London is currently being blessed with the opportunity to see the original exhilarating choreography to two legendary Broadway musicals from the 1970s and 50s: A Chorus Line (closing the weekend after next at the London Palladium, so this is your last chance to see it) and West Side Story that has just returned to Sadler’s Wells.
The work of their late, great choreographers Michael Bennett and Jerome Robbins respectively have been directly recreated here by their own personally appointed guardian angels, Bayoork Lee (who was the original Connie in the show, and also the show’s dance captain and assistant to Bennett and his co-choreographer Bob Avian) and Joey McNeely (who worked with Robbins as one of his original cast of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway).
So they carry the torch (and intentions) of the people who mentored them in their bones, and it happily shows in the fidelity as well as exhilaration they have brought to recreating their work here.
Both shows duly offer galvanising examples of the narrative possibilities of dance in musicals, and its ability to ignite the stage in thrilling formations of movement. I am not a dance critic, and can’t begin to summons the language required to describe what they do in words; but I know, as a theatre critic, just how explosive the impact is on audiences. It is movement that speaks of the souls of the characters, and speaks to the souls of those of us watching it.
In West Side Story, dance is used to articulate the angry, restless energy of the Manhattan streets it is set in, as well as the yearning romance at the story’s heart between two lovers drawn from different warring New York communities. The rippling expressiveness of Robbins’s choreography (forever memorialised thanks to the dynamism of the film version) is meticulously reproduced with muscular bravado by McKneely. There are times when it seems the dancers are balletically floating over the stage, then they attack each other with a frightening sense of danger.
This international touring production may be a little scenically threadbare, with a couple of intertwining platforms with fire escape ladders recreating the tenement terraces that much of the show is set on, while only monochrome slide vistas of scenes from New York offer authentic atmosphere. But the show still packs a major wallop of energy, surprise and heartbreak from the emotional content of the score and dancing.
A Chorus Line is a different type of dance musical about a different facet of New York life: it is about dancers themselves, and the hard struggle that getting a job on a chorus line can entail, especially if your director/choreographer is some kind of self-portrayed monster like Zach, Bennett’s stand-in for himself, is here who demands (and gets) a high level of self-exposure from his auditionees over the course of the unbroken two hour evening.
I saw it yet again (my fourth time during this run so far) on Monday evening, and was again utterly overwhelmed by the integrity and daring of the show that remains a knock-out nearly 40 years since it was first created.
I also don’t think we’re likely to see it bettered during my lifetime, with a cast that bring such piercing feeling and concentration to it. No show about dance and dancers has ever made the stakes as personal as this, and this brilliant (mostly) British cast utterly honour it.
Long before the X-Factor made this kind of battle public, here is the ultimate elimination spectacle, and the stakes are high. Especially for Scarlett Strallen’s Cassie, who has managed to previously achieve featured roles, but after a failed attempt at making a career in LA, is now seeking a return to the chorus. Strallen, who herself began her career on this very stage in the chorus of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang before getting her first break to take over the lead role in that show and has since herself done a stint seeking work in LA, lives and breathes the role in her extraordinary dancer limbs, but more importantly in the fibre of lived experience she also brings to it.
But then every single person on this stage has been directed with a fine sense of detail and drama to inhabit their roles without inhibition. Leigh Zimmerman’s Sheila is quite brilliant as she prowls the stage with an overpowering sense of attitude that is clearly defensive but sometimes seems offensive. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s Diana cuts a more piercingly vulnerable figure, from her wonderful rendition of ‘Nothing’ about her experiences at drama school to the haunting ‘What I Did for Love’ that she leads at the show’s end.
These dancers pay a big price, personal as well as professional, to pursue their dreams. Along the way, we get their many stories, none more beautifully told than Gary Wood’s Paul, the gay dancer whose parents discover him a drag revue. The Palladium isn’t a theatre that lends itself easily to a solo monologue, but Wood holds the stage effortlessly with the force of his words and the stillness with which he tells it.
The sheer brio of Bennett’s original staging is revealed in the confidence with which it dares to be a dance musical that pauses to be still in moments like this. But the montage in which the show dovetails in and out of Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love is also Bennett at his propulsive best, thrillingly moving in and out of exhilarating movement.
Stephen Sondheim once perfectly articulated the realities of the business in his song “I’m Still Here” from Follies: “top billing one day, next day you’re touring in stock” (a show whose original production Bennett coincidentally choreographed and co-directed). And I was particularly struck by this while seeing the show on Monday and watching Vicki Lee Taylor’s beautifully concentrated performance as Maggie; she goes direct from the London Palladium the week after she closes there to Southwark’s tiny Union Theatre, to star in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. That’s showbusiness; but that’s also integrity. She’s not missing a beat to continue to test and expand herself, this time with a lead role. (And a run at the London Palladium probably helps, too, to actually afford to be able to work at the Union).
When I was tweeting about this the other night, I parahrased Sondheim to say, “One day you’re at the London Palladium; the next, at the Union.” A couple of followers took this as criticism of the Union, so I quickly clarified that was not my intention; and as another actor responded,
— Tom Giles (@tweetedbytom) August 19, 2013
In a recent blog posting on Whatsonstage, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s civilian husband Rory Svensson offered a fascinating perspective from the wings of what may be the next steps for some of this Chorus Line company: as he writes,
A Chorus Line cuts through the bright lights and colourful sets to what auditioning is really like. And, the public aside, I think it should be seen by more performers. There isn’t a more true to life musical than A Chorus Line. Yes, theatre life is tough, but you’re also part of a privileged few who have a job doing something you really love. With the show closing on 31 August, life goes on for the cast, some of whom may well follow the show in the inevitable tour. Others will find a new show to pay the bills; one or two may even leave the musical theatre business altogether, with A Chorus LIne as their final swan song. Life is about moments, and you only have a limited number of them. But whatever the actors do next, they can all look back with pride and know that they did it… and they did it for love.