It was the sort of spectacle that would make a Busby Berkeley extravaganza look like a high school recital. Aglitter in gold, 330 dancers—the longest chorus line ever seen on Broadway—streamed from the balcony, through the mezzanine, up the aisles of the orchestra onto the specially reinforced stage of the Shubert Theatre. High-stepping in top hats, they brought the celebrity-filled audience to its feet. After the curtain call, the guru of the gathering took center stage. Near tears, Michael Bennett gestured toward the performers behind him and said simply, “I have a wonderful family.”
For Bennett, who conceived, directed and choreographed A Chorus Line, it was an emotional, extravagant family reunion. For the New York Times, it was “a night in the theater that its witnesses will remember for the rest of their lives.” For historians, it was the record breaker. On Sept. 29, after 3,389 Broadway performances, 22 million tickets in the U.S., $260 million worldwide at the box office, nine Tony Awards, eight years, two months and four days on the Great White Way, A Chorus Line deposed Grease as the longest-running Broadway show ever.
To a showman like Bennett, the milestone was an invitation to play Can You Top This. Instead of asking the original company to reprise their roles, as some urged him to do, Bennett hit upon a concept that exemplified the musical’s brotherhood-of-the-barre theme: He invited all 457 of the show’s alumni from its eight companies—the original, current, national, international, foreign, Chicago, Las Vegas and bus-and-truck casts—to perform that night. “My father told me something when I was a kid,” says Bennett, 40. “If anybody ever buys you a drink, make sure you buy him the next round. That’s what I wanted to do that night. I wanted to repay everybody.”
The call went round the world. Stage managers Tom Porter and Wendy Mansfield spent three months tracing dancers. To accommodate those currently working on Broadway, Bennett set a 10:30 p.m. curtain. For the out-of-towners, producer Joe Papp footed airfare, hotel accommodations and other expenses. All the cast members were offered a $50 honorarium for the performance. Because of conflicting schedules, personal obligations and, in a few cases, ill will, many couldn’t make it. Conspicuously absent was Pamela Blair, the original “T and A” singer, who had TV commitments and, according to colleagues, reservations about sharing her song with three other actresses. But among those who did show were Ann (Annie) Reinking, Sandahl (Conan the Barbarian) Bergman and Donna McKechnie, the show’s first Cassie and the former Mrs. Michael Bennett.
Before the show could go on, however, adjustments had to be made. To support the weight of 330 dancers, 48 wooden uprights were installed beneath the stage. Next door, the stage of the Booth Theater was transformed into two huge dressing rooms. A giant TV screen was installed there so cast members could watch the show when not performing. Outside, Shubert Alley was carpeted and tented for the pre-and post-performance parties.
When the lights finally went down, what could have been logistical chaos turned into the stuff of legend. With only three days rehearsal, Bennett’s restaging endowed the show with an unexpected emotional resonance. After the current cast performed the opening number, they were replaced, in an eerie dissolve, by the original cast of eight years ago. The most electrifying moment: a mounting of The Music and the Mirror, in which Donna McKechnie was mirrored by eight other actresses who have danced the role of Cassie. But it was the roof-raising finale that most awed Bennett. “My eye is trained to see what’s wrong on a stage, but not one kid in the 330 was out of step,” he says.
At the lavish post-show party, even the usually reticent were rhapsodic. “It’s overwhelming,” exclaimed Kevin Kline. The Shubert Alley celebration was a production in itself: an open bar, plus 35 cases of champagne, 30 pounds of caviar, 75 waiters and 2,000 guests, including Meryl Streep, Stephen Sondheim, Colleen Dewhurst, Francis Coppola and Christopher Walken, a former chorus kid himself. Ironically, the one-night-only gala cost over $400,000—roughly equal to the original off-Broadway production.
For the cast, the festivities climaxed what had been an emotional round of rehearsals, reminiscences and occasional rude awakenings. Original cast member Cameron Mason was astonished to realize “the guy who is playing my part now was 12 when I was doing the role.” The week began with a welcoming party at Bennett’s lower Manhattan studios on Sunday night. Baby pictures were passed around. Old lovers were sized up; old friends were caught up. “For most of us, this show has been the story of our lives,” noted Melody Rogers, now a TV magazine show co-host in L.A. For some, appearing in A Chorus Line became their lives. Scott Pearson played Zach for six years, touring the U.S. and Australia as well as appearing on Broadway. The show took Jannet Morantz to the altar. She met her husband, Brad, when she joined the national company in 1979. “We eyed each other from afar for a few cities,” Brad recalls, and they married the following year. Jannet stayed with the show for nearly three years. “It gives you a chance to be in the spotlight, and it’s very hard to go back to the chorus,” she observes. Says Sammy Williams, who won a Tony Award for playing Paul, the Puerto Rican homosexual, “A Chorus Line opened the doors for me. I’m grateful.”
