There are few musicals in the world quite like A Chorus Line. Set on the stage of a Broadway theater, the show gives audiences a glimpse behind the scenes of what it’s like to work on Broadway, showing the people behind the performance, exploring their stories, motivations, and aspirations.
The show first opened in 1975 and went on to become one of Broadway’s biggest hits, receiving many awards in the years that followed and was even transformed into a successful movie as well. This behind-the-scenes look at A Chorus Line will examine how the origins for the show first emerged, how it was put together, and how it became such a smash success.
The Start of Something Special
To understand the story of A Chorus Line and how it went on to become such a big part of musical theater forever more, we have to go back to the beginning, into the minds of two key people: Michon Peacock and Tony Stevens. Peacock and Stevens were former Broadway dancers, and at the time, Broadway was in a difficult situation.
Due to the fancy sets and flashy costumes associated with productions of the time, shows were becoming more and more expensive to produce and a lot of them flopped, failing to earn back the money they invested. As a result, a lot of dancers at the time were out of work. Peacock and Stevens came up with the idea of making a whole new theater troupe, comprised entirely of Broadway dancers.
Getting Michael Bennett Involved
Peacock and Stevens decided to speak to their friend, Michael Bennett, about their idea. Bennett was a musical theater director, writer, choreographer, and dancer. He was a man who lived and breathed Broadway, and he was happy to hear from his friends about their idea.
It turned out that Bennett himself had been pondering a similar concept at the time. He wanted to make an entire show with nothing but Broadway dancers, rather than a troupe. Little did the trio know at the time that right there and then, they were sowing the seeds of what would become one of the best known and most beloved musicals ever made.
Michael Bennett Before A Chorus Line
Michael Bennett was born on April 8, 1943 in Buffalo, New York. He was the son of an Italian American factory worker and a Jewish secretary. In his teenage years, he studied dance and choreography, going on to stage various shows at his own high school before dropping out of education to take on the role of Baby John in West Side Story.
Bennett toured the US and Europe with West Side Story, eventually becoming a Broadway dancer in the early 1960s. He appeared in various shows and made his choreographic debut with A Joyful Noise in 1966. His early attempts proved unsuccessful, but in ’68, he choreographed Promises, Promises, which went on to become a big hit.
Time to Do Things Differently
Bennett, Peacock, and Stevens all agreed that it was time for something different in their lives. Broadway dancers all around them were struggling, and they wanted to provide some sort of escape or solution for those in need of help. Together, they came up with an idea. This idea would set the foundations for A Chorus Line and all the success that followed.
They decided to get a group of dancers together in January of 1974 and interview them all, recording the whole thing and asking the dancers to share their own personal stories, experiences, highs, and lows. On a snowy night, they brought this unique idea to life.
The Dancer Interviews Begin
The trio invited 19 of Broadway’s best dancers. The group assembled at the Nickolaus Exercise Center on East 23rd St on January 26, 1974. The group sat in a circle on the floor, and a tape recorder was turned on. Peacock and Stevens began the interviews, with Bennett initially in the role of observer, but he quickly got more involved as the night wore on.
For about 12 hours, the dancers told their stories. They shared their own personal motivations, experiences, aspirations, and tragedies. Some of them told stories of child abuse and neglect, others shared tales of divorce and heartbreak. Each one of them had a meaningful and impactful tale to tell.
The Foundation of a Legendary Musical
The dancers continued to tell their stories. Each one began by stating their name and telling the group where they were born, before going on to explain why they had started dancing and what events in their lives had led them to that point.
All kinds of issues were raised during the discussion, and the talks went on for so long that a second evening of interviews had to be recorded. Bennett paid each dancer just one dollar for their stories. And as he listened, he started to feel that he was hearing the foundations of a story he wanted to tell and a show he wanted to help make.
A Group Therapy Session
Many of the dancers who were there for those early interviews described how the talks gradually transformed into a kind of “group therapy session” in which everyone was encouraged to freely share their most personal stories and secrets without any kind of judgment or criticism.
Many of the dancers stated that they were very nervous that night, and some of them were scared to even open up and say anything at all. Others, such as Priscilla Lopez and Donna McKechnie, were more open with their experiences, having had therapy of their own in the past. Their openness and honesty helped some of the other dancers feel more at ease.
A Special Experience for Those Involved
When asked about the interviews later on, Michael Bennett stated, “We all walked out of those talks feeling that it had been a special time.” He added that dancers tend to be “very open people” that are able to share their stories and want to tell people about themselves. Many of those involved, during later interviews, also stated that they had come away from the experience feeling that it had been a positive one.
