Richard Attenborough and A Chorus Line

by Steven LaVigne

I have, for several years, been planning to write a series of essays on film directors who made one musical during their careers. Think about it! Why was John Huston, whose work included thrillers (The Maltese Falcon, Prizzi’s Honor), literature (The Dead, Wise Blood) and adventures (The African Queen, The Man Who Would Be King) attracted to Annie? After making films with John Wayne, what was Howard Hawks’ motivation to make Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? For that matter, just because he’d done the stage version, what made Harold Prince think he could bring A Little Night Music successfully to the screen? These questions will be explored in forthcoming articles.

The criteria here is simple. The musicals must be originally written for the  stage and not the screen. There can be no musicals based on movies that were remade after their theatrical run. Therefore, films like The Producers, Nine and Hairspray don’t qualify.  Directors who made more than one musical (with one exception) are exempt as well, so you won’t find Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, Charles Walters, Robert Wise, Walter Lang, George Sidney or others on the list.

Richard Attenborough

I’ve chosen to begin with the exception to this criteria, Richard Attenborough, for two reasons. First of all, his first film was based on a musical revue that wasn’t particularly successful. Secondly, his other movie musical was based on an important, long-running, Award-winning production.

After a long career as an actor, in 1969, Richard Attenborough was chosen to bring Oh! What a Lovely War to the screen. Based on a revue which began on radio, the stage version was developed at Joan Littlewood’s Theater Workshop and played for four months on Broadway, but is never produced today.

Attenborough assembled an all-star cast that included Maggie Smith, Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, John Mills, Laurence Olivier, Michael, Corin and Vanessa Redgrave, Ian Holm, Edward Fox, Susannah York and Ralph Richardson to portray notable characters as Charles Chilton, Ted Allan and Len Deighton’s screenplay mixed actual events with a rather thin story of the fictional Smith family, who support the war effort until three of their sons become casualties.

The UK lost a third of its male population in what was called “The Great War,” but Oh! What a Lovely War is a pageant, presented as a seaside theme park attraction at Brighton Pier. Using old music hall songs, the script is basically vignettes, maintaining its revue format until the beautiful ending when young women in white plant crosses on the 16,000 graves at Sussex Downs.

Released at the end of the lavish, expensive movie musical craze, Oh! What a Lovely War was presented in larger cities as a roadshow attraction requiring reserved seating (Other films released in this fashion included Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Star! and Paint Your Wagon). However it never played in smaller cities. I saw the film when I was an undergrad and thought it was magnificent. The film is available for streaming and on DVD, but sadly, it’s largely been forgotten, which is a pity.

A Chorus Line

Attenborough continued to make films and hit the jackpot in 1982 when his biography of Gandhi won 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Director. Heady with success, Attenborough announced that he do what Michael Bennett, Mike Nichols and Sidney Lumet, among others, had passed on: bringing A Chorus Line to the screen. A Chorus Line is perhaps the most important musical of the 1970s, moving from humble beginnings to play 6,137 performances, and after 15 years, become the longest running musical in Broadway history (That record has of course, been broken by The Phantom of the Opera, the revival of Chicago, Cats and Les Miserables, among others).

The show was a phenomenon, and had quite an impact, especially for theater people who had experiences similar to the characters onstage.

The show began when Director-choreographer Michael Bennett assembled a group of chorus dancers together, and following a dance class, asked them to talk about their lives, recording this and other sessions. The transcripts from these taped sessions were transformed into a libretto by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante. The music was by Marvin Hamlisch and the lyrics by Edward Kleban. A Chorus Line was the first musical since How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1962) to be honored with the Pulitzer Prize.

This material represents the hopes and dreams of everyone involved in the theater community, because the characters share experiences we’ve all been through, from dancing around the living room to the ups and downs of adolescence and how we’ll manage in the future. As Zach, an in-demand director, chooses dancers from the hundreds who audition, we meet such individuals as Paul, whose career began by performing in drag; his knowing friend, Diana; Al and his new wife, Kristine, a terrific dancer, who can’t sing; Val, who’s had body enhancement to help herself get jobs; Sheila, who’s getting too old for the chorus and Mark, a newcomer.

By far, the easiest method of filming this would be to set up five or six cameras and performing the show as written. However, the script, revised by Arnold Schulman, eliminates much of the stage libretto to focus on the relationship of former lovers, Zach and Cassie. During their relationship, Zach had neglected Cassie to advance his career. She moved to California, where she faced unemployment. Now, desperate for a job, she auditions for the chorus. As each of the dancers talks about themselves, Zach considers each of them and finally chooses eight dancers. The show ends with the production number, “One,” giving the audience a sample of what they often miss because they’re busy watching the leading lady performing front and center.

A Chorus Line was filmed in the Mark Hellinger Theater on 51st Street. This theater, which at one time housed the original productions of My Fair Lady, starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews; Coco starring Katherine Hepburn; Dear World starring Angela Lansbury and Sugar Babies starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller was facing its last hurrah. After the filming was completed, it was rechristened the Times Square Church, where vagrants routinely sleep outside its doors. (Fortunately, because it’s an historic site, the beautiful mirrored lobby and theater interior can’t be changed).

If only the producers demanded that Arnold Schulman’s screenplay were more faithful to Kirkwood and Dante’s book.

Instead, the movie is unfocused, with Attenborough’s camera is all over the place. The movie commits the sin that many other recent musicals commit: we never get to see the actual dance steps (Dirty Dancing, Grease and Saturday Night Fever for instance), because the camera is filming faces instead. Furthermore, because Schulman and Attenborough didn’t trust the material, several of the musical numbers were radically changed. Instead of “Hello 12, Hello 13, Hello Love,” a montage about living through adolescence for several characters has been narrowed to “Surprise, Surprise,” wherein Richie describes losing his virginity. The highlight of the stage production, Cassie’s “The Music and the Mirror” which Bennett derived for Donna McKechnie, was replaced by the mediocre “Let Me Dance for You.”

Baayork Lee, who created the role of Connie onstage has become the curator of Michael Bennett’s original choreography, but she wasn’t asked to participate in the film version. Most of Bennett’s creativity was jettisoned in favor of Jeffrey Hornaday’s bumps and grinds. Only once, during the finale, “One,” do we see Bennett’s choreography.

And then there was the cost involved. In 1969, Hello, Dolly! cost $26 million, but the cost is evident. A Chorus Line is a show with no scenery, no costumes and no stars, (other than Michael Douglas as Zach). Where did its $26 million budget go?  A year later, Little Shop of Horrors, with a similar budget was released and once again, the cost was evident. Where the budget went for A Chorus Line is a head-scratcher.

This movie is a huge mess, lacking the energy and verve of the stage version! After seeing the movie, anyone unfamiliar with the stage production, even if they’ve heard the cast recording, must question what all the hoopla was for. It’s almost as if the creative staff was deliberately trying to sabotage the material.

Besides Douglas, the cast included Alyson Reed, Terrence Mann, Nicole Fosse and Audrey Landers. Released for Christmas, 1985, the movie quickly laid an egg. It’s available to stream and on DVD, but unlike Oh! What a Lovely War, this film should be forgotten.

Producer Ryan Murphy is developing a television series based on A Chorus Line, which, hopefully will return the material to its original intentions, telling the stories of chorus dancers, many of whom need to move on from their present careers. At this writing, no further details are available. I’ve seen A Chorus Line several times onstage, and think Ryan Murphy will do it right!

I guarantee that not all of the pieces in this series will be as negative  as this is, and now that I’ve written it, I’m thinking I need to see Oh! What a Lovely War again.