Anthony Neal) discusses the gender, racial, social, and political impact of Hip Hop in the United States.

Books on my reading list:
I Was a Dancer (Jacques d’Amboise)
Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology (Karen Clippinger)
TAP! The Greatest Tap Stars and Their Stories 1900-1955 (Rusty Frank)
On the Line: The Creation of A Chorus Line (Robert Viagas)
Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance (Jennifer Dunning)
Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams (Alvin Yudkoff)
Buzz: The Life of Busby Berkeley (Jeffrey Spivak)

Feel free to comment with your reading suggestions!