Soundtrack Saturday: “A Chorus Line: The Movie”

Written by Film, Soundtrack Saturday

Kelly Stitzel’s latest Soundtrack Saturday is one singular sensation.

I started off 2010 writing about the soundtrack to a television series for the first time. Now it’s time for another first: a movie musical. (You’re so excited I can hear you squealing with joy all the way from my couch.)

I know my choice of A Chorus Line: The Movie (1985) will be a bit controversial, particularly among fans of the stage show, but I don’t care. I grew up watching this movie, and since this column is (mostly) not a democracy, I’m going to write about whatever I want.

I will start out by telling you that I’ve never actually seen A Chorus Line on a stage, Broadway or otherwise. I know that’s a bit ridiculous since it’s one of the longest-running Broadway shows in history, and it had a touring production that probably made its way through my neck of the woods several times. I always wanted to see it, but it just never worked out.

I do, however, have the album of the original 1975 Broadway cast recording, and I’ve listened to it many, many times. So while I can’t speak from firsthand experience about the differences between the movie and the stage show, I can at least speak about the differences in the songs.

I know I’ve told you several times about my unhealthy obsession with 1980s dance movies, and director Richard Attenborough’s film adaptation of A Chorus Line came out right at the height of my interest in the genre, so of course I was immediately obsessed with it. I watched it over and over on cable, even recording it on a blank VHS tape, which I proceeded to wear out. I eventually bought the soundtrack on cassette with birthday money when I was ten years old and played it to death on my boombox.

I still have that cassette, and until recently it was the only way I could listen to the now out-of-print soundtrack album. But I finally got my hands on a copy of the CD, and now you get to benefit from my find (well, some of you might think you’re benefiting).

For those of you who’ve never seen the stage show (like me) or the movie, and have no idea what the story’s about, A Chorus Line centers on a group of dancers auditioning for the chorus of a Broadway production. It features 19 main characters, most of whom are the auditioning dancers, and is set on the bare stage of a Broadway theater. Based on taped conversations Michael Bennett, the show’s creator, had with a group of dancers he knew, A Chorus Line provides an inside look at the personalities of the performers and their choreographer as they talk about the events that have shaped their lives and why they decided to become dancers.

To give you a little taste of the stage show, here’s a video of the original 1975 cast performing A Chorus Line‘s opening number, “I Hope I Get It,” on the 1976 Tony Awards telecast:

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And here are a couple of trailers for the movie:

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The Broadway show was a smash hit and won nine Tonys, including Best Musical, Best Original Score (Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban), Best Direction of a Musical (Bennett), and several of the major acting awards in the musical category. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in ’76. A Chorus Line holds the record as the fourth longest-running Broadway show ever, and the longest-running Broadway musical originally produced in the United States.

Of course, when something on Broadway is as big a hit as A Chorus Line was, Hollywood inevitably comes calling. But the film’s production was rife with problems from the start.

Michael Bennett walked away after his proposal to present the movie as an audition for the movie version of the Broadway show was rejected. (Eventually, something along the lines of his idea was realized in the excellent 2008 documentary Every Little Step, which explores the history of A Chorus Line and documents the audition process for the 2006 Broadway revival.)

Multiple directors turned down the film because they felt the story would be too difficult to translate from stage to screen. Eventually, Attenborough, who won the Oscar for Best Director for his previous film, 1982’s Gandhi, signed on, with Arnold Schulman writing the screenplay. Hamlisch and Kleban also signed on, composing two new pieces and reworking some of their songs from the stage show. Michael Douglas was cast as Zach, the show-within-a-show’s director; he was the only major Hollywood star to appear in the film.

There are some pretty major differences between the film and stage versions. Here are some of the notable changes:

  • “Sing!,” the duet between Al and Kristine, is completely omitted.
  • Cassie’s number, “The Music and the Mirror,” is replaced with the less effective “Let Me Dance for You,” which was written specifically for the film but contains some of the original instrumental sections from the song it replaced.
  • The new song “Surprise, Surprise” replaces the montage that includes “Hello 12, Hello 13, Hello Love” and “Gimme the Ball,” although one verse of the former is heard in the film; the monologues of Mark, Connie, Judy, and Greg that are part of this number are delivered as straight dialogue in other sections of the film. Interestingly, “Surprise, Surprise,” which is performed by Gregg Burge, as Richie, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1986.
  • In the film Cassie isn’t at the audition from the start. Instead she arrives halfway through and doesn’t even begin performing until “Let Me Dance for You.” We see a lot of new scenes with her wandering around backstage, remembering the heyday of her dancing career and her time with Zach.
  • “What I Did for Love” was originally performed by Diana, backed by the cast, as a love song about dancing. But in the film it’s performed by Cassie as a love song to Zach.
  • Zach doesn’t dance at all. He remains in his makeshift director’s booth for the majority of the film.
  • Bebe is cast in the show-within-a-show instead of Judy.