As for Bennett, he wasn’t initially sure what to do next. He had many hours of recorded stories and truths, re-listening to them again and again in the months that followed. He eventually realized that the tapes were, in a way, a type of audition, stating “what those kids had been doing was auditioning their lives for me”. It was then that he had the idea of creating a show based on the concept of the audition process.
Turning a Dream into Reality
After looking back at the dancers’ stories and thoughts, Bennett had a dream of how he wanted to bring their stories to the stage. But for the time being, it was only an idea in his mind. He needed to contact other people in order to bring that idea to life. So, one of the first things he did was contact Joseph Papp.
Papp was the founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival and a big name in musical theater at the time. Bennett told Papp all about the interviews and his idea to create a show based on the experiences of these dancers. Fortunately, Papp fell in love with the idea right away. He gave Bennett plenty of workshop time to put the pieces of the project together, promising to open the show in his own theater complex when it was ready.
Assembling a Team to Make Magic Happen
After getting Papp’s approval and knowing that this show could truly happen, Bennett had to start getting to work on putting a team together. One of the first people he contacted was Nicholas Dante. Dante was one of the original dancers who Bennett had interviewed on that cold January night.
His own story was adapted for the final show, turning into part of Paul’s story. As well as being a dancer, Dante was also a writer. He worked with Bennett to take the many hours of recordings from the interviews and try to transform them into a story. Other important people brought on board included Bob Avian and Marvin Hamlisch.
Experienced Choreographer Bob Avian
Bennett was an accomplished and successful choreographer, but he wanted a little help with the choreography for A Chorus Line in order to make the show the best it could be. So, he decided to approach his long-time friend and collaborator, Bob Avian. Born in NYC, Bob Avian spent his entire life in the theater.
He started off dancing in Broadway shows like West Side Story and Funny Girl, as well as working as a production assistant on the likes of I Do! I Do! and Twigs. He met Bennett on the European tour of West Side Story and the pair worked together on many shows like Promises, Promises, Coco, Company, Seesaw, and God’s Favorite.
Musical Maestro Marvin Hamlisch
Next, Bennett needed someone to write the score. He really wanted Academy Award winner, Marvin Hamlisch, for the role and approached Hamlisch with a pitch for A Chorus Line. It turned out that Hamlisch had always wanted to write the score for a Broadway musical, so he was eager to accept.
Hamlisch was born in New York in 1944 to Jewish parents. He first job was as a rehearsal pianist on Funny Girl, and he later wrote his first film score for The Swimmer. After that, he started writing music for lots of films like The Sting and The Way We Were. He won Academy Awards for Best Original Song and Best Original Dramatic Score for his work on those movies.
Putting the Cast Together
After putting together a dream team to write the score and choreograph the dancers, Bennett and co. had to start putting their cast together. Eight of the original dancers from the interviews were actually brought on as cast members to play versions of themselves from the stories they’d shared. Others were brought on after lengthy audition processes, with many hopeful dancers sadly being turned away.
Once the cast had been assembled, the workshopping began to bring the show to life and to start fleshing out the initial ideas. There wasn’t actually any kind of script to start off with, so the early workshop process for the cast was quite unique and a lot of the characters and ideas developed organically over time.
Leading Lady Donna McKechnie
Cassie is undoubtedly one of the show’s true stars. She was played by Donna McKechnie in the original Broadway production. Born in 1942 in Michigan, McKechnie started ballet at the age of five and studied dance for years. McKechnie’s parents were very much against her dreams of heading to New York to become a professional dancer, but she went ahead with her plans anyway.
Unfortunately, she was rejected by the American Ballet Theater and ended up leaving a Radio City job to work at the Carousel Theater in Massachusetts. She bounced from job to job, appearing in commercials for brands like Welch’s Grape Juice and dancing on NBC’s Hullabaloo, before meeting Michael Bennett and eventually attending the initial dancer interviews. Down on her luck at the time, she went on to enjoy great success in A Chorus Line.
Kelly Bishop’s Story Formed the Basis of Sheila
Kelly Bishop is another star of the show who appeared at the group meetings in 1974 and went on to be awarded a spot in the cast. She plays the part of Sheila Bryant, and Bishop’s own experiences were used to form the character’s background too. Born in Colorado Springs, Bishop was inspired by her mother to become a dancer.
She trained in ballet as a child and set off for New York City as soon as she turned 18 in order to pursue a career on Broadway. She got a job at Radio City and danced around the nation in the years that followed before getting her first Broadway role in Golden Rainbow in 1967.
