'A Chorus Line' runs July 13–Aug. 12 at Cabrillo Crocker Theater. Photo by Jana Marcus.
In 1975, A Chorus Line shattered and rebuilt the world of musical theater. Within six months of its Broadway opening, before the world had had a chance to pick its jaw up off the ground, most of the cast went to London for the international tour. Finally, after six months of magazine covers, nine Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, they returned to the United States. Janie Scott was 25 at the time and just starting her dancing career. When she saw A Chorus Line in San Francisco, it changed her life forever.
In awe of what she’d seen, an inexperienced but determined Scott decided to attend an open call for dancers held before the show left town. “I thought, Well, I have to at least say I went,” Scott remembers. “One day I’m going to tell this story to my grandchildren and I have to at least tell them that. ‘I did go audition for that show. Grandma didn’t make it, but she was there! With her dance bag and her number.’”
However, five hours into the audition process, she hadn’t been cut and was reconsidering her narrative. “About halfway through I was thinking, ‘Maybe I can do this,’” Scott says, her eyes glittering with the memory. “And then you start to salivate and think, ‘I want this. Wow, I really want this.’”
Scott ended up dancing her way into a spot on the first national tour of A Chorus Line, performing multiple roles and touring with the company for seven months.
Now, in 2012, Scott radiates the same intensity and strength she had almost 40 years ago, but none of the naivete. She’s harnessing a lifetime of skill and experience, as well as her time on the tour, to direct and choreograph A Chorus Line for the 31st season at Cabrillo Stage. “I’ve been waiting for the right place, right time, right creative staff and a place that I thought I could do it in the way and at the level that I really wanted to do it. This is it. This is the time and place,” Scott says.
A Chorus Line broke the mold in 1975 by forgoing scene changes, a set, an overture and an intermission—not to mention by shining a light on the lives of anonymous performers without lines whose characters don’t even have names. Don Adkins, the musical director for the show and teacher at Cabrillo College, explains, “It absolutely changed everything. After A Chorus Linehappened, people couldn’t do things the same old way. Or if they did, they knew they were doing them the same old way. If they wanted to do it the new way, they had to figure out how to follow A Chorus Line.”
Adkins was deeply affected by the show when he saw it in the ’70s in Portland. “I was, like Janie, absolutely stunned by the show. It was so different from what a musical was. It was very exciting.”
In A Chorus Line, 17 dancers vie for spots on a chorus line for an upcoming show. During the first number, they make it through the cutthroat audition process, proving that each one is very talented. At this point, the director compels them to divulge their backgrounds and explore their motives behind entering this competitive and often fruitless career in order to earn a precious spot on the line. With reluctance, the dancers reveal their pasts. Some share painful adolescent memories, their only relief found in watching dancers arabesque at the ballet. Others describe frustrating physical obstacles and complicated family lives.
“The audience gets to see how competitive it is,” Scott explains. “And the question is: ‘Why? Why would you go through all that just to dance behind the star? Why do people do that? And keep doing that?’ I think it highlights the passion, drive, meaning and reasoning of why people choose this path and what it means to them.”
But you don’t have to be an aspiring Broadway star to understand these characters’ passion. The message translates to any ambitious endeavor requiring sacrifice. “Everyone can find something to cling onto,” says
performer Adam Theodore Barry. “It’s not really hard to act this show because we’ve all been there.”
The theme of sacrifice animates the number “What I Did for Love,” which is sung by Felton native Zoë Schneider-Smith’s character, Diana. “It’s all about wanting something and what you give to get there. It doesn’t matter if you’re broke or out of a job, you do it because you love it,” says Schneider-Smith. “And that is a universal thing everyone can connect to, because it’s all about wanting something and reaching out to it and going the extra mile to do what you love.”
Although there have been many versions and reproductions of this iconic play, Scott has decided to keep her production as close to the original version as possible. “I was fortunate enough to work with Michael Bennett,” she says, referring to the director and choreographer who won two Tonys for his work on the original production, “and I really wanted to be able to share what I had gotten from working with him and Bob Avian (his co-choreographer), to be able to pass on the things he said and the way he went with things as much as I could.”
The performers couldn’t be more thrilled. They explain, not without a note of disdain, that some productions alter aspects of the play because they might be too difficult for the performers at hand. The extremely athletic choreography requires a great deal of endurance, versatility and strong technical training in ballet, jazz and tap. Sometimes it’s difficult to find triple threat performers that fit the bill.
Directors also might choose to try and modernize their production in different ways, although Scott insists that it must be set in 1975 for the themes to ring true.
“You can’t set it in 2012 without changing elements of the script,” Scott insists. “And although the message rings true today, we have a completely different breed of dancers today than we did then.”
Barry, an Equity performer and Campbell native, is playing the character Mike, a fiery and masculine Italian from New Jersey. Although it’s Barry’s first time at Cabrillo Stage, he, like many performers, is very familiar with this particular piece. “I learned the dance combinations 10 years ago just from watching the movie,” he says. “The story is the ultimate art-imitating-life-imitating-art. There’s something universal about this show for all performers.”
Schneider-Smith, no stranger to Cabrillo Stage, has performed with the company for the last four seasons. Friendly but vivid and intense, Schneider-Smith is earning her hard knocks at the Boston Conservatory for Musical Theater. “For a dancer, A Chorus Line is sort of The Great Play to be in,” she says. “And I absolutely love working with Janie. When I heard she was directing and choreographing this show, I knew I had to be in it.”
Learning the original choreography with a member of the original national tour has been no cakewalk, though. Says Barry, “Rehearsals are kicking my butt every single night, and I am loving it. It’s a lot of work, and it’s very detail-oriented, but I’m living out a dream. Andwith the original choreography, the way I always played it out in my head.”
Says Scott, “People who have worked for me in the past know that’s what I ask and what I do. If they’re struggling with something, I expect them to go home and come back with it done the next day. Which is standard for the type of production that we’re doing.”
No one seems to be complaining.
“We all want the show to be as amazing as it possibly could be. She’s a great director to be working with,” says Barry. “She told us, ‘I am going to kill you. You are going to fall. If you don’t fall, I don’t know what you’re doing here.’ And I was the first to fall.” Schneider-Smith agrees. “She’s so supportive and encouraging. It’s really hard work, but we’re having the time of our lives.”
The performers truly are creating art to imitate a life they love, and their passion is palpable. “I want to wow the audience with the caliber of this production from the minute the lights come up. There’s a high quality of performance at Cabrillo Stage, and I always want to surpass that,” says Scott. “I want the company to be able to walk away knowing that they did things they didn’t think they could do, and for them to have a tiny slice of my experience with this show.”
With a wry smile, Schenider-Smith sums up their expectations with one memorable line from the show: “It’s going to be ‘One Singular Sensation!’”
A CHORUS LINE
July 13–Aug. 12
Cabrillo Crocker Theater
Tickets $16–42 at www.cabrillostage.com or 831.479.6154