April 23, 1990 12:00 PM

When A Chorus Line became the longest-running show on Broadway in September 1983, choreographer Michael Bennett assembled 330 of the show’s 457 high-strutting alumni for a special performance at the Shubert Theater. After the exuberant finale, the audience gave a standing ovation to the man who had conceived and directed a show that had sold 22 million tickets worldwide in eight years. Making his curtain call with Bennett, composer Marvin Hamlisch said, “Michael didn’t want me to tell anyone, but for the closing night, he’ll be inviting anyone who’s ever seen the show.”

Six years and seven months later, A Chorus Line is taking its final bow. On April 28, a well-heeled crowd of 1,500 will pay up to $500 each to see a swan-song performance—the play’s 6,137th on Broadway—that will benefit producer Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. Sadly, Bennett will be absent; he died of AIDS in 1987. But his legacy will be almost palpable. Even those who sometimes chafed under his tyrannical direction admit that A Chorus Line was Bennett’s creation: It was his vision and energy that transformed the life stories of 19 relatively unknown theatrical “gypsies” into a stunning two-hour show, wresting extraordinary performances from ordinary dancers and preserving the heart of their personal histories amid the razzle-dazzle of a full-dress musical. “We weren’t the stars,” says Kay Cole, the original Maggie. “The play was the star.”

Bennett’s own star has been tarnished over the last year by a series of revelations about his mercurial personality and hard-driving work style. In Kevin Kelly’s recent biography, One Singular Sensation, the Buffalo-born Bennett comes across as a paranoid, manipulative egomaniac, Another new book about the making of the show. On the Line, also describes Bennett’s difficult side but points out his more agreeable qualities: loyalty, humor and a magnetism that could make the whole cast fall a bit in love with him. “He wasn’t any worse than any of these other directors out there,” says original cast member Thommie Walsh, who along with Baayork Lee interviewed all of the original gypsies to write On the Line. “One person would say, ‘Gee, he was so difficult to work with, he never gave me any direction.’ Then the next one said, ‘He’s the best director I ever worked with.’ ”

Most of the original dancers met Bennett on a January evening in 1974, when they were invited to a midtown gym for an all-night encounter session. Seated on the floor with a tape recorder, Bennett—who had danced in musicals including West Side Story before choreographing such shows as Follies—began telling wrenching stories about his own life as a gypsy. The others followed, and 12 hours later they had the raw material for a play about Broadway’s foot soldiers.

With writer James Kirkwood and dancer Nicholas Dante, Bennett began fashioning the confessions into a script about following dreams—and falling short. About half of the dancers who had been at the rap sessions landed roles in the cast—and the soul-searching continued in rehearsals. “The workshop sessions were horrible in terms of having to talk about our lives,” says Patricia Garland. “Michael was trying to get more and more out of us.” He succeeded, but at a price. “He overstepped his bounds a few times and knew he was seducing people and didn’t care about the results,” says Kelly Bishop. “That’s where he made so many enemies.” The gypsies were also required to sign over the rights to their stories for $1, a decision some regretted when the show went on to earn $50 million. “I’m bitter and I always will be,” says Nancy Lane. “We were just stupid kids. We wanted to perform. Now we look back and say, ‘Yeah, what I did for love—give me a break.’ ”

Yet every member of the original cast believes that his or her tour of duty in A Chorus Line was a high that can never be duplicated. True to their characters, none became a drop-dead success, though 15 of the 19 have maintained show-business careers—dancing, choreographing, acting and directing. (The other four became an interior decorator, a floral designer, a businesswoman and an animal rights activist) Thommie Walsh and Priscilla Lopez both won Tonys for A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, and Wayne Cilento has been nominated twice. Rick Mason has danced in TV specials; Kelly Bishop appeared in Dirty Dancing: Nancy Lane was on Rhoda Says Pamela Blair, who has appeared on All My Childrenand The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd: “I’ve done nine Broadway shows, and I’ve never had that feeling onstage before or since—to have something that was such a hit There were nights when I wanted to kiss Michael Bennett”

Like family, the original gypsies have kept track of each other, though they rarely get together as a group. And like family, though they haven’t forgotten the times their father figure, Bennett berated or ignored them, they have forgiven him. “We were part of history, he gave that to us,” says Kay Cole. “No matter how much pain we have had getting there, he gave us something hardly any other people have.”

—Michelle Green, Toby Kahn in New York City

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