Diana Morales was played by Priscilla Lopez. Again, as with characters like Cassie and Sheila, Diana’s story was based around the real-life experiences of Lopez. Born in the Bronx to a Puerto Rican family, Lopez graduated from Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts, majoring in drama.
As a teen, she was cast in a Broadway version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The show was a huge flop, fraught with problems, and had to close after just four previews. Lopez experienced a lot of humiliation at school from both teachers and classmates, and these experiences were incorporated into the character of Diana.
The development process for A Chorus Line was unique in many ways. The production team had lots of different ideas about how they wanted the show to play out. Some of these ideas worked, while others were rejected or altered during the process. In the end, the show opened up Off Broadway on April 15 of 1975.
There was huge hype around the performance and tickets sold out almost immediately. In response, Joseph Papp moved the production to Broadway, where it opened on July 25 at the Shubert Theatre. And in many ways, it went on to save Broadway as we know it. Before the show started, attendances at Broadway were at almost an all-time low of around 6.6 million. After A Chorus Line, those figures rose to 8.8 million.
Connecting with People on a Deep Level
There are many reasons why A Chorus Line was such an immediate smash hit and went on to enjoy so much success, and a lot of the cast and production staff feel that a big part of the show’s appeal was the way in which people could connect to the stories and characters featured within it.
Even though the show was ostensibly about the lives of dancers, it portrayed stories that could resonate with people from all walks of life. It talked about feelings of loss, hope, fear, humiliation, aspiration, passion, and more, and anyone who had ever had dreams and tried to make them come true could feel some sort of connection with the people in this particular show.
Awards and Broadway Records
The original Broadway production of A Chorus Line was a huge hit not just with fans of theater and musicals, but with critics and awards authorities too. It was nominated for no less than 12 Tony Awards in total, winning nine of them, including Best Musical and Best Score. McKechnie won the Best Actress Tony for her portrayal of Cassie, while Sammy Williams won the Best Featured Actor Tony for his portrayal of Paul, and Kelly Bishop also won a Tony too.
The show also won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. It ran for 6,137 performances, becoming the longest-running production in the history of Broadway (a record that was later surpassed by Cats).
Michael Bennett After A Chorus Line
A Chorus Line was arguably Michael Bennett’s greatest work. He won the Best Director Tony for his work on the show and enjoyed a lot of success in the years that followed, but he did also say that the show harmed his career in some ways as he had to devote so much time and energy to the musical and all of its associations that he didn’t have as much time for other projects.
Still, he eventually found time to work on Ballroom, a show that wasn’t as financially successful but still got seven Tony nominations and a Best Choreography win. In 1981, he directed Dreamgirls, which was another huge hit, and he worked on some more projects in the years that followed. His failing health led to him withdrawing from a West End production of Chess in the 1980s and he died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1986 at the age of 44.
The Origins of the Movie Version
Many people will be familiar with the 1985 movie version of A Chorus Line, as well as the Broadway show itself. As with many other successful musicals, it seemed inevitable that a movie version of A Chorus Line would be made eventually, and the idea actually started floating around before the musical had even premiered.
It was sometime in May of 1975 that movie producer duo Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, who had successfully worked together on the movie version of Cabaret, came to Joseph Papp, producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival. It was Papp who had helped the production move to Broadway, and Feuer and Martin were ready to offer him $150,000 for the film rights to his new musical: A Chorus Line.
They Knew This Was Something Special
A Chorus Line hadn’t opened at the time of Feuer and Martin’s offer. It was only in previews back then, and barely anyone had seen it, but those in the industry were already talking about the show with a lot of excitement in their voices, and that was enough for Feuer and Martin.
They had also seen a preview themselves and burst into tears by the end. Unfortunately for them, this movie production wouldn’t be as easy or as cheap as they hoped. Universal Pictures ended up having to pay $5.5 million for the film rights, as well as agreeing to pay royalties for all rentals beyond $30 million.
Bringing Bennett on Board
The movie studio hoped that they’d be able to work with Michael Bennett himself in order to bring his unique vision to the big screen. They hired him as the director and producer and hoped he’d present a faithful adaptation of the stage show in film form. However, Bennett had other ideas.
Bennett wanted to frame the film a little differently to the show. He had the idea of making the film all about dancers auditioning to cast the movie version of the stage play, rather than a direct adaptation. Unfortunately for him, the studio that was funding the project didn’t agree with this idea, and he had to walk away from the project.
Stuck in Development Hell
The phrase “development hell” or “production hell” is used for films and other media properties that are stuck in the development phase for a very long time, often passing from director to director and script to script with no clear end in sight and a lot of time and money wasted in the process. Many of these projects don’t even end up getting made at all.
