San Luis Obispo is experiencing a bumper crop of landmark musical revivals this season, beginning with a collaborative production of Show Boat helmed by Opera San Luis Obispo, and continuing with SLO Little Theatre’s staging of A Chorus Line. This very meta dance-musical may be solidly in the canon now, but when it debuted off-Broadway in 1975, it was groundbreaking.
In the wake of popular ’60s and ’70s Brechtian-influenced, American-written musicals—most notably 1960’s The Fantasticks, with music by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, and Stephen Sondheim’s Company, which debuted in 1970 to a generous helping of the year’s Tony nominations—A Chorus Line was written from interviews with a number of Broadway dancers in an ensemble style still relatively novel to mainstream American theatre at the time. It recounts the lives of Broadway’s “gypsies,” ensemble dancers struggling to find enough work to pay the bills and spend their careers doing “What I Did For Love,” as the show’s signature ballad attests (written at the very end of the American musical’s ability to generate “top 40” hits, this high-minded metaphor was chosen so that, out of context, this “11 o’clock” number could double as a love song on the radio).
What was so exciting about this particular moment on the Broadway stage was the possibility of marrying a relatively experimental style with the almost stereotypically popular genre of musical theatre. The interview-based play has gone on to achieve greater socio-artistic goals with the works of Eve Ensler and Anna Deavere Smith, among others, but never again has it so perfectly aligned with the inherent populism of a kick line.
Contrary to the usual expectations associated with “ensemble” and “musical,” A Chorus Line’s personal, confessional nature lends itself well to the SLO Little Theatre’s intimate stage. The production is directed and choreographed by Zach Johnson, with musical direction by Lacey McNamara. The popularity of dance competition “reality” shows is now so ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget that they had a singular, sensational precedent. Don’t miss it.
A Chorus Line runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 15 at the SLO Little Theatre, 888 Morro St. For tickets and more information, call 786-2440 or visit slolittletheatre.org.