Once upon a time, in that glittering industry supposedly safe from the pitches and valleys of the real world, circumstances took a turn for the depressing. A general hopelessness pervaded the atmosphere, nobody had two cents to rub together, and folks scrambled for whatever they could get in terms of employment. It was terrible. But at least the 70s didn’t have Transformers 4. I will go ahead and take my extremely deserved blows for that cheap joke momentarily, but first let us dip once more into my burning and pervasive (and possibly contagious, I really need to have it looked at) love of musicals.
The year is 1975, half a decade before the world of American musical theater would become best known for the rise of the mega musical – a genre defined by the elaborate set pieces, lights, and costumes (Les Miserables and pretty much everything Andrew Lloyd Webber has ever been responsible for, and Cats in particular); and big, bombastic, often pop-sensibility-shaded scores. The show is a raw little thing carved from the lives of the period’s struggling actors and dancers: A Chorus Line. It also had a pop-music infused soundtrack, but at least we have the option of awarding it the ‘appropriately time-piece flavored’ award.
Now, the narrative of A Chorus Line is a tricky thing, in that it is-and-isn’t a frame. We find ourselves in an empty theater with a bunch of dancers auditioning for a role in a major show. Not as leads, mind you, but as the faceless backup dancers there to make the stars look good. And even for a role that the average onlooker might not term appropriately glamorous, they are desperate for it. In an unusual move (that frankly is…sort of baffling, but let’s chalk it up to a character quirk that keeps the plot rolling) the casting director asks each of the prospective hires (who are quite commonly referenced only by number in real world casting situations) to talk about themselves – not to perform, but simply to be honest.
Most of the show is a series of vignettes, the loose structure paradoxically ratcheting up audience tension as we realize that not everyone we’re growing to like will be walking out with a job. More dire still, for many it is their last shot. As Shelly Long put it, they’re trying to get one more job before they can’t dance any more. There’s also a subplot about the casting director’s botched romance with the leading lady, but it is by far the most disposable bit.
Video transfer from the 70s – not awesome
It was an immensely popular show, helped by the fact that the director (who is commonly pretty hands-off once a show opens) would come in every few months to rework aspects of the show and keep it fresh and exciting – as well as the fact that the show’s script was formed from hundreds of interviews with real performers. It ran for over 6,000 performances, and was the longest running musical of all time before the furry monstrosity of Cats came along. And it’s run quite frequently since then, with large-scale productions running all the way up to a 2013 West End revival and a 2014 production in Oslo.
There was also, regrettably, a film. Made in 1985 and burned eternally into my overly curious eyeballs, it remains the single worst film adaptation of a musical that I have ever witnessed: the camera work is ugly when it is not merely perfunctory, the numbers jarring against one another rather than creating the organic feel of the show, the ending suffers a completely needless and saccharine change, and (most damning of all) there is not an ounce of emotional honesty in it. Better not to have any visual experience of the soundtrack at all than to have seen this film.
And that, dear readers, is a shame. While some might argue that the emotional intimacy inherent in making the show work requires a live connection between performer and audience, I’m not so sure it’s an impossible task In fact, more than ever it’s a perfect time for a remake (not a dirty word but one to be used carefully, as has been touched on before). There is no purer purpose for a remake than to take a failed work with still-relevant themes and to coax out relevancy and craft from bumbling failure (NOT to take a nostalgic thing everyone likes and squeeze a few cynical dollars from it by adding more explosions).
I do love a spirited revival
And what is A Chorus Line about? Desperation to be noticed and distinguished, economic frailty, a business that values youth and physical perfection above all other things, a loss of ‘self’ in an effort to perform an idealized version of that self, and the savagely cruel knowledge that these are all human beings – and that not all of them will be ‘good enough’ for even the most meager scraps of public attention (how many of you have been to a theater show and even noticed the hardworking chorus?).
This is a story that cries out to be applied to a modern aesthetic – to YouTube culture and failing upward via reality TV, to the Great Recession and the deafening static of social media (‘who am I anyway?’ as the opening song famously concludes). And while there would certainly be tweaks for the cultural landscape, I doubt it would be quite so many as a person would suspect (families are still broken, plastic surgery is still king, coming out is still terrifying if in different ways).
Now, there is already a cautionary tale in place for this kind of proposal. Fame – which was first a film in 1980 and then an extremely popular and socially relevant TV series – suffered a remake in 2009 that neatly stripped out any edge or controversy in the name of marketing a teen-friendly musical (never mind that terrors about identity and teen pregnancy are all kinds of relevant, if not the kind of thing the marketing execs would like their product to talk about).
And it raises the question – who would this film be for? It’s not really the Fresh Faced Kid Gets Break story; indeed it’s the opposite, filled as it is with the terror of failure and last chances. Then again, I think even the young suffer that terror nowadays, as the bar is ever raised by increasingly implausibly aged children becoming internet sensations or breaking this or that talent on TV. The uncertainty of money and desperation is certainly relevant as student debt becomes crushing and job expectations unreasonably weighted towards ‘pay in experience.’ And the ugliness of show business is perhaps something we need in the wake of bloated Michael Bay-type monstrosities (bringing it back around, you see).
Done right, we would have a little indie flick that could take full advantage of the combined intimacy-alienation of modern media – of video diaries or isolated audition tapes or the uncanniness of standing in a room being asked for honesty when we are, all of us, reaching the combined and unused power of the world’s knowledge in our hands. Yes, there is plenty of room for a new Chorus Line in our world. Anything to drum out that filmic travesty we’re currently stuck with.