For a while, it seemed that this might be the fate of the movie version of A Chorus Line too. After Bennett left the project, many other directors turned it down, with a lot of them arguing that the show wouldn’t work well on the big screen and that it was too beloved in its original format.
Finally, A Director Agrees to the Project
Almost a decade after the film was first being talked about by Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, a director was finally hired to helm the project once and for all. This was Richard Attenborough, the famous English director time (and the brother of David Attenborough) who was already regarded as one of the greats of his, having just won two Academy Awards for Gandhi.
In many ways, the arrival of Attenborough was seen as good news. He was very successful at the time, having enjoyed a long acting career and gradually shifted into a direction into the 1970s and 80s. However, there were still some fears and doubts about how a British director might adapt what was seen as a very typically American story.
Richard Attenborough Before A Chorus Line
Richard Attenborough was an English actor, born on 29 August 1923 in Cambridge, England. Educated in Leicester, he went on to study at RADA, one of the most prestigious acting schools in the world. During the Second World War, Attenborough served in the Royal Air Force, but acting had always been his dream.
He’d already started to act in local theater shows during his studies in Leicester, getting his first major role in a 1944 crime film called The Hundred Pound Window. He also had success on stage, appearing in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap on the West End. Some of his other big successes included The Great Escape and 10 Rillington Place. In the 70s, he moved into directing, winning a Best Director Oscar for Gandhi in 1982.
Richard Attenborough After A Chorus Line
A Chorus Line wouldn’t turn out to be a shining mark on Attenborough’s directorial career, but it didn’t stop him from having a wonderful few decades afterward. After the movie premiered, he started to take more time in between projects to choose the right films and make sure that everything he did was as good as it could be.
He directed Robert Downey Jr. to a Best Actor nomination with 1992’s Chaplin, before appearing in one of his most famous acting roles as John Hammond in 1993’s Jurassic Park. Attenborough also starred as Kris Kringle in 1994’s Miracle on 34th Street, going on to appear in the Jurassic Park sequel to reprise his role as John Hammond and enjoying some success with his last directed film, Closing the Ring, in 2007. He passed away in August of 2014, a few days before his 91st birthday.
Casting a Chorus Line
Once Attenborough had been brought on board, the team behind the movie had to start working on casting the various roles and putting together a team of actors, singers, and dancers who they felt could bring the story to life. A lot of people were interested in the project, with Madonna herself even auditioning for a dancing role but being rejected by Attenborough.
Some of the cast were people who had already appeared in the Broadway show or other versions of it, like Matt West, Vicki Frederick, and Pam Klinger. Some other cast members, like Gregg Burge and Charles McGowan, hadn’t appeared in the theatrical show but joined up with it after the movie. The most important role of all to cast was Zach, and the part was given to Michael Douglas.
Michael Douglas Before A Chorus Line
Michael Douglas was a hugely successful and famous actor and producer before appearing in A Chorus Line, but many of his best films were still to come. Born in New Jersey in 1944 to actors Kirk Douglas and Diana Dill, he studied acting at The American Place Theatre. Douglas made his breakthrough on TV in the late 60s and started to appear in some movies around the same time too.
He enjoyed a lot of success on the small screen in The Streets of San Francisco, as well as becoming well known for his production talents after producing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He also appeared in Coma, Running, and The China Syndrome.
Michael Douglas After A Chorus Line
After starring in A Chorus Line, the career of Michael Douglas really started to take off. In 1984, he appeared in Romancing the Stone, which was the first big box office success for director Robert Zemeckis. A year later, the film’s sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, also came out to great financial success as well.
In the years that followed, Douglas performed in some of his most iconic roles in movies like Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, The War of the Roses, Black Rain, and Basic Instinct. His success continued into the 90s and then the 2000s, while younger viewers might recognize him for his roles in the Marvel Universe movies as Hank Pym.
Some Big Changes from the Musical
Many movie versions of musicals try to make some changes in order to make the film more fitting for the big screen or to adjust the story and songs a little to make the film feel like its own separate entity. Sometimes, this goes well, like with Cabaret. Other times, it doesn’t quite work out. Unfortunately, A Chorus Line is an example of the latter category.
The movie’s plot was changed substantially, with the plot being narrowed down a lot to focus primarily on Zach and Cassie, ignoring a lot of the other characters. Ensemble songs like “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” are cut from the film to make way for more flashback scenes for Zach and Cassie, and Cassie’s big movie song, “Let Me Dance For You” was seen by fans as a poor replacement for her stage song, “The Music and the Mirror”.
