Thanks to the lovely and talented Nancy Rogier for this interview with the fellows working furiously to bring “A Chorus Line’ to life at AFD. Opens October 23!!
A Chorus Line at AFD Theatre is being directed by Nicholas Meunier with music direction by David Lien and choreography by Todd Rinehart. The trio took time out from rehearsal to answer some questions about the show.
What drove each of you to bring A Chorus Line to AFD?
Nick: My relationship with A Chorus Line is somewhat abnormal, and my love of it actually comes from a bit of mistaken understanding. I did not grow up loving, adoring, and memorizing the show as so many people did for so long. The show ran on Broadway for fifteen years between 1975 and 1990 so it has hooked several different age brackets. In the 1980s when I was a kid, I remember seeing TV ads for the show in New York and the images were always of that grand finale in the tuxedos. So from then until about two or three years ago, maybe, I was under the impression that A Chorus Line was really that type of thing: a glitzy revue type of a show.
When I finally had the opportunity to actually digest the entire show I felt like such an idiot, because that finale is such an ironic, almost tragically so, comment on what the show actually is artistically, which is this perfect encapsulation of this mid-70s stark, verite style, which is essentially a documentary. And the themes of identity and the poignant stakes involved in defending your life, your identity really made me flip. It immediately became a show I wanted to be involved in, so when AFD presented the opportunity, I knew I had to try and join up.
Todd: ACL is a dancer’s musical, and as a retired dancer it has always been on my bucket list of shows to perform in or choreograph.
David: As opposed to many people currently involved with theatre, what initially drew me to theatre at a young age was how much I loved listening to and playing the dance music. A Chorus Line is no exception. I remember playing songs from A Chorus Line on repeat since I was in middle school.
Talk about what it’s like to have more than 20 actors on the AFD stage. What’s been your approach to manage this large cast?
Todd: The last show I worked on had a cast of 30. Twenty is nothing! Seriously, it hasn’t been as challenging as I thought it might be choreographing for a cast of 24 on a small stage. My approach has been to choreograph dance that is contained, whereas in a larger theatre I would create more expansive movements of dance.
Nick: The spatial reality of AFD Theatre has definitely been one of the biggest challenges, but I think it’s one we are meeting.
The stage is wonderfully deep, but very narrow. So it is not so much the number of people in the cast, which is manageable, but the specific blocking requirements that have created some challenges. As a director, one of the golden rules in blocking is to avoid straight lines, but this show explicitly requires the actors to stand in a straight line for most of the show.
I will tell you that one area where I have tried to use the smallness of the space to do something a little different is with the character of Zach, the director.
I think there is frequently a feeling with this show that the members of the Line are in a void, so to speak. Yes, they are auditioning for a show, but they are also in a blank space revealing their humanity. While I have tried to hold on to that theme, I think the reality of AFD Theatre provided the opportunity to bring Zach into the space in a more present way.
So rather than having him in the back unseen, or over a microphone, he is very much in the house with the audience, where they can choose to focus on him at various times and get another perspective on what is going on.
Nick, it’s the 40th anniversary of ACL opening on Broadway in 1975. Has that influenced your artistic vision in directing this show at AFD?
Nick: I am beyond thrilled to be doing this show at the time of its 40th anniversary, because I think, as universal as the show is, it also says so much about a specific time and place. I am a history buff by nature so whenever I direct, I get very invested in portraying a specific atmosphere. And New York City in the 1970s had atmosphere to spare. We have enough distance from it now, and NYC has changed in so many ways since then, that that time and place has almost become mythic.
The city was literally bankrupt. There were police strikes and sanitation strikes, the national economy was floundering, and you had large swaths of the city in the South Bronx being intentionally burned to the ground on a regular basis. Violent crime and general prurience in the city was omnipresent (think of the Broadway area at that time, riddled with pornography and general sin).
New York City was kind of a free-for-all place, which was stressful, but it also imbued the city with the energy and opportunity for creation. A Chorus Line springs directly from that—downtown theater workshops with no defined goal that ended up producing a landmark Broadway experience. And that is happening alongside punk in the Bowery, and the emerging dance music scene, and an explosion of salsa Uptown, and avant garde jazz in Alphabet City. It’s a fascinating slice of recent history. And it is so New York, which, even as a Boston guy, excites me to no end.
ACL is one of the rare musicals where acting, dance, and music are each so integral to the story. What has been your approach to stage this unique musical that so wholly combines these elements?
Nick: You really hit it on the head, when you use the word “integral.” A Chorus Line is a fully integrated musical, while it is actually documenting the end of its predecessor. All of these characters are “dancers” who were used to dancing in a “dancing chorus,” which was different from a “singing chorus.” And when you could afford to have 100 people in a show, that worked fine. But the economic reality of the 70s made that no longer feasible. So work was drying up for this type of performer. In showing that, they create this wonderfully “integrated” show where these people get to do it all.
David: Not only is the music so integrated with the dancing, even with dialogue scenes, the music is present and interacting with the emotions. So my approach has been very careful and deliberate to make sure all three aspects come together seamlessly.
Todd: My approach has been to focus on the dancer’s strengths and incorporate these strengths into my choreography. Some of the dancers have had many years of dance training and others limited, but everyone has committed 100 percent of themselves to the process. Watching them work with each other to learn their choreography is for me what dancers do for one another.
Todd, how has the show’s history influenced your choreography?
Todd: Choreographing this show has been a bit more daunting than I expected because of most theatre-goers’ familiarity with Michael Bennett’s choreography. Creating my own choreographic interpretation of ACL has been equally challenging and fulfilling.
David, in some musicals people stay in one place in sing, but in ACL there’s a lot of movement and singing at the same time. How has this affected your musical direction?
David: As addressed in the show, these are actors auditioning for a show and nobody should pull an eye. Likewise the music should be just as precise. Especially in this show the music and dance are one-in-one.
Why should people come to see A Chorus Line at AFD?
David: Remember that time you said you wanted to be a dancer? These guys are doing it!
Todd: The show has heart! The music is gorgeous, lyrics touching and funny, and hearing these familiar songs sung live is a thrill. You become involved in these dancers’ lives and forget they are actors. The cast is brilliant! You might be moved in ways you thought not possible. It is a great night (or day) at the theatre!
Nick: Musical theatre is an American art form to be cherished. And A Chorus Line is a building block of our musical theater tradition. It’s a fundamental show that everyone should experience. And if you have seen it before, those themes that tug at the heartstrings are still there. Everyone has had to defend their place in the world at one point in time, so it always speaks to us.