On Friday, my friend JJ and I saw A Chorus Line at the Hollywood Bowl, a musical which has seen an unusual, relative reversal in fortunes.
In 1975, it opened the month after the original Broadway production of Chicago. A Chorus Line ran for 15 years, getting a record; Chicago for two.
When I visited New York City in 2007, JJ took me to the revivals of both musicals. Chicago had been playing for 11 years, and still is now, making it the longest revival in Broadway history. It’s also the longest-running American musical in Broadway history: a point well-made in the publicity.
A Chorus Line? It opened in 2006 and closed in 2008.
I use the word relative because all four productions have been successful, but why has Chicago done so much better in recent years? And what does it say about us?
The revival saves a lot of money by performing basically in front of black drapes. Chita Rivera (who played the original Velma Kelly) has criticised that, but the story, songs and dancing are so strong that they don’t need expensive sets. But the same could be said for both versions of A Chorus Line, so that can only be part of the answer.
The Chicago revival casts people who generate interest without being super-expensive. JJ told me that Melanie Griffith took on the role of Roxy Hart. Melanie Griffith? Can she sing? Exactly. People came to find out. Roxy wants to be a star, but, as one of the songs says, she’s got no talent, so a skilled actress can take on the role without sounding like Bernadette Peters.
The movie A Chorus Line was not a hit, but Chicago won the 2002 Best Picture Oscar. There was a time when it was considered bad for business to have a production on Broadway or the West End and in the cinemas at the same time. For example, the worst investment in history was the film rights to the Agatha Christie play The Mousetrap. There was a clause in the contract that the film could only be made after the play had finished its initial West End run. The Mousetrap opened in 1952 and is still going today…
The thinking on film versions has changed in recent years. In 2007, JJ and I saw the Broadway version of Hairspray, then went straight to a cinema to watch the movie. Chicago the movie seems to have helped the stage show and vice versa.
But a lot of the more recent success of Chicago comes from the times in which we live, and the people we have become.
I guess there have always been people like Roxy, but in the age of reality TV, and more recently YouTube, there are more opportunities for them to have a fleeting amount of huge attention. I should know. A lot of telephone calls were made around Australia the night I appeared on the blue wig and fuchsia gown on Rose Porteous’ reality TV show.
Chicago was probably too cynical for 1975, even though the United States had just experienced Watergate. It was director/choreographer/co-writer Bob Fosse’s reaction to that scandal.
Billy Flynn sang ‘All I care about is love’ when he cared about nothing of the kind, whereas A Chorus Line’s ‘What I Did For Love’ was entirely sincere. The latter showed how chorus dancers were prepared to have setbacks and job insecurity and low pay and a short shelf live because they were doing what they loved. Though after seeing this latest production, I, from our more cynical age, told JJ: ‘You do realise that song’s the worst thing to happen to choruses. It says it’s OK to exploit them because they’re doing it for love, and it means the producers can give more to stars who do it for money.’ I was trying to stir JJ, but there was some truth in what I said.
Nineteen seventy-five was only the year after The Brady Bunch had finished its original run. In 2016, Carol Brady is no longer one of the leading mother figures on television, but Cersei ‘I Choose Violence’ Lannister is – except she isn’t a mother anymore. Of the three children she had to her twin brother, one killed himself after she blew up his wife, and the other two were murdered.
So how did the Hollywood Bowl version of A Chorus Line stack up in this different era?
I thought that the opening musical number went on too long. Attention spans have reduced since 1975. (On the plane to LA, I watched a bit of the 1969 movie Hello, Dolly! and found that the title song seemed to go on and on.)
But once the performers started telling their stories, I was hooked.
The strong cast included Robert Fairchild from An American in Paris, plus Mara Davi and Krysta Rodriguez, who I recognised from the increasingly silly second season of Smash. I’m glad they’re doing work that better suits their ample talents.
When I saw the Broadway version in 2007, the main character Zach was largely just a voice, but we saw a lot more of him (and his muscular arms) on Friday night.
Even with binoculars, everyone looked a long way off, but the video screens helped. I’m glad we hired the one dollar cushions, but if we hadn’t, I don’t think the hard seats would have distracted me much from the show.
So to rephrase my initial question: is an optimistic show about love, sacrifice and survival still relevant in the era of reality TV and Game of Thrones? The answer is an overwhelming yes.