A Chorus Line

September 21, 2011

It’s been a long haul, the better part of a decade, in fact, but A Chorus Line, the forever-running Broadway smash, has finally taken a cinematic form.

Word is that Columbia Pictures had sunk more than 10 million bucks into the thing before a single actor had been hired or a single frame of film exposed. The money went to buying the screen rights and to various abortive screenplay attempts.

Apparently it took affable Richard Attenborough, fresh off winning an Oscar for Gandhi, to whip the project into shape. Now, Sir Richard isn’t the first person you’d think of for A Chorus Line—Bob Fosse he ain’t—but, as it turns out, Attenborough’s unadventurous, no-nonsense approach makes for a serviceable adaptation.

The play, which was conceived, choreographed, and directed by Michael Bennett, put a bunch of dancers through a grueling audition, during which they not only had to dance and sing but reveal their most private thoughts and fears. They performed at the whim of an unseen director, whose voice could be heard barking orders.

Attenborough has changed very little, except to make the relationship between the director (Michael Douglas) and one of the dancers (Alyson Reed) more explicit. They’re ex-lovers, and Attenborough uses the friction between them as a thread of plot, something, presumably, he thought the audience needed to hold on to.

That’s all there is—the dancers reveal some anxieties and sing some songs. A few of the songs (by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban) are okay, and the dancers (choreography by Jeffrey Hornaday) are quite energetic.

As a diverting holiday entertainment, this is fine. As a movie, it’s not much to crow about. There was a special charge about seeing the spectacular dances performed live, especially the nifty precision numbers. But it’s less enthralling, less room-filling, in a movie house, particularly when the film fails to make the action meaningful.

And it’s a little hard to remember now why they play won a ton of Tony awards, or why—is this possible?—it copped the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The film has a weakness in Douglas; he doesn’t suggest the sort of brilliant mad creator who could get away with his dictatorial behavior. Mikhail Baryshnikov was once mentioned as a possibility for the part, and that would have brought some fire to it.

Douglas is the only big name in the cast; most of the dancers are unknowns. A few distinguish themselves: Vicki Frederick has the right look for her brassy role and does well with “At the Ballet”; Yamil Borges does a nice job with “Nothing”; and Gregg Burge dances up a storm in “Surprise, Surprise” (one of the two new songs written for the film).

One more thing. Attenborough has “opened up” the play a bit by including brief flashbacks, and a couple of scenes on the street. This backfires—it breaks the tension of being inside the theater—but Attenborough also commits a cultural faux pas. In one of the street scenes, a character slips and falls while hailing a taxi, whereupon the cabbie actually politely inquires whether the woman is all right. Clearly, Attenborough, an Englishman, is out of touch with this particular reality, or he never would have permitted a New York cab driver to engage in such uncharacteristic behavior.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

I sound somewhat too generous to the film. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but the Broadway show I knew pretty well, and it is an inspired idea for a musical, quite exciting within the walls of a theater. The problem with a movie version of A Chorus Line is that there should never be a movie version of A Chorus Line, unless you just hand it over the Jacques Rivette and let him explore it for three hours or so. The material must take place in real time, in an actual theater; that’s the point. Apologies to Marvin Hamlisch; the songs are better than okay.