Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A chorus line

London Palladium, 12 February 2013

 The finale, from Richard Attenborough's film version. Stressing the eventual anonymity of the chorus members
(and seeming  to make comparisons with goosestepping military types).

A near-perfect theatre work that manages to have its cake and eat it by being both clever and moving.

Whenever I watch a musical, even if I dislike it, I sympathise with the chorus line, the singing, dancing, hardworking anonymous entertainers. So this particular drama is a stroke of genius, focussing as it does entirely on the chorus.

It is also cruel. Underneath the ‘no business like showbusiness’ sentiments, this ruthlessly illustrates that the chorus line will remain anonymous. Although every member is skilfully sketched, there are no stars in this show, either within the world of the show, or in our world.

It’s also not a tale about tearful clowns or navel-gazing actors. It has a wider appeal, touching upon professional competitiveness, personal ambition and productive employment. Each of the cast is given sufficient time to define themselves, and while in some cases this is fairly crude, it is cumulatively effective.

And then, in the final number, doubling as a curtain call, we experience the chorus line ‘in character’, supporting an absent star in a glittering dance routine. A powerful irony, as the dancers finally become completely anonymous, and indistinguishable, at the time when typically we would be applauding specific actors.

So, this is a postmodern drama that actually works. It even has a big tune inserted without dramatic necessity, though in such a way that ‘What I did for love’ can be seen as the comment of the entire cast (in and out of character) on their current career choice.

Credit for this remarkable achievement belongs to Michael Bennett, the original writer / director / choreographer, although the programme note claims that Bennett’s genius applied mostly to the specific productions he directly oversaw, and cannot readily be found in new productions, such as this one. In which case the current director, Bob Avian, deserves the credit.

One person who doesn’t cover himself in glory is the composer, Marvin Hamlisch. His contribution is serviceable, and I’m astonished this was such an enormous hit in the 1970s and 80s. It deserves to do extremely well again in this revival, though I suspect the music will help sink it (rather than a lack of star power, as great music could overcome this).

Even my recurring complaint with musical theatre, that the cast is amplified, has less force with this work. I can’t really expect dancers to also be able to fill the large London Palladium with their natural voices. Still, it would be nice to be able to determine who was singing without a big spotlight being necessary.

But then again… the essential anonymity of the cast is the central concern of the show. A collection of attractive, superfit, talented dancer / singer / actors working very hard night after night, and yet allowed only small flashes of individuality before merging as efficiently as any circus routine.

If Chekhov went to Broadway, this is what he would have written.

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