Another West End show closes. It happens all the time; the dead feed the living. After seven months at the London Palladium, A Chorus Line ends.
For the uninitiated, the show is a fly-on-the-wall musical that plays out the audition process for the chorus of a fictitious Broadway show. It follows the dancers from the open call to the final cut.
I'd never heard of A Chorus Line until last summer, when my wife Victoria Hamilton-Barritt told me she had an audition for it. We watched the movie and I spoke to friends outside the industry about it. They knew it, they'd grown up with it, along with Fame, Grease, Footloose - 1980's musical films that inspired thousands of little girls (and boys) to dress up and dance in front of their parents' bedroom mirrors. Shows like A Chorus Line are the sparks that ignite the love for musical theatre that burns in many.
So Victoria got an audition, an audition for a show about being in an audition for a show... How do you even audition for something like that? Would it help to show some nerves? Would you be able to do that? Can you act nervous when you're naturally nervous anyway? The prospect of the audition baffled me, but I didