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'Chorus Line': still fresh, sassy, relevant

Long before The Real World, Survivor, or American Idol, a phenomenally popular reality show was running in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.

That show was called A Chorus Line, and it changed the face of Broadway.

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A Chorus Line focused on the true-to-life stories of ordinary people - in this case, 17 young dancers desperate to establish a toe-shoe hold in their chosen profession. For one woman (named "Sheila" in the show), the ballet studio provides a refuge from her parents' unhappy marriage. In another tale, "Paul's" parents discover that he is gay when they unexpectedly turn up at a drag show in which he is featured.

"We stood up on stage, and we talked about our lives," says Baayork Lee, who originated the role of Connie, a Chinese woman who sings in the show of the frustrations of being "Four Foot Ten."

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"Even though the names were different, we were playing ourselves, so we weren't acting," Lee says. "Nothing like it had ever been done before. It was the first reality show."

The musical ran for an astounding 15 years on Broadway, and remains the fourth-longest running musical of all time, after Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Les Miserables. One might think that, when A Chorus Line finally closed in 1990, the appetite for the show had been sated. But, no, the 2006 revival recouped its $8 million investment in fewer than five months. The national tour stops at the Hippodrome for two weeks starting on Tuesday.

In addition to focusing on real people, the musical also pioneered the now-common use of journalistic techniques to create compelling artworks. The show's creator, Michael Bennett, found the material for his script when he attended a late-night bull session and turned on his tape recorder.

"When Michael was trying to explain to potential investors what A Chorus Line was going be like, he compared it to [the] Miss America [pageant]," says Bob Avian, who helped Bennett choreograph the original show. Avian also directed the revival.

"At the time, the only other reality shows were beauty pageants. When we were in rehearsal, we had no idea if anyone was going to be attracted to the material other than our show-business friends."

Other musicals in the past confronted serious social issues. As far back as 1927, Jerome Kern's Showboat caused a stir when it dealt with a mixed-race marriage. But before A Chorus Line, no other musical had discussed sex with such candor. For instance, in a number called "Hello, Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love," a character named Greg uses a graphic term to explain his perpetual state of arousal. And in the comic "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three," the sassy Val brags that artificially enhancing her curves has helped her land plum roles.

"The show opened during the peak of the sexual revolution, and we said things that had never been said on stage before," Avian says. "Even today, we have walk-outs from people in the audience who can't handle the material."

A Chorus Line also was unusual because it took place on a bare stage. The dancers wore sweats and leotards, and the women pulled back their hair with rubber-bands.

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"In the 1960s and 1970s, musicals were all about costumes and sets," recalls Lee, who restaged the choreography for the touring show. "People in the audience would sometimes ask, 'Where are all the costumes?' "

Even then, A Chorus Line wasn't the first theater piece to adopt a minimalist aesthetic. Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which made its debut in 1938, famously is to be performed with no set, little scenery, and only three props. Nor was it unusual for actors to portray artfully dirtied hobos and tramps. Think of Beckett or Chaplin.

But Chorus Line took the stripped-down look to an extreme. Before Bennett's little experiment with a tape recorder, no one had worn the same outfit on stage that they wore to the gym.

The musical also broke new ground by employing a cast of "triple-threat" performers who could act, sing and dance. After A Chorus Line, producers no longer were willing to foot the bill for separate singing and dancing choruses.

"Nowadays, we have these brilliant performers who can do all three," Lee says. "I just cast an opera singer who's also a ballerina. If a performer doesn't have all those skills, he or she very quickly learns to acquire the one that's missing - or to get into another line of work."

A Chorus Line didn't invent choreographic storytelling; that honor generally goes to Oklahoma ! That 1943 production was the first time dance was used to move the plot forward, instead of being plopped down incongruously in the middle, like a Christmas tree in a Fourth of July parade. Fourteen years later, the danced-through musical reached its apotheosis in West Side Story.

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But, though they would be poorer for it, it is possible to imagine either show being staged without any tapping or twirling or leaping at all. Without dance, A Chorus Line couldn't exist.

Now, nearly 34 years after its premiere, A Chorus Line's influence can be detected in an array of staggeringly different shows.

It's perhaps most apparent in Fox television's So You Think You Can Dance?, which grabs viewers by staging a competition between aspiring hoofers.

The musical's signature technique is evident in the acclaimed stage movie and play, The Laramie Project, in which members of a New York theater troupe went to Wyoming to talk to townspeople about the brutal slaying of an openly gay teen. Like Bennett, playwright Moises Kaufman crafted his script from those interviews.

Finally, the runaway success of a pure dance show doubtless paved the way for others like it, including Movin' Out, the 2004 jukebox musical that combines the talents of two modern masters: songwriter Billy Joel and choreographer Twyla Tharp.

If that isn't a legacy to be proud of, what is?

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if you go

A Chorus Line runs at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St., from Tuesday through Dec. 14. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 1:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Sundays. $20-$65. 410-547-7328 or www.france-merrickpac.com.


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