Thirty-two years ago, Michael Bennett went digging in Broadway’s treasure chest, mixing the bygone style of Busby Berkeley—mirrors, gold tuxedos, mind-bending geometry—with an approach to stagecraft that was strictly East Village, using interviews and workshops to expose the hardships and aspirations of real Broadway gypsies. Though it’s hard to believe today, when A Chorus Line opened in 1975, the blunt honesty of the dancers’ stories was novel—a quality that helped propel the musical to its record-shattering fifteen-year run.
As the show makes its first return to New York, it faces a changed scene: That confessional tone has become a dominant form in American culture. From Behind the Music to Inside the Actors Studio to the on-camera soliloquies of endless reality-show contestants, we are awash in backstory. If Bennett’s show were new, critics would label it a shameless attempt to peddle the Real Broadway Experience to a crowd infatuated with tell-all TV. They would also call it the grossest manifestation yet of Broadway’s consuming love affair with itself. (I would, anyway.)
Lucky, then, that Bennett got there first; lucky, too, that in Bob Avian’s well-meaning revival, the director resists the temptation to punch things up for the American Idol era. This is a musical that looks its age. Some of the stories are a trifle musty, and the sound—from the horn fanfare that evokes cop shows in which everybody has facial hair to the drum breaks that are pure Action News—reeks of polyester. Many shows sport some cobwebs when revived (Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia just last week, for example), but with A Chorus Line, the sense of endurance over generations works a strange transformation. Even as it loses its innovative flash, its stature grows. Its images are so iconic, its legend so well known, that it seems a phenomenon all its own: a kind of para-musical, as much a part of the landscape as Shubert Alley. People certainly cherish it as if it’s one. Though this is about as unscientific as a study gets, more people volunteered to join me at this show than for any in recent years not involving a Meryl or Denzel.
All the noisy support from the audience doesn’t conceal the fact that, beyond its fidelity to Bennett, this revival of a terrific musical isn’t especially terrific itself. Moments that ought to be explosive, like Cassie’s big dance break, are merely effective, and the only completely satisfying performance belongs to Michael Berresse. Unfortunately, he plays Zach, the stern choreographer, and it’s hard to steal the show when you spend most of it posing questions from the back of the house. No two ways about it, this revival confirms A Chorus Line’s exalted spot in the Broadway canon and pride of place in the annals of the backstage confessional. If only it had found a really exciting way of doing so.
Talk about a news peg: The same week MCC opens its revival of Russell Lees’s Nixon’s Nixon, a play that imagines a late-night meeting between Tricky Dick and Henry Kissinger on the eve of Nixon’s resignation, we learn that Kissinger is still hanging around the Oval Office. Nobody knows exactly what he’s telling the president these days, nor does anybody know precisely what he told the president that night in 1974. But if the conversations now are anything like the one Lees imagines, then you should give in to your sense of acute, pervasive dismay.
For the sake of the national good, Nixon seeks Kissinger’s support to remain president, and Kissinger wants Nixon to go. Those are ostensibly the reasons for their meeting. But as Lees’s hilariously scabrous play progresses, it’s clear that the two men are really engaging in a symphony of ass-covering. As played with quivering gusto by Gerry Bamman, Nixon is a profane, puffy-eyed, delusional anti-Semite. He drinks constantly and writhes in his own skin as he wonders what history will make of him. The excellent Steve Mellor, meanwhile, makes the secretary of State a dour, rumpled turtle, unable to hide his exasperation with what’s left of the president. He also has the night’s best speech, a story about his youthful fears of anti-Semitism that helps explain his fervid dedication to “propping up our crumbling empire.”
Today, we hardly need fresh reasons to think our leaders craven and self-interested. Nor does Lees offer many shrewd political insights. But even when the play begins to unravel in its last half-hour, Jim Simpson’s production gives us a needed release, a chance to laugh at the gap between the grandeur and responsibility of these offices and the colossally flawed people who continue to occupy them. It beats screaming.
It’s gratifying to see all the positive notices and the extension that Bruce Norris’s The Pain and the Itch has won. His comedy about a well-off family’s hellish Thanksgiving really does take a scathing view of a certain smug liberal comfort. Even when they’re drawn too piously, the characters should make a New York audience feel a little ridiculous, and that alone makes it a play worth seeing.