A Chorus Line –Passion and Dance in the Dawn of Activism and at the Dusk of Musicals
It goes without saying that musical trailblazers Hammerstein and Rodgers guided musical theaters to success through the early 1960s. With musicals such as Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, Fiorello! and How To Succeed In Business, Hammerstein’s and Rodger’s linear plot formula transcended as a staple. At first, these kinds of stories — establishing the scene and characters, dramatizing internal and external agony between characters and themselves, implementing hints of travesty around the bend, unsurprisingly reaching the climax, and then diligently piecing together what’s left (resolution) — ironically, kept the audiences hungry for more. However, on the contrary to Oscar Wilde’s 1889 essay, that ‘life imitates art far more than art imitates life’, the changing life of the 1970s, certainly glitched all imitations between musicals and life. A Chorus Line then, arguably “saved”, “rescued”, or as I like to think, laid new tracks for the dying and predictability of musicals.
Directed by Michael Bennett, A Chorus Line, tells the story of diverse and passionate dancers looking to earn their place for renowned choreographer Zach’s professional ensemble. What ultimately resulted in winning a Tony and Pulitzer, raises the question on what circumstances the musical stemmed from. To contextualize a bit, during the 1970s, New York exuded repulsion and ridicule from both its locals and visitors.
For instance, a New York based photographer, Maggie Hopp, noted how “sex shops, adult arcades, strip clubs, and xxx movie houses (…) populated — almost exclusively — the famed strip [Time Square]” (Kelly). That is, a 1970s New Yorker fancied a date at Olivia’s adult supercenter (a running adult arcade) over watching a now rock n’roll musical at the Majestic theater as 1950 New Yorkers preferred a classic musical. Within the same five-mile radius, in the glory and triumph period of musicals, Hammerstein first opened South Pacific to the public on Broadway and now 1970s. On the day of South Pacific’s opening “business practically stopped all over town, as the day before Christmas. Everyone was obsessed with one idea (…) I hope ‘south pacific’ is as good as they say it is going to be” (Tuck). Although liberating for actors, musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar unfortunately painted an unflattering image for new audience members.
In regard, to specific issues — the 70s fueled areas like gender, race, and sexual orientation into the public eye. Generally speaking, people sought out politics as a means to obtain a form of liberty and justice. The Civil Rights Era of 1964, influenced how the US functioned after the fact, as opposed to targeting the long overdue and concealed issue of race between white and black people. Instead of mitigating race riots, successfully desegregating public school systems, and regrettably implementing a ‘separate but equal’ construct, division overshadowed practicing basic human dignity and respect. The Second Wave Feminism and the Gay Rights movement, both in the 1960s, ramped up years of political activism on national and local levels.
More and more organizations and groups like the National Women’s Political Caucasus (1971), nurtured and supported women to political spaces, the Black Panther Party (1966), focused on uplifting black people, Combahee River Collective (1974), a group of outspoken lesbians and Yippies, seeking to encourage alternatives other than war, (1967) all developed and heightened through the 60s and 70s. And so, a nonlinear plot that psychologically tricked audiences to think otherwise, required them to actively engage with stories like A Chorus Line.
If not, for avoiding the three consecutive acts, the character centered focus entertained audience members of the 70s. In a political landscape that grew divided, Zach, Shelia, Larry, Cassie, Paul and all the other dance members reflected a real, wounded and pensive generation. Since, in the art spectrum, dance lies in the extreme side of vulnerability, Zach admitting how people called him “twinkle toes” and Shelia opening up about her childhood abuse, just to name a few of the stories, makes them relatable in a time of discovering nuanced intersectionality.
Passion vs practicality, exchanging a safety net attached to a career for pursuing an ongoing unsustainable craft like dance, serve as an overarching theme within the musical. While earlier musicals, such as In How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, grappled with obtaining self-serving goals and climbing the corporate latter, A Chorus Line revolved around empowering the collective. At first, it seems ironic since the dancers reveal individual, and personal stories.
Unlike Fiorello LaGuardia’s lack of vision for acknowledging the bigger picture though, A Chorus Line painted with broad strokes, highlighting the commonality amongst the dancers. It’s a primary reason why their dialogue overlaps. For example, Shelia and Bebe alternate turns singing one after the other. Shelia begins unraveling her treacherous relationship with her parents, and even more damaging dynamic between her father. Soon after, Bebe essentially relates with Shelia, pitching in with her similarly belittling relationship with her mother that focused on instilling detrimentally unrealistic beauty standards.
And to some extent, the collected pain and suffering from the dancers, arguably led them down a path of expressing themselves through movement. Perhaps their wounds pass the point of recovering that, escaping into dance, gives them the outlet and chance to feel whole again. Yet, is it worth it? Should passion blind the logic behind practicality and charge forward with dignity, nonetheless? I don’t know.
At the end of the musical, we see Paul accidentally twist or sprain his ankle. Around him, murmurs and concerned whispers swelled the room. His injury and trip to the hospital sparked a conversation on the consideration an aspiring dancer must take into account. Surely, a passionate dancer may excel in their pointed toes and fluid body motions. However, as the inevitable moral function of time and age continues, the risk of injury increases. Therefore, a long-term dance career, though ideal on the surface, fails to offer that safety net that a corporate job at a Wide Wicket company would. On the contrary, Carrie arguably defies the standards. Partially due to their romantic history, Zach pesters Carrie to continue her acting career, discouraging her from auditioning. Nevertheless, Carrie carefully stood her ground. Despite her previous pitfalls and Zach’s unintentional disregard for Carrie’s earlier potential, Carrie seems reassured of herself — finding a new sense of confidence if you will.
Interestingly, researchers Melissa Padhaam and Imogen Aujla, conducted an experiment involving professional dancers to identify the correlation between passion and their psychological well-being. Using the Dualistic Model of Passion, the Self Determination Theory (SDT), harmonious passion (HP) and obsessive passion (OP), the research pursued solutions to help professional dancers in living an acquirable and equally creatively fulfilling lifestyle. They found that in order to control the internalization of perfectionism and self-esteem that often births eating disorders, establishing healthy practices at a young age, avoids the domino effect all together. The damaging augmentation of sorts — “eating disorders, self-esteem, and perfectionism” (Padhaam) unfortunately pairs with a passionate dancer.
By the end of the study though, fortunately, “the majority of dancers were passionate about their art and tended to internalize it in a flexible and harmonious manner” (Padhaam). In other words, as opposed to exhausting their well-being for art, their drive and ambition to perfectionism thankfully didn’t conflict with their state of being. It’s important to note, though, the researchers conducted this study sometime before 2014. Set the scene in the 1970s, and I’d argue the former would prevail and the latter would be a far fetch dream. In time of despair, resentment and outrage, entertainment and thus momentarily departing the daily struggles, lied heavily on the musical. A Chorus Line, in of itself and as a byproduct, spelled out a simple message — ‘I’m struggling too.’ Maybe Michael Bennett notice this long before anyone recognize it. Either way, Stephen Sondheim seemed to readily follow the new and improved blueprint with Sunday in the Park With George in the 80s. That’s what one calls setting a new precedent. Bravo Mr. Bennett.