No musical has ever offered quite as uncompromising, harsh and heartfelt a glimpse at the sheer grit, determination and sometimes desperation behind the apparent glamour of the careers of hoofers as A Chorus Line, Broadway’s defining tribute to the rank-and-file members who make up its backbone. And the ultimate paradox of Michael Bennett’s modern masterpiece is that the dazzling ensemble cast is itself full of star turns.
A scene from A Chorus Line at the Palladium, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
The show has been spellbindingly revived in London by its original co-choreographer Bob Avian, who now directs, and Baayork Lee, who is one of the show’s original cast faithfully restaging its choreography.
Here’s a musical that celebrates the chorus, yet is rich in individuality. The auditionees for a new show must perform for its director Zach (the buff, bearded John Partridge, who proves that he can more than do it himself but is mostly heard as a disembodied, constantly challenging voice on a mic from the back of the stalls). There are 17 auditionees in the final line-up who Zach and his assistant Larry (former New Adventures dancer Alastair Postlethwaite) put through their paces, but only four boys and four girls will make the final cut.
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 began her career on this very stage in the chorus of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang before taking over the lead role in that show, lives and breathes the part. She also once spent time searching for work in LA and this helps her bring the fibre of lived experience - as well as her extraordinary dancer’s limbs - to Cassie.
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.
These dancers pay a heavy 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 in 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.
A Chorus Line speaks loudest to those in the business, but it is also a tale of universal struggle, of striving to fulfil a dream, of the brutality of rejection, and the opportunity to gain a second chance in life. Who hasn’t experienced each of those?
After the sudden death of its composer Marvin Hamlisch last August, the show is also now a tribute to him (as well as writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, who co-wrote the book, and lyricist Edward Kleban). But as long as this show - now 38 years old - is playing, they will be remembered forever. It is its own unmissable living memorial.