Entertainment & Arts

A Chorus Line: Broadway smash back in West End

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Media captionStars of A Chorus Line tell BBC News about the audition process

As classic Broadway musical A Chorus Line is revived in the West End, director Bob Avian shares his memories of helping to create the original production in the mid-1970s.

With its mix of Marvin Hamlisch songs, high-kicking dance routines and sexually-frank dialogue, A Chorus Line won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1976 and remains one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history.

Now the show is back in London for its first full revival since it arrived from Broadway 37 years ago with a cast that include ex-EastEnder John Partridge (Zach) and Scarlett Strallen (Cassie).

In charge of this revival at the London Palladium is Broadway and West End veteran director Bob Avian.

"It's thrilling to be back," says Avian, who choreographed the original Broadway hit production alongside its creator, Michael Bennett.

"The nature of the show demands that we have a 40 ft (12m) opening and there's only three theatres in town that have that. We've not been able to find the right theatre at the right time. When the Palladium came up I was thrilled. It feels warm and it hugs the performer."

From the back row of the dress circle, Avian points to the empty black stage and recalls the first time Bennett outlined his vision to the show's designer, Robin Wagner.

"Michael took a piece of chalk and drew it down the stage - and said: 'That's the set!' And it hasn't changed since."

Image caption Director Bob Avian and choreographer Baayork Lee both worked on the original 1975 show

It is on this bare stage with its solitary white line that 17 young dancers spill their life stories as they audition for a background role in a Broadway show.

According to Avian, it's this focus on "the little guy" that helped A Chorus Line strike a chord with audiences when it first opened in 1975.

"Everybody loves a backstage musical," he explains. "But this one's not about the star - it's about the kids in the chorus. You grow to know them so well, you understand their fears and dreams - and when you see the finale you see they have worked so hard to be anonymous. That's the double edge of the show.

"It's the same story as a guy who works in a factory putting a car together, or somebody in retail checking out your food. It's about the 'everyman'."

In keeping with the spirit of the story, three members of the London cast were selected from 2,000 who attended open auditions held at the Palladium in September 2012.

Image caption Scarlett Strallen and John Partridge as ex-lovers Cassie and Zach in A Chorus Line

"They've been doing great," says Avian. "In America we always cast from the open calls because it's how we find the talent who don't have agents. If they've got it, we spot it!"

Sexual revolution

A Chorus Line took shape in the mid-1970s when Michael Bennett tape-recorded dancers telling their life stories.

Avian recalls: "Everybody sat in a circle and Michael said 'let's talk about what makes us dance'. It opened certain doors about sexuality and adolescence, and as everybody talked around the circle it got deeper and more explicit."

Over a series of workshops, Bennett condensed those individual biographies into the characters that appear in A Chorus Line. The final result was a musical that reflected the sexual revolution of the 1970s, both in its language and subject matter.

"We were the very first musical to use that kind of language - and then there was the story's homosexual aspect," says Avian. "People thought they were coming to see a musical about chorus girls and high kicking. We give them a little bit of that, but we dig deeper.

"We shocked people tremendously when we opened but, you know, nobody complained."

A Chorus Line opened on Broadway in 1975 and went on to run for 6,137 performances. It features the Marvin Hamlisch songs One (Singular Sensation), What I Did For Love, I Can Do That, Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love and Hope I Get It.

Bennett died in 1987, and Hamlisch's death last August makes Avian one of the last members of the original creative team still alive.

With a CV that includes staging Miss Saigon and Sunset Boulevard and choreography for Martin Guerre and The Witches of Eastwick, Bob Avian returned to A Chorus Line when he was asked to direct the 2006 Broadway revival. "I knew it was going to happen sooner or later," he admits.

How much freedom does he have to stamp his own mark on such a well-known show? "The choreography is fixed. But I try to let the individual personality performer bring their own thing to it. I don't lock them in to what was done originally.

"Every time I have a new cast I find new things, and I keep including them in future productions."

A Chorus Line is in previews and opens at the London Palladium on 19 February

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