For Donna McKechnie, the historic performance was an initially trying, ultimately triumphant homecoming. In 1976 Donna won a Tony Award for playing Cassie, the out-of-work star dancer who desperately wants to return to the sanctuary of the chorus—a character modeled in part on McKechnie herself. Cassie had been romantically involved with the show’s director, and McKechnie and Bennett played out the plot for real with a Parisian wedding in December 1976. The following year the marriage fell apart—under the ever-watchful eye of Broadway and the press. “The publicity didn’t help what was a fickle situation to begin with,” McKechnie says now. The divorce left her “upset and depressed,” and it soured her on dancing as well. “I didn’t want to work again until I could enjoy it and not resent it.” Two and a half years ago she moved to L.A., where she is currently appearing in a musical revue and choreographing for the L.A. Raiders cheerleading squad.
When McKechnie returned to New York for rehearsals, she hadn’t seen the show or her ex-husband for six years. She particularly dreaded the Sunday night party. “I thought I was going to be a mess,” she says. Instead, she found herself “emotionally elated.” So did the audience at the Shubert: McKechnie’s dance number drew a standing ovation mid-show. “The best thing about this is that Michael and I have renewed a friendship,” she observes. “To have lost a friend of so many years, that was the hardest for me.”
Friendship was the genesis of A Chorus Line. Ironically, what has become a Broadway institution began as an informal rap session among dancers. In January 1974 Bennett got a group of colleagues together and tape-recorded their conversations. A few months later protean producer Joseph Papp asked Bennett to direct a revival of Knickerbocker Holiday. Bennett had a counteroffer. Michael recalls, “I told Joe, ‘I have this idea for a musical about dancers. It’s sort of about life. Just give me a room.’ He gave me a room for a year.” In return, the proceeds from Bennett’s show gave Papp the financing that has kept his New York Shakespeare Festival afloat. As producer of A Chorus Line, which has played in 184 cities and eight countries, Papp has received some $28 million from the musical, roughly 60 percent of the Public Theater’s budget. “If it hadn’t come along,” says Papp, “we wouldn’t have been able to go on.” Neither would Bennett own his luxurious eight-story rehearsal studio in Manhattan or his $3 million house in the Hamptons. At the height of the show’s popularity in the late ’70s, it was estimated that Bennett personally was grossing $90,000 a week from A Chorus Line. The dancers who spoke into the mike also got a piece of the action for their life stories. Bennett donated one-half of one percent of his royalty to divide among the 52 dancers who participated. Although those checks once were about $4,000 a year, these days, “It pays the MasterCard bill,” says Priscilla Lopez.
In a sense, A Chorus Line has haunted its original cast. Despite the acclaim accorded them, none has achieved the stardom predicted when the show opened, which doesn’t surprise Bennett. “There was no one in the show with star quality,” he says. “There wasn’t meant to be.” Lopez perhaps came closest to fame, winning the lead in the short-lived 1978 CBS sitcom In the Beginning. Even for its creator, the show became something of a curse. “I was 32 years old when it opened,” recalls Bennett, “and it was too much attention. I don’t think anyone is prepared for that kind of success.” He took to driving around town in a white Rolls-Royce and attended the black-tie Tony Awards one year in jeans. There was also a brief excursion to Hollywood. Surprisingly, one honor usually accorded a Broadway hit has thus far eluded A Chorus Line: the movie version. Universal Pictures bought the screen rights in 1976 for $5.5 million. Since then two companies, numerous screenwriters and such A-list directors as Mike Nichols, Jim Bridges and Sidney Lumet have wrestled with the property to no avail. (Nevertheless, the musical has influenced such films as All That Jazz, Fame and Staying Alive.) In 1977 Bennett suffered a nervous breakdown, and the next year his self-financed, $2 million musical Ballroom flopped, which brought him back to earth. “My day-to-day life was easier after I had a failure,” observes Bennett.
Recently, the Bad Boy of Broadway has salved those wounds with his new smash, Dreamgirls, and has cultivated a grown-up image: Cast members were astonished when he conducted rehearsals in coat and tie. “Now I’m the Establishment,” moans Bennett. “I’m proud of the fact I’ve matured. But I always thought the character of Peter Pan was fabulous. I grew up playing Let’s Pretend as a boy. That boy I keep very much alive. Out of him comes musicals.” And now, musical history. Insiders estimate that the publicity surrounding A Chorus Line’s landmark will add at least a year to the run of the show. “There’s no telling when it will close. Thank God,” says Bennett. But according to Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote the show’s music, Bennett already has plans for that inevitable evening. “Michael didn’t want me to tell anyone,” confided Hamlisch to the audience at the curtain call for the 3,389th performance, “but for the closing night of A Chorus Line, he’ll be inviting anyone who’s ever seen the show.”