Of the film’s cast, Gregg Burge, Matt West (Bobby), Vicki Frederick (Sheila), Pam Klinger (Maggie), and Justin Ross (Greg) also appeared in the Broadway production of A Chorus Line. Most reprised their roles, with the exception of Frederick, who played both Cassie and Lois in the stage version. Burge is also credited as the film’s assistant choreographer.

Some fun facts about other members of the film’s cast:

  • Nicole Fosse (Kristine) is the daughter of legendary choreographer Bob Fosse and legendary dancer-actress Gwen Verdon.
  • Michelle Johnston is a talented choreographer and dancer who assisted A Chorus Line’s choreographer, Jeff Hornaday, and plays Bebe in the film. She worked with Hornaday again as his assistant choreographer on Madonna’s “Who’s That Girl” tour, on Francis Ford Coppola’s Michael Jackson vehicle Captain EO, and on Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, a film in which she also danced. Johnston’s since moved on to choreographing on her own, working on film and television projects such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Mad Men, and Chicago, while continuing to act in various roles, sometimes in the same films or TV shows she’s choreographing. For those of you who’ve seen Showgirls, you’ll remember her as choreographer Gay Carpenter.
  • Janet Jones (Judy) is probably best known these days as Mrs. Wayne Gretzky.
  • Audrey Landers (Val) is probably best known for her role as Afton Cooper on Dallas. She could sing, but she had very little dancing experience before A Chorus Line, so you either see her from the waist up in dance shots or offstage. Why she was cast in the first place is beyond me; allegedly, an actress who’d played Val on Broadway auditioned for the role in the film and was turned down. The producers later asked her to be Landers’s dance double, which she rightly refused to do.
  • Terrence Mann (Larry) is a prominent Broadway actor and dancer. He’s probably best known for his roles as Rum Tum Tugger in Cats, Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, and the Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The latter two roles earned him Tony nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
  • Tony Fields (Al) was once a Solid Gold dancer. He also appeared in the video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as one of the dancing zombies.

A Chorus Line: The Movie was a major flop. Fans of the Broadway show were extremely disappointed in the changes that’d been made to their beloved musical — not just the songs, but the overall tone. Many reviews I’ve read say the film takes away the rawness of the stage production and replaces it with a slicker, decidedly ’80s feel.

Kelly Bishop, the original Sheila on Broadway (film and television fans might know her best as Baby’s mother in Dirty Dancing and as Emily Gilmore on Gilmore Girls), said once in an interview, per Wikipedia, that “it was appalling when director Richard Attenborough went on a talk show and said ‘this is a story about kids trying to break into show business.’ I almost tossed my TV out the window; I mean what an IDIOT! It’s about veteran dancers looking for one last job before it’s too late for them to dance anymore. No wonder the film sucked!”

I’m sure if I’d seen the original Broadway production I’d have more issues with the film than I do. I’ve never really looked at it as a replacement for the Broadway show, but as its own animal. Even though I know I’m missing out on a lot of what made the stage show great by watching the film, I can’t help but love A Chorus Line: The Movie. As Roger Ebert wrote, “The result may not please purists who want a film record of what they saw on stage, but this is one of the most intelligent and compelling movie musicals in a long time.”

Below is the film’s entire out-of-print soundtrack album. Even if you prefer the stage version’s cast recording, this is still pretty good stuff, and worth a listen.

Company – I Hope I Get It
Cameron English (as Paul) – Who Am I Anyway?
Charles McGowan (as Mike) – I Can Do That
Vicki Frederick, Michelle Johnston, and Pam Klinger (as Sheila, Bebe, and Maggie) – At the Ballet
Gregg Burge (as Richie) – Surprise, Surprise
Yamil Borges (as Diana) – Nothing
Alyson Reed (as Cassie) – Let Me Dance for You
Audrey Landers (as Val) – Dance: Ten; Looks: Three
Company – One [Rehearsal]
Alyson Reed – What I Did for Love
Ensemble – One [Finale]