A Mixed Response from the Critics
When the film was finally released, critics were divided in their opinions on whether or not it could be called a triumph. Vincent Canby in The New York Times stated that “they said that A Chorus Line couldn’t be done – and this time they were right”. Canby concluded that the film would have been better off not being made, calling Attenborough’s movie “fatally halfhearted”.
One of the most esteemed reviews of all time, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times, had a different view. Ebert acknowledged that the film might not please all the “purists” who were hoping for a movie version of the stage show, but was pleased to see the movie do things differently from the original show, calling it “one of the most intelligent and compelling movie musicals in a long time”.
Not a Financial Success
The film was not a critical success, with only a 40% approval rating on the popular movie critic aggregation website, and it wasn’t a financial success either. It seemed that the general public tended to agree with the more negative reviews, leading to the movie’s poor return.
A Chorus Line had a budget of $25 million but only made around $14.2 million at the box office, failing to recoup the initial investment that had been made. It didn’t hit the famed $30 million figure that would have led to additional profits for the theater team. It was eventually released on DVD in 2003 and later got a Blu-ray re-release in 2014.
A Poor Film, But An Incredible Legacy
Even though the movie version of A Chorus Line was not seen as a success, either commercially or critically, it didn’t tarnish the incredible legacy of the musical itself. A Chorus Line is still seen today as one of the best ever Broadway shows and is still talked about, analyzed, and discussed by critics and fans alike.
The show had a 2006 Broadway revival, which received two more Tony nominations, as well as a 2012 Australian revival, which won a Helpmann award for Best Musical. There was also a London revival in 2013, which received a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Best Musical Revival.
The 2006 Revival of A Chorus Line
The 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line opened up in October of that year at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater. It ran for over 750 performances, recouping its original $8 million budget in the first 19 weeks of its two-year stint. Bob Avian was in charge of direction, with Baayork Lee, who played Connie Wong in the original Broadway production, being in charge of choreography.
A 2008 documentary entitled Every Little Step was created to follow the casting process for this revival, looking at the history of A Chorus Line itself and featuring the original interviews of Broadway dancers with Michael Bennett. The documentary was a critical success. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called it “a thrilling combination of documentary and musical dazzler”.
Other 21st Century Versions
A Chorus Line has had many other versions and recreations throughout the 21st century. A 2008 touring production began at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and toured for just over a year. The 2012 Australian version was also a huge success, being directed by Baayork Lee and even being performed in Singapore.
The West End also welcomed a revival in 2013. It ran from February through to August, with Bob Avian, the original choreographer, taking on the directorial duties. In 2018, the New York City Center put on a performance of A Chorus Line at their annual gala, with Bob Avian directing, and a Spanish-language version of the musical was performed in Malaga in 2019. Some reports even suggest that a new revival run might happen in 2025.
Countless References Throughout Pop Culture
Major theatrical successes often get referenced, mentioned, or honored in other forms of media throughout popular culture, and A Chorus Line has been no different. Just shortly after the musical opened, the songs “One” and “What I Did For Love” were being performed by the cast of The Brady Bunch. Years later, shows like Scrubs, House MD, and South Park all made references to the show.
Even The Simpsons made a reference to the musical; in the Treehouse of Horror V episode, the Simpson family and Groundskeeper Willie sing their own version of “One”. Meanwhile, an episode of Ally McBeal involved a character auditioning for a local production of A Chorus Line, singing several songs in the process.
Musical Covers from Some Big Stars
Over the years, we’ve also seen various famous singers and stars covering some of the best-known songs from A Chorus Line in their own distinctive styles. The song “What I Did For Love”, for example, was covered by legendary artist Aretha Franklin on her 1977 album, Sweet Passion. The Three Degrees also covered What I Did For Love on Standing Up For Love, their ’77 album.
Me First and the Gimme Gimmes covered the song on their ’99 album, Are a Drag, and Lea Michele did her own version of the song to kick off the second season of TV’s Glee. Several other songs from the show appeared in Glee, performed by various cast members like Naya Rivera, Chris Colfer, and Jenna Ushkowitz.
A Show That Will Never Be Forgotten
A Chorus Line changed musical theater forever. It was a true breakthrough for Broadway, going in a totally opposite direction to so many other shows. It didn’t need fancy sets and scenery, exotic costumes, or established leading stars. In many ways, it was an “anti-musical” for the time.
But it turned into one of Broadway’s greatest success stories, winning so many awards, inspiring countless other productions that followed, and forging its own place in American musical theater culture forevermore. It’s a show that continues to be adored and enjoyed to this day, with more performances sure to be appreciated in the future and a truly unmatched legacy.