New from Applause Books: A Chorus Line FAQ!
When September rolls around, there are always new Broadway shows right behind it. Applause Books is celebrating the new Broadway season — and one of the most popular and successful musicals of all time — with A Chorus Line FAQ by Tom Rowan. Here’s an excerpt from Tom’s introduction!
A Chorus Line is, arguably, the most popular and successful American musical of all time. It opened in 1975 and won nine Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and a slew of other awards. In 1983, it broke the record as the longest-running show in Broadway history: a distinction it held for fourteen years. Ten different touring companies have crisscrossed the nation, and the show has been translated into over twenty languages and produced all over the world. A hit Broadway revival in 2006, which ran for two years, and its subsequent tours revived interest in the show, and today it is nearly always onstage somewhere, in regional theatres, summer stock venues, dinner theatres, community theatres, high schools, and colleges.
What is the appeal of this unique musical, and how has it so thoroughly captured, and held, the imagination of the American public?
The show plays directly into dreams and values that are deeply rooted in the American psyche. The idea of an audition, a competition, a group of people risking it all for a job—to prove they’re the best—has long been a central trope in our culture. It’s one of the reasons Americans are so obsessed with sports, or beauty pageants. Baayork Lee has referred to A Chorus Line as “the first reality show,” and indeed, the explosion in the 1990s and 2000s of competition-based reality TV programs fed into that same American obsession with Cinderella stories: the every man putting himself on the line for a chance at a dream, being judged a winner or a loser. Anyone who’s ever gone on a job interview can identify with the auditionees fighting for an opportunity to do what they love—and let’s admit it, once in a while we all like, if only vicariously, to be the judge as well, the one actually making the selections. A Chorus Line gave us a chance to root for the underdog, to choose our favorites, and then hold our breath till we found out who got the job—and weep for those who didn’t. Current television shows like American Idol, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, Dancing with the Stars, and so forth satisfy those same deep-seated needs. There have even been a few (such as the British How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and the American Grease: You’re the One That I Want!) where the prize was an actual role in a West End or Broadway musical!
A closer look, though, reveals that A Chorus Line is something subtler, something deeper than this, perhaps even slyly subversive. Dancers in the show have expressed indignation at the existence of programs like You’re the One That I Want!; the implication that anybody off the street could be a Broadway star seems to negate the years of discipline and self-sacrifice and grueling, expensive training real dancers commit to in pursuit of their goals. And after all, the seventeen auditionees standing on that white line are not competing for a shot at stardom or celebrity; as the show’s finale makes startlingly clear, they are asking for a chanceto dance in a uniform, anonymous kick line behind a star. It’s love of the work itself that drives them, not any misplaced desire for wealth (which won’t be forthcoming in any case) or the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. Somewhere in there can perhaps be seen a metaphorical critique of the American dream: do we chase success by competing to be as much like everybody else as possible?