Scenes from center (and off) stage
For most graduates of A Chorus Line—whose light-footed minidramas compress lifetimes of Broadway hope and heartbreak—there’s still no business like show business. The overwhelming majority continues to perform—in Cats on Broadway or in dinner theaters or Atlantic City nightclubs. But some have left the line. Onstage for the finale of the record-breaking performance were a cruise director, a mechanical arts student, a sportscaster and an interior designer. On these pages, other alums discuss their stage characters, careers and A Chorus Line with PEOPLE reporters Peggy Brawley and Leah Rozen.
Bosoms or bust: they’re playing her song
Mitzi Hamilton’s breasts—or rather, her breast implants—are world famous. It was Hamilton’s 1973 bosom-boosting surgery that inspired Dance: Ten; Looks: Three (known as “Tits and Ass”), one of the most popular Chorus Line songs. The character of Val is based on Hamilton (who gabbed into Bennett’s tape recorder in 1974) and actress Pamela Blair, who originally played her. For Mitzi, A Chorus Line has been a career in itself. She’s spent five of the past seven years with the show, originating Val in London and singing the part for the past three years on Broadway. Mitzi, now 35, claims that at least 10 Chorus Line colleagues have taken her show-stopping number’s advice to augment their assets. Because of the song, she says, “My friends all think I had my rear done too.” (She didn’t.) And unlike Val, Hamilton swears, “I did it for myself, not the business. You only have one life to live, and I wanted tits.”
For a Chorus couple, it’s kids: 5; careers: 2
Two weeks after her second child was born in 1975, Mary Ann O’Reilly, 34, joined A Chorus Line as Vicky. “I was nursing my baby, pumping out milk and storing it in the stage manager’s refrigerator,” she says. By that time, Chorus Line already was a family affair. Mary Ann’s husband, Andy Bew, 34 (they met as dancers in 1968’s The Happy Time), inspired the character of Don—the would-be family man. They now have five children (from left, Jilaine, Jesse, Christi, Candice and Jamie), and when Mary Ann went on the road in 1980 with Sugar, she took three kids with her. “I’ve held the leading-lady roses onstage,” she says, “but it’s no comparison to holding a baby.”
He’s hoofing his way through college
Calvin McRae, 27 (with dancer Wanda Richert), surely is the only straight-A, premed student at City College of New York who’s now paying his tuition by dancing as a stripper at a women-only nightclub. One of 10 children in a poor Toronto family, McRae has been dancing on Broadway and London stages since age 15. But shortly after playing Chorus Line’s Larry in 1979, he realized he was not happy. “One of the things I missed most was going to school,” remembers the eighth-grade dropout. “I said, ‘I’m going to stop being frightened. I will go to school and make dancing pay for it.’ I want to be a doctor,” he adds, “because it’s the greatest gift I can offer people.”
Going Hollywood was going nowhere
Kelly Bishop was supposed to be a big star after winning a 1976 Tony for her role as the wise-cracking, seen-it-all Sheila. Didn’t happen. The first to leave the original cast, Bishop found TV guest shots and a supporting role in An Unmarried Woman. “No one is going to become a big Hollywood star out of A Chorus Line,” says Kelly, now 39. “That town has always been about the camera, not acting.” As one of the dancers whose taped life story became part of the show, Kelly says Sheila is “my life. What you hear Sheila say was verbatim from me.” Bishop, who spent the summer touring with Pal Joey, is happy just to be a working actress. “I’ve made a living for 21 years in this business and never had to wait on tables,” she says. “Not many people can say that.”
Give his regards (from afar) to Broadway
Cameron Mason created the role of Mark—the youthful enthusiast—at 25, two years after he arrived in New York “with $50, a peacoat and a friend’s phone number.” Later he danced on the short-lived Mary Tyler Moore TV variety series and toured in Chita Rivera’s club act. Then he turned 30—and panicked. “I knew a dancer’s life was limited,” he says. “I never wanted to choreograph or be a star. What was I going to do?” He also was fed up with backstage politicking, so three years ago Cameron, now 33, left showbiz. Last April he returned to hometown Phoenix, where he now works in his mother’s furnishings store. “I’m so grateful to have been part of A Chorus Line I would put myself through it again,” he insists. “But next time, I would be tougher.”