At the Stratford Festival this summer, the legendary musical “A Chorus Line” will be the same show it’s been since 1975.
After 40 years of fiercely guarding the original vision of the show’s late creator, the Michael Bennett estate has, for the first time, granted permission for an all-new staging of “A Chorus Line.”
“We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of professional productions and God knows how many non-professional ones,” said John Breglio, the producer and former attorney who is Bennett’s executor. “We’ve done Michael’s version over and over again, and have been very protective of it. That’s why Michael left it to me.”
The request that swayed him came from Canadian director-choreographer Donna Feore. “Donna’s request came at just the right time,” Breglio explained. “I’ve come to realize that ‘A Chorus Line’ is a living, breathing work, and it should grow and change with time. It’s not The Gospel According to Michael.”
Feore, whose production is now premiering at Stratford, Ontario’s Stratford Festival, succeeded where many others had failed over the years for a very simple reason. Call it a matter of geometry.
The 1800-seat mainstage auditorium at Stratford is built around the thrust stage designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch back in 1953. It’s an iconic space, but its semi-circular playing area is antithetical to the straight line on which Bennett’s classic staging of “Chorus Line” is based.
“I’ve wanted to stage ‘A Chorus Line’ here at Stratford as long as I’ve worked here,” Feore said. “But you just couldn’t put Michael’s choreography onto this stage. It’s linear choreography and this is not a linear space.”
That logical explanation impressed Breglio, but not as much as something else. “The first thing I could tell is what a passionate fan she was of ‘A Chorus Line,’” he said. “I could see she understood the power of the piece, and the more we talked, the more I was satisfied that she knew how to maintain the integrity of it.”
So the stage was set for a meeting last summer when Breglio and Bob Avian, Bennett’s co-choreographer, came up to Stratford to see the theater and meet with the director.
The show Feore staged at Stratford last summer was “The Sound of Music,” which couldn’t be less like “A Chorus Line.” But Breglio said it convinced him that Feore had a deep understanding of how to use the unique space.
When they all sat down together inside the theater after a performance, Feore made her pitch. “This isn’t a space you can cookie-cutter in,” Feore recalled telling him. “You can’t put square pegs into round holes on that stage. You have to work with it. I believe that if Michael were alive today and saw this space, he’d want to take the challenge of working with it.”
Then they discussed Breglio’s two biggest concerns: How could they maintain the essence of the line? And how could they incorporate the mirrors that are the original production’s most famous, and integral, set element?
Feore was ready with answers for both. When needed, a line would appear on the stage (made out of LED lighting fixtures), but it can vanish when the dynamic of the thrust space takes over.
And instead of a simple wall of mirrors, there would be an array of mechanized and moving surfaces that would take the original vision of Bennett and designer Robin Wagner into a new dimension.
Her ideas won her the gig. And apart from the necessity of physically staging the show differently because of the theater itself, she hasn’t touched a thing.
“Everything about the show itself remains so brilliant,” enthused Feore. “And the book is still so relevant. The story of Paul, who was afraid of his parents seeing him as a drag queen, still rings true today. Tolerance. Acceptance. How much does it cost to be who you really are?”
Breglio agreed. “The most important thing about ‘A Chorus Line,’” he said, “is that it’s about being true to yourself.”