More than 40 years ago an ensemble of performers stepped onto the stage at New York City’s Shubert Theater and proceeded to gloriously sing, tap, soft shoe and leap their way into Broadway history. The show was “A Chorus Line,” director-choreographer Michael Bennett’s joyous and bittersweet ode to the unsung heroes of musical theater, the chorus dancers.
“This was the first show to give the nameless an identity,” says Luis Villabon, 48, a Broadway veteran who’s helming a new production of the show at the Madison Theatre, on the Molloy College campus, May 17-19.
“Bennett wanted to show how varied dancers’ lives could be, that they were from all walks of life. They’re not just automatons.”
The focus on an audition, where a group of dancers are vying for a few coveted spots in the chorus of a new musical. As the action unfolds, we learn their personal stories through songs that capture the hopes, dreams and vulnerabilities of the aspiring performers.“It’s really about what we as artists do for love, which is our craft,” says Villabon. “The gift is ours to borrow and we always know it will end someday, but no regrets.”
Bennett spent hundreds of hours interviewing dancers from the Broadway chorus corps about their lives and aspirations, then based the show on their real-life stories. The result, according to Villabon, is a perfect piece of musical theater.
The proof is in the nine Tonys, one Pulitzer and the acclaimed musical score by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban that produced iconic songs that resonate to this day. The many memorable tunes include “The Music and the Mirror, “I Can Do That,” “What I did for Love” and of course the signature, “One,” among others.
The upcoming production at the Madison Theater captures the show’s spirit, featuring a combination of professional actors as well as aspiring performers cast from Molloy’s CAP21 B.F.A. Musical Theatre Program.
“It’s phenomenal for students because “A Chorus Line” is like a master class where you learn ballet, tap, jazz, plus ‘70s popular dance; you also learn how to act and sing,” says Villabon.
All cast members had to earn their way into the production. “I had full on auditions and we let the chips fall where they may,” he explains.
One of those well-earned “chips” went to 20-year-old James Silverstein, who grew up on Long Island and is now a junior in the CAP21 program. “I play Mike, a 24 year-old from New Jersey with a thick Italian accent. He’s a big family guy who got into dancing because of his sister and fell in love with it,” says Silverstein. The character tells his story in the exuberant number, “I Can Do That,” which happens to be the show’s first solo.
“If the first number isn’t fabulous the show is in trouble,” says director Villabon. “So we had to cast someone who brings the goods and boy does he ever.”
Bethany Moore, of Rockville Centre, is one of the professionals in the cast, playing the pivotal role of Cassie.
“She [the character] was a star on Broadway who went to L.A. to be a bigger star,” says Moore. “When that didn’t pan out, Cassie, now in the twilight of her years as a dancer returns to New York hoping to convince her ex-lover, the director of the show, to give her a chance to perform in the chorus. She makes her case in the emotionally searing “The Music and the Mirror.”
“That song is a celebration of her love of dance,” says Moore. “That’s all she wants to do and she wants to do it as long as she can.”
Like Cassie, Moore can relate to the many physical and emotional challenges of being a 30-something dancer. “I have a two-year-old son now and a husband, so I can’t just get up and go on tour. You have to prioritize differently than you did at 22. I’m also learning how my 34-year-old body feels versus my 22-year-old body. That’s a new experience.”
One experience Moore savors is the chance to work with Molloy’s budding talents. “I recently got my Master’s in educational theater and I love having the students in the room. If I can be an example, I’m super grateful.”
Adds Silverstein: “Oh my gosh, it is the best experience working with pros. We quickly established a bond and have gotten so close. They have so much knowledge, so much to offer, they are always pushing us and wanting to have us do our best work.”
After “A Chorus Line,” Bennett went on to direct “Dreamgirls,” another groundbreaking classic set in the world of show business. When Bennett died in 1987 at the age of 44, the New York Times praised him as “the most influential theater director and choreographer of his generation.”
Three decades, later new audiences continue to experience the magic that is “A Chorus Line.”
A Chorus Line
When: Friday, May 17, 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 19, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 19, 3 p.m. $35-$45.
Where: Madison Theatre, Molloy College, Hempstead Ave., Rockville Centre. (516) 323-4444 or www.madisontheatreny.org.