Two Conversations about A Chorus Line’s Elusive Director
Ever since A Chorus Line galvanized the American musical theater in 1975, Michael Bennett’s paean to theater ambitions has moved audiences to laughter, tears and goose bumps – and tipped the lives of countless young show-business hopefuls. But when the show was first being developed in workshops, no one knew what its future would be. A Chorus Line endured the same agonies that all struggling musicals experience.
Here are two conversations with two participants in the workshops where Bennett relentlessly shaped his musical. First, Barry Bostwick, who was chosen by Bennett to portray his alter-ego, Zach, the director-choreographer who is auditioning actors for a new musical:
When you were cast in “A Chorus Line,” you had just completed a two-year run as Danny Zuko in “Grease.” How did you feel about going from a Broadway lead into a workshop?
Bostwick: Because I was going to be playing the director, the deal l struck with Michael Bennett was that I would get to sit in at meetings with his creative team and observe them putting the show together. And it did play out that way for a while. But pretty soon Michael became nervous with me watching him all the time. He felt I was passing judgment on him. I think I was only observing, but even that upset him.
I also was asking a lot of questions. In retrospect, I think I was inadvertently
asking Michael to explore a side of his personality that he was not comfortable with. I had no idea of how off-putting that kind of questioning and observing can be. But after three weeks I was shut out, probably because he felt I was getting too close, learning too much. He wanted to keep me as a figure in the distance.
There were some rehearsals in which I was genuinely moved by what was happening onstage, and I would go with that feeling. Then Michael would say, “No, you cannot get involved. Stay distant.” He did not want to use what my essence is as a human being. Instead he kept trying to turn me into him. At the same time, I was trying to turn him into me. In 1975 I was still looking for approval as an actor. I wanted some element of sympathy in the characters I played. And Michael Bennett had that sympathy in him. I spent enough time with him to see it. But onstage he chose only to show the dark side. Much of our conflict was based on the fact that I was trying to find something soft in him, something accessible, and he kept shutting the door, saying, “I’m not going to deal with that”; I don’t want to talk about that”; “That’s not a side of my personality I want to show.” Michael was asking me to be a shadow figure.
Do you mean a literal shadow, sitting in the dark of the theater?
Bostwick: At the outset nobody knew Zach was going to end up in the audience. These things all evolved during the workshop. They kept talking to me about Zach’s song, which was going to come after Paul got hurt and left the stage. Finally one day Michael took me aside and, “Zach is not going to have a song; it’s just not right.”
Were you upset to lose your big number?
Bostwick: Not really, because I never had it. It was never written. I have to be fair here: Michael had not promised me anything in terms of where the show was going to end up, because he didn’t know where the show was going to end up. I had joined the project on trust. Nevertheless, at that point I knew I didn’t want to be in a musical where I was in the audience most of the time. Also, Zach had evolved into a character who expressed himself dancing, which is the element of musical performance with which I am least comfortable.
So by the time the workshop was ending, you knew you didn’t want to continue?
Bostwick: Michael and I both came to the decision at the same time. It was like breaking up with a woman, where you go to say goodbye, and she says it first. I was going to sit him down and tell him, and before I could …
Did you ever regret your decision?
Bostwick: No, simply because that role would not have allowed me to do what I did best at that point in my life, which was to entertain. Have you ever been to a rodeo and seen them put a strap around the belly of a bucking horse before he’s ridden into the ring? Once the horse throws the rider, a clown comes along and releases the strap, and the burr is removed from the horse’s belly. Zach wasn’t the clown, and he wasn’t the rider. Zach was the burr in the side of the horse.
Came the day when you went to see “A Chorus Line.” Be objective now: What did you think of the finished product?
Bostwick: I’m not taking away from the uniqueness and the brilliance of that musical, because it’s there. It was based on an inspired idea. At the same time, I come to A Chorus Line from a unique perspective. No one else was privileged to see the show the way I saw it. And in what I hope is an objective opinion, I think the musical was better at the workshop. They threw out a lot of good stuff. When I saw the finished product, so many wonderful moments were gone, and I realized Michael had overworked the damn show. I think he was too self-indulgent with his own creation.
