Synopsis: Hopefuls try out before a demanding director for a part in a new musical.
Stars: Michael Douglas, Terrence Mann, Vicki Frederick, Alyson Reed, Yamil Borges, Cameron English
Director: Richard Attenborough
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: When A Chorus Line opened on Broadway in 1975 it was fresh off a phenomenally successful off-Broadway run and took NYC and the theater world by storm. It’s one of the most vibrant musicals that still endures today – it speaks to anyone that ever had a dream of being onstage whether you were the lead or in the chorus. Digging deeper, it spoke to anyone that loved and lost, felt they were different, or just wanted a chance to prove their worth. It’s one of my favorite shows and the music and memory live on even though its lights are dimmed on The Great White Way.
Far from the disaster it was painted to be, the film adaptation of A Chorus Line is still a significant miss of an opportunity to put to film what was so palpable onstage. Maybe that’s the problem…the beauty of live theater is that you can’t duplicate the feeling or the performance you experience by having the actors right in front of you. Movie musicals have always suffered from that suspension of disbelief and it’s ever so evident here.
The original director/choreographer Michael Bennett was announced to direct the film version but left due to creative difference with the production company. Rumor has it that Bennett realized the musical may be hard to bring to the screen so he wanted to make the movie about the casting of the movie version of A Chorus Line. Still with me? I think that was a bit too meta for the early 80’s and Bennett’s idea was (probably wisely) scrapped. British director Attenborough was brought on board along with then-hot choreographer Jeffrey Hornaday fresh from his success with Flashdance (which, once and for all is NOT a musical!). The problem right off the bat was that by this time A Chorus Line was ten years old – dance and music had changed in the past decade so the film version suffered some unfortunate updates. Cheesy 80’s synth music replaced the booming sound of a full Broadway orchestra and Hornaday’s athletic choreography, while well executed, replaced Bennett’s inventive but stagelocked moves.
Then there was the music. For some reason still not clear some of the better music was jettisoned for more eighties era pop tunes. Until I saw the live show years after first seeing the movie I wasn’t aware how much was excised in the process of bringing the show to the silver screen. While replacing the huge central montage of ‘Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love’ with ‘Surprise, Surprise’ was a head-scratcher, it was unforgivable that ‘Let Me Dance for You’ was subbed for ‘The Music and the Mirror’. Two excellent pieces were removed for songs that pretty much said the exact same thing with similar lyrics…why? It still makes no sense to me all these years later. The montage also gave the entire cast more to do and revealed their characters…so while robbing audiences of the song they also short-changed their actors….which may have been a good thing.
A hodge podge is maybe the best way to describe the cast that was assembled by Attenborough and his team. I think the casting of Douglas was pretty perfect and from there on down the line it was the law of diminishing returns. Frederick was an OK Sheila but she played Cassie on Broadway so why not use her instead? It wasn’t as if Reed was any knockout as Cassie. With her unfortunate asymmetrical bob and even more unfortunate armpit sweat soaked purple leotard she never gives Cassie the fire that made her someone to root for. Borges was a good choice for Morales but never seemed to decide if she wanted to be a sassy Morales or a defensive Morales…riding that line made a well written character seem smaller than she should have been. Thankfully there are some standouts here – English’s sweet take on Paul’s monologue hits home where and when it should, Michelle Johnston’s Bebe is genuine, and Audrey Landers scores as Val (though you have to really work hard to screw up her fun/funny number)
All told, the movie does work when it’s working with the original source material – where it tends to step out of line is when the new pieces are inserted and the show loses its original shape. Who knows if the show could ever have been made into a movie that came close to the vibrancy of the stage version? So much of the power is derived from moments in the theater that creates electricity and knocks your socks off.