As always, Spoiler Alert
Funny, that I only have two stage musicals in my collection, and they fall back-to-back alphabetically. This probably works to A Chorus Line‘s detriment, as it follows my favourite musical adaptation (Chicago), while simultaneously highlighting all the things I don’t like about musical film adaptations.
My mother and I saw A Chorus Line at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in 1989, which makes it the next-to-last musical we went to together. Considering that I was eighteen and on the brink of leaving the joined-at-the-hip stage of life with my mother, it seems appropriate that the themes in A Chorus Line were somewhat more adult than any of the musicals we’d seen before – homosexuality, child neglect and abuse, plastic surgery. (Our final musical together, The Phantom of the Opera, would be the first time we travelled to another city (Toronto) for a show, another big step in me growing up.) Knowing my mother’s rather prim nature, I was a little concerned that some of the mature themes and frank dialogue were making her uncomfortable.
But I needn’t have worried. She enjoyed A Chorus Line, and seemed more focused on the staging, commenting on how exhausting the show must have been for the performers, considering that they’re all on stage, standing still, for pretty much the entire thing, with no intermission.
And that, right there, is why I don’t think the show works particularly well as a film. About an audition to be in the chorus of a Broadway show, the dancers stand in a line across the stage, facing the audience. They stay in that line as they interact with each other and the director, Zach, and only step out when telling their own story. Outside of a few specific dance numbers, the staging is quite static, and except for one moment in the story, Zach is nothing but a voice to the audience. It’s very effective at drawing the viewer into the process and feeling a kinship with the auditionees, who have no idea what Zach thinks of them and whether or not they’ll get the job.
Where that method of staging is carried into the film, it doesn’t work. We’re not used to such stillness onscreen, and everybody just looks kind of awkward, just standing there. But neither does it work when the camera moves and the point of view changes, pulling our attention away from the dancers, or when the action leaves the stage to follow the Cassie (Alyson Reed) storyline, or every single time we see Zach (Michael Douglas) and can read his reactions.
Watching the live show, I found myself picking who I hoped would ultimately get a part. When I told my mother that, she said she’d done the same thing. (There wasn’t a lot of overlap in our choices, but we were both pulling for Richie.) I also identified with Sheila, for whom ballet was the thing that got her through an unhappy childhood and showed her there could be joy in the world. (Although for me, it was music.) Much like her, I found adopting a brash, confident persona a useful tool as I made my way out into the real world.
But in the film, we don’t get to see the background nuances that we do in the stage show, so Sheila just comes across as a bitch, and Richie is almost non-existent. Everybody’s so one-dimensional, in fact, that it’s hard to care for any of the performers, and when Zach announces who makes the final cut, it doesn’t have any impact.
Much like the film as a whole.
To see other posts in my venture to watch my movie collection in alphabetical(ish) order, click here.