“Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch — again!” Fans of the iconic Broadway hit musical, “A Chorus Line,” already know what famous song lyrics come next. After a few more kicks and turns, the director shouts out: “From the top — five, six, seven, eight!” And with that, the classic 1975 stage story about the hardscrabble life of dancers unfolds.
From July 29-31 at the Hollywood Bowl, the L.A. Philharmonic presents a new production of one of Broadway’s flashiest hits. But gold top hats and high-kicks aside, the show has much more humble roots. It started with nothing more than a tape recorder and a circle of dancer friends in New York City, circa 1974.
Decades before MTV’s "Real World" or even "Real Housewives," a young choreographer named Michael Bennett had an idea for a reality show, of sorts. It would be set inside the real world of Broadway. So he invited a small group of dancers to a downtown Manhattan studio to share a cheap jug of wine and to talk about their lives. Meanwhile, Bennett recorded every word — for 12 hours. He explained to the dancers about his idea to stage a musical based on them.
“Why would somebody want to put my life on the stage?” asked dancer Baayork Lee. “The only thing I can do is 'King and I' and 'Flower Drum Song.' That was it.”
Lee was not there that night. She preferred to take a break in her country home outside the city. But Bennett was her close friend and choreographer colleague. Eventually, he persuaded Lee to open up.
“I was born to dance. I love to dance,” Lee says at a rehearsal for the Bowl show. “And he said, 'You know, I really think your story is interesting.' And so I just started talking. He just put the tape on and I just started talking. It was more personal. Just being at his house and just talking to him.”
Lee is now an esteemed choreographer and director. In fact, she’s directing the Hollywood Bowl production. But it was her career challenges early on as a petite, Asian woman fighting to work in the American theater that captured Bennett’s attention. He created the classic Connie Wong character in the show based on Lee. But Bennett's job was far from done. He still had tons of tape and stories to get though from the other interviews.
“Well, you don’t know what you are creating at the time," recalls Bob Avian, a longtime collaborator of Bennett's. (The choreographer died in 1987 at the age of 44.) “But Michael always knew he wanted to created a show about dancers. That was his vision.”
Avian says Bennett asked Joseph Papp at New York’s Public Theater for help. With Papp’s assistance, Bennett created the first of what is now commonly known in professional theatre as a "workshop."
“Joe said, 'You can come down to our space and play here — $100 a week.' And we’re going, Oh God! Alright, laughs Avian. “And Michael said, ‘Let’s try. We’ll write the show on its feet!’ So we started by transcribing the original tapes.”
Avian recalls how workshop actors would take the transcriptions and recite them as never-ending monologues. “And Michael said, ‘I can’t keep doing this all night long. The audience will go nuts!’”
As luck would have it, Bennett was good friends with a young, rising star composer who lived here in L.A. Avian recalls: “The funniest story was about Marvin Hamlisch. He had just won three Oscars. And Michael says, ‘Come on — we’re going off-Broadway [to] work for $100 a week.’ And Marvin’s agent said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re the hottest guy in Hollywood!’”
But Hamlisch rushed to his friend’s side in New York and immediately compressed hours of transcribed words into one single song about adolescence. In the score it’s called “Montage.”
And while Hamlisch was whipping the music into shape, Baayork Lee, Bob Avian and Michael Bennett were busy pounding out the dance movements. The trio interpreted the paper mountains of endless typed words into was is now iconic choreography.
“Michael was amazing at improvisation,” Lee says. “He would just look in the mirror and he would just start dancing. (Laughs) It just came out of his head. And then we would just follow or learn or contribute a step.”
During that first workshop, Bennett’s passion project looked like it was finally going to take on a real shape. Despite not knowing how it would all turn out, Bennett always knew it would. He determination was so strong that he had already figured out the title two years prior to any tape recorders turning on or dancers trying out any moves.
As the story goes, in 1972 Bennett was directing a George Furth play at New York’s Plymouth Theatre alongside Bob Avian. That show was called “A Chorus Line.” One day, Bennett told Furth that the title didn’t fit the show. Furth agreed and changed the name of his play to “Twigs” — and gave Bennett the blessing to call his musical project ‘A Chorus Line.’
At that point, Avian recalls that there was only one thing missing: “There’s a piece of chalk on the table. Michael picked up the chalk, went over to the floor and drew a line and said, ‘This is our set.’”
“It’s choreographed so that when you are above the line, these are internal thoughts, this is a safe space,” says J. Elaine Marcos, who plays the Baayork Lee-inspired character, Connie Wong. “This is where we think back into our childhood ... and then we step on the line and we get a gut punch and we realize, Oh! This is where I am right now.”
Marcos knows this story very well. Not only has she played the role on Broadway and on tour, she is a veteran of the New York stage who has opened and closed eight hit shows in a glowing career. But she’s quick to point out that every dancer has to start back in the audition room all over again anytime a show closes. Singing about the uncertainty resonates for Marcos.
“Every line, there’s ... I get choked up," Marcos says. "What do you do when you can’t dance anymore? We actually sing it: My unemployment is gone! Like, yeah! But, my unemployment is gone. So what do you do?”
The answer to that one, says Lee, is easy in this business.
“I say, Eat nails!" she growls. “And that means you get down and dirty and get into it. [Be a] triple threat! We started that phrase. You had to be a triple threat in order to do 'A Chorus Line' — sing, dance and act. And then after us came 'Cats' and all the other shows.”
Lee says artists like Marcos are the ultimate nail eaters — tough, tenacious and super-talented triple threats. These are the hard workers who inspired Bennett to create "A Chorus Line" four generations ago. The show continues to get produced throughout the world under Lee's watchful direction. She insists that she’s teaching the next “Chorus Line” casts to dig deep into these classic dance moves, the true texts, and the tough spirit of a dancer’s world.
“That is such a great satisfaction,” Lee says. “Eat nails, baby!"
"A Chorus Line" is at the Hollywood Bowl from July 29-31.