Has there ever been a “great” musical without that strong pulsating beat at its heart, the gut and guts of the story, the essential element that is the chorus? Imagine The Wizard of Oz without the Munchkins, West Side Story without the Sharks or the Jets, The Sound of Music without the singing nuns? In A Chorus Line, now playing at the London Palladium, the chorus is the musical? But does that make it “great”? Unfortunately not.
When it opened in 1975, A Chorus Line became the longest running musical on Broadway with a record 6,137 performances over 15 years. But the piece is showing its age. What was daring and revealing then, such as emerging homosexuality and hints of domestic abuse, does not have the same emotional impact today.
The premise is a promising one, however. A bunch of 23 hopefuls arrive for auditions for the chorus of a new Broadway show. Their numbers are soon reduced to 17, and each are then put through their paces to decide the final eight who will get the job. “I hope I get it.” they chant, “I really need this job.” Each dancer is brought to life and tells his or her story in a series of songs and monologues.
Part dictator, part Oprah Winfrey, John Partridge as the director Zach bullies and cajoles the aspiring youngsters as well as the desperate veterans into exposing their personal paths towards possible stardom. It is American confessional - loosely based on real life interviews - and instead of being a homogenous, invisible whole, the chorus becomes a line-up of talented and eager individuals. The tales to be told are familiar – poverty, broken homes, pushy mothers and bullying are often the catalyst to a life on the stage.
It may not be a great show, but it does have heart. Other than the occasional mirror, the stage is bare and everyone has their moment in the spotlight, their five minutes of fame. Most of the current cast shine, and inevitably some more than others: Leigh Zimmerman as the impossibly leggy Sheila, whose attitude masks an aching vulnerability, the dignified desperation of Scarlett Strallen, Harry Francis as a seeming escapee from the Royal Ballet School, and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt who rather than dance, certainly sings everyone off the stage.
Like any decent musical, the highlight of the show is the finale. The chorus is formed and an all-singing, all-dancing, glittery, golden group parades in good old-fashioned Hollywood style. The personalities of the dancers are now lost in a chorus line of anonymity. Along with their costumes, their masks are on, and with a smile and a kick, the show begins… and ends.
This first West End revival is closely linked with the original 1975 production by Michael Bennett. Bob Avian, the original co-choreographer, now directs and Baayork Lee, one of the original cast members, restages the choreography. Andrew Lloyd Webber has dedicated this revival to the show’s composer, Marvin Hamlisch, who died last year. The songs are maybe not his greatest, but there are moments of greatness.