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When Barry Bostwick parted ways with A Chorus Line, he was replaced by Robert LuPone. Here is LuPone’s account of the workshop experience, excerpts from a never-before-seen conversation that occurred in June 1975, two months into the musical’s off-Broadway engagement at the Public Theater:
How did you first hear about the workshops for “A Chorus Line”?
LuPone: When I got involved, the original rap session had already happened. My agent said, “Go down there and audition.”
I said, “No, it’s dancing. I don’t want to dance.” But I went down, and I was auditioning for a different part than Zach. First audition, I sang and acted. Then they asked me to come back and dance, and I refused to go. Much to my surprise, I got the job. Apparently my ego and effrontery were perfect for the character I was auditioning for, though I didn’t realize that at the time. Then I started playing Al, a very different character from the one who’s in the show now. I kept saying, “We gotta deal with Al,” because we were going into formal rehearsals soon. Their idea of dealing with the character was to cut Al out of the show. But meanwhile, Barry Bostwick, who was playing Zach, either quit or got fired – I’ve never known which – and three days after they cut my part, I got Zach.
How much of Michael Bennett is in your character?
LuPone: Remember, we’re talking about the king of the gypsies here. It wasn’t until the last two weeks into previews that we finally began to deal with Zach and Cassie, because Michael was focused on the kids. But to tie the axis of the whole show into a knot is to deal with Zach, and Michael would not come to that until he was ready to come to it.
Do you think Michael Bennett’s reluctance to deal with Zach might explain why Barry Bostwick went?
LuPone: Yes. Michael has trouble directing actors. No, let me put it this way: Michael has trouble directing egos. He has a tremendous ego. And I have a tremendous ego. Barry Bostwick obviously has a bigger ego than I do (laughs). Barry wanted Zach to be sympathetic, because he wanted to be the star. And Michael wanted Cassie to be the star. So there was that row constantly going on. I think it became an ego competition in which Barry doesn’t need the credit and I do, because if I hadn’t needed the credit I would have left too, with the kind of direction I was under.
Did your relationship with the company change after you became Zach?
LuPone: Oh yeah. I think offstage the company likes me, because they know I’m basically a sweet person, but I really keep my distance from them. The more I push them, the more they don’t like me, but the better the show is.
How do you push them?
LuPone: I don’t let them get away with murder. When you’re a dancer – and I’ve danced for 20 years – you can tell when somebody’s fooling around. When they do, I come down on them.
LuPone: No, onstage. Always onstage, with my eyes. They have to submit.
Have you ever considered recasting Zach’s musical some night?
LuPone: The show’s been set, but I would love to make it different every night. Some dancers do dynamite shows and don’t get the job while others don’t do dynamite shows and do get the job.
When did you know that “A Chorus Line” was going to be successful?
LuPone: There are two prongs here, the workshops and the final production. I have to say that I went into the workshops with great skepticism. So one of the most remarkable things about this experience has been, not just that I have felt personal growth, but to be able to watch everyone else grow in front of me. Our composer, Marvin Hamlisch, is a good example. When we began, Marvin was this crazy, uptight, nervous, anxious person. And to watch this man not only create, but to see him change and start being able to relate to human beings – Marvin is an example of someone who has matured into trusting places, loving places. That has been remarkable.
As for the show itself, we have now been running at the Public Theater for two months, and we are only just now starting to understand the extent of what this show is. Because by the time we got to opening night, we just wanted it to be over with. That’s the honest-to-God truth. You’ve been working for six months, and now the night that you’ve been working toward finally arrives. And you’re exhausted and your body’s aching and your voice is going. And all of a sudden you ask yourself, is this material any good? Of course it’s not good. We’re all paranoid actors here, right? But it was good. Michael has constantly been proved correct, and us wrong.
Through much of the show you sit in the audience watching the stage. What’s your opinion of “A Chorus Line”?
LuPone: You have to understand where I’m coming from. I worked with people like Anthony Tudor and Martha Graham, the real geniuses. I have seen phenomenal choreography that stretches the possibilities of dance. In recent years I have been disappointed in musical theater choreography, most of which is just candy. Now along comes A Chorus Line, and this to me is what musical theater is all about. Because it’s theater first, and then they musicalize it. So despite all the hassles, during the show I sit in the back of the house with my microphones and I’m watching. And as I’m watching, I’m saying to myself, I’ve got to hand it to Michael Bennett. This show is brilliant.