Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Chorus Line


Patrick, my highly exceptional tabby cat, has barely made a dint in the stacks of Meow Mix boxes I had shipped to Chateau Maine. I wasn’t going to just leave them behind, after their fateful appearance at my last political debate. My opponent might have been able to use them for some nefarious purpose. As I have a few bills to pay to my fashion consultants and my private interior designer, I will entertain offers for autographed boxes of this delectable treat. Norman suggested that I have the local Girl Scouts take it around the neighborhood with their cookies; I’d be afraid, however, that some of the neighbors would crumble Samoas into the cat bowl and pour Meow Mix for their children and I wouldn’t want the negative publicity

There is some interesting news on the horizon. Yesterday evening, I was invited to a very exclusive Hollywood soiree on short notice and had absolutely nothing to wear. Nurse Tameka suggested I wear my Bob Mackie Grizabella gown from the commercial shoot. She thought the diamante and sable would make a spectacular statement. She was right. It was a stunning success. Gloria DeHaven and Celeste Holm both wanted something similar so Bob and I are going to start a little business venture – GlamourPuss Gowns. Original couture based on the costumes from Cats . Dear Celeste has already arranged her fitting for a Skimbleshanks.

As life has been looking up, I decided to pop a good old-fashioned musical treat into the home theater. A dear friend, knowing of my status as the reigning diva of musical movies, sent me a copy of the film version of A Chorus Line to enjoy. I had seen this movie many years ago, when it was first released; I went in the company of my dear friend Larry Blum, who played Greg in New York for years. We both passed judgment at that time that the movie was far inferior to the stage work. After an absence of fifteen years, I am pleased to announce that we were wrong in our initial assessment. Not only is the movie inferior to the play, but it's also one of the most rancid products ever to emerge from the Hollywood studio system. As I huddled there amidst the faux Ottoman splendor of my home theater, my eyes grew wider and wider at the carnage unfolding on screen.

Those of you not old enough to remember the time called the 70s may be unfamiliar with A Chorus Line and its genesis. The play was devised by Michael Bennett and his collaborators out of a series of structured interviews and group reminiscences done by Broadway gypsies, the itinerant singer/dancers that make up the chorus of musicals produced in New York. It was a celebration of the individuality behind the sameness, imposed by the conventions of the chorus with their identical costumes and their need to sing and dance in unison to back the star. The original production exploded into the conscience of the theater community and the nation, first at Joseph Papp's Public Theater, and then on Broadway, at the Shubert, in 1975. In the show, the dancers slowly reveal themselves as they undergo a grueling audition for a new musical. By the end of the evening, the audience has gotten to know all of them as people, which makes their Finale appearance in identical traditional Broadway razzle-dazzle costumes both disorienting and gratifying - a sort of high kick apotheosis.

The show was an enormous critical and financial success, so naturally Hollywood came calling, determined to jump on the cash cow. Michael Bennett took the first stab at a movie version but, with Hollywood making too many demands on his artistic freedom, bowed out. Bob Fosse was interested (and the opening sequence of All That Jazz gives an idea of what he may have been able to do with the material), but was unable to strike a deal with the suits. After languishing for years, the project finally got the green light at Columbia under the auspices of that other great director of the musical, Richard Attenborough. Attenborough had recently been awarded an Oscar for the turgid Gandhi and, therefore, could do no wrong in the eyes of the Hollywood execs; however, the notion that he would have any understanding of the material makes as much sense, say, as hiring John Huston to direct a film version of Annie .

The first thing Hollywood insisted on was a bankable star. Enter Michael Douglas in the central role of Zach, the director/choreographer conducting the audition. On stage, Zach is mainly off stage; querying the hopefuls through a microphone - a disembodied god voice coming over the sound system. On film, the star had to have something to do. This led to the construction of a plot, hinted at in the stage version, but not fleshed out as it was unimportant in the overall schema, regarding Zach and his ex-girlfriend Cassie, once a featured dancer and now trying to rebuild her derailed career through a chorus job. Every singing/dancing actress in New York and LA was interested in the role so the producers opted for one who could do neither; an actress named Alyson Reed who had nothing going for her other than attractive red hair and who seems to have finished out her career playing small parts on Party of Five .

The resulting film becomes a mish-mash of 'The Zach and Cassie Hour', played like a bad plot on one of the less believable daytime dramas, intercut with occasional snippets of A Chorus Line with young, attractive and immediately forgettable actors as the other auditioners. As all potentially sensitive material, such as the gay references, were cut to broaden audience appeal, and as so much time had to be carved out for Zach and Cassie, the audience neither gets to know these individuals nor cares about them and they eventually become an annoyance. Attenborough clearly has no understanding of the material he's working with when he gives the great anthem to the dance What I Did For Love’ as a solo to Cassie to sing about Zach as a throw away moment. There is no imagination in the film craft and the entire enterprise reeks of studio compromises and focus groups. Even the famous Finale, despite fun costumes, falls flat as the symbolism and metaphors implicit in the endless line of dancers are no longer based on anything. The only moment that even begins to work is Surprise , a song written for the movie and not conceived for the stage and therefore, filmed with some innovation and well performed by Gregg Burge as Richie.

While I am not a huge fan of the play (it reeks of psychological gamesmanship and sadistic harassment), it's a work of genius for the ages beside this piece of trash. Do yourself a favor. Rent All That Jazz or Topsy Turvy instead and watch a good movie about the making of theater. The makers of this should feel ashamed of taking a classic theater piece and treating it with all the care of a worn out recliner at the corner garage sale.

Sequins. Spangles. Gratuitous Nicole Fosse. Even more gratuitous Audrey Landers. Wasted talent. Apartment dancing. Coffee drinking. Rehearsal props.

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