April 02, 1984 12:00 PM

It was a scene out of A Chorus Line. More than 1,500 dancers stood in a chilling rain outside Broadway’s Royale Theatre last month, waiting more than three hours for a five-second opportunity to show they had what it takes—though no one knew precisely what that was—to win one of the 21 roles in the movie version of the longest-running Broadway musical. “You can’t get nervous at this stage. We’re not even close yet,” said Linda Ravin, 26. Observed Melanie Leslie, 22: “They have to pick somebody.”

What director Sir Richard Attenborough and choreographer Jeffrey Hornaday were seeking out of that crowd was one row of dancers. Hornaday rules out the possibility of using dance doubles, the device that worked so well for him in Flashdance. “We think it would undermine the credibility of the piece,” he says. “For Chorus Line we’re not looking for special stars. We’re trying to find uniquely individual chorus dancers.” At the two open auditions—one in New York, one in Los Angeles—Attenborough and Hornaday were hunting for different physical types to play the various characters. They wanted unknowns. “A Chorus Line is about kids who have not yet made it but who might,” Attenborough says. “If you had used a Shirley MacLaine or a Barbra Streisand in the film, the whole thing would be wrecked. Just watch these little faces and tell them they might be getting a job. They’re really beautiful.”

Having bounced around Hollywood for eight years, A Chorus Line is finally scheduled to go before the cameras this fall. For Attenborough, it is the first directing assignment since the epic Gandhi. He welcomes the change of pace. “A film like Gandhi strikes way beyond the ordinary entertainment context, with huge moral, ethical and political considerations,” he says. “What’s wonderful about this is that it’s almost the antithesis.” Other moviemakers have failed to come up with a workable cinematic approach to A Chorus Line, Attenborough contends, because “it’s been so devastatingly successful as a piece of theater. The thing to do was to retain that quality. All the other scripts and all the other ideas seemed to blow that. We virtually will never leave the theater. The audience will carry out, in a way, their own interpretation of the kids’ lives.”

The stories of the kids on the line in the movie won’t differ much from the stories of the kids on line outside the Royale Theatre, hoping for that chance to perform. For them, auditioning is a way of life. “It’s great when you get it, because you know what the competition was like,” says Mamie Duncan, 21. “If you don’t get it, you know what the competition was like, so you have an excuse.” One dancer, Susan Tenney, 24, spent $60 to rent a bear costume, hoping to catch Attenborough’s attention. He noticed, but she wasn’t called back. Those who matched the types the director and choreographer wanted were told they would be telephoned sometime this month to return for a more extensive audition. Lisa Pompa, 17, who had come in from Bridgeport, Conn., was one of the lucky ones. “This is the third audition I’ve had this week that said they would call us in March,” she said. “I’m not leaving the house in March.” Not without her dancing shoes.

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