The summer before my senior year in college I, on a whim, auditioned for a job in the chorus of the St. Louis Muny Opera, the largest outdoor summer stock musical theater in America. I don’t know why it was called “Opera”, as far as I know they never did anything other than musicals.
It’s an entirely different story, but, as luck would have it, I got the job. There I learned about musicals, having the opportunity to play and understudy in 10 shows a summer for two summers.
I sat in between two male dancers in the dressing room in assigned positions for both summers and for the first time in my life, got to know and became fast friends with two gay men – one, Michael Shawn, who later became my choreographer for several shows that I wrote and directed in NYC and at whose bedside I sat as he died of AIDS. The other, Nicholas Dante, like Mike, went on to be a working Broadway dancer and was always dabbling with playwriting.
One evening, after the show in St. Louis that first summer, Nick invited me to participate in a reading of one of his plays. I gladly accepted, knowing that I would be attending the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater that next fall in NYC and I thought that I might get a little more experience under my belt.
I don’t remember much about the reading – the play was OK and the food was much better. I do remember that we all got to play actors auditioning for a musical and that’s about it.
Years later, when I was Composer-In-Residence at The Public Theater, Joe Papp asked me to work with the director of a new experimental piece that was work-shopping in one of his theaters. It seemed that the composer was in Hollywood finishing a film-scoring job and would not be able to attend auditions, so Joe asked me if I would help the director run auditions and sit in for the composer. Of course I agreed.
The day of auditioning started and just before we saw our first victim, in walks my old pal Nicholas Dante. I said, “Hey Nicky, what are you doing here?” He answered, “Oh, this is my play – you know, the one we did the reading of that night back at the Muny in St. Louis.” He had actually gotten that show on and now was work-shopping it at the most powerful developmental theater in America. I was so happy for him to have such a lucky break.
In the ensuing years I was to become even happier for my old pal Nick, for the director of that workshop was Michael Bennett, the composer who I subbed for was Marvin Hamlisch, and the show was A Chorus Line.
I had the great privilege of watching this masterpiece develop and grow into a Pulitzer Prize winning musical and the fifth longest running show in the history of Broadway. Though I only sat on the fringes, it was a rare experience for me as a young twenty something to see the run-throughs and stay on top of the changes, deletions and additions as the musical developed.
Michael Bennett was an absolute inspired and driven genius throughout the experience and the major reason for its success, but let us not forget that my pal Nicholas got the whole thing started that night back in St. Louis in his apartment where the food was better than the play.
Nicky, Michael, and most of the men in that original cast and crew are now all gone – victims of a disease that took over a hundred of my friends and decimated the creative force behind the Broadway theater. But Nick got to ride the tail of a comet in his all-too-short life. I don’t believe he would have traded the experience of A Chorus Line for a couple of more decades.
Sometimes I would go through pangs of jealousy as I watched this show develop – jealousy that I couldn’t have been more a part of it, but in the end I was simply grateful to have experience that I did. It was a gift and an education.
The final performance of the show on the last night at The Public before it moved to Broadway was really something special. The theater only sat around 200 and so it was a very select audience to see a show that everyone knew would be a whopping hit. The buzz was terrific and the energy out the roof that night as this wondrous show swaggered and triumphed.
I was there. I never saw it any better than that night. I probably caught the show for one reason or another ten times on Broadway, but it was never as mighty, as emotional, as simply great, as that last night at The Public.
It’s an evening and an experience I’ll always remember.
Sadly, as fate would have it, at the same time as I was writing this post the other night, Marvin Hamlisch, the award-winning composer of A Chorus Line, and many great songs and scores for movies, passed away. Both he and his music will be missed; however, as we all know, he will live on in his music:
Like the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories
Of the way we were
Of the smiles we left behind
Smiles we gave to one another
For the way we were
Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Or has time re-written every line?
If we had the chance to do it all again
Tell me, would we? could we?
– From The Way We Were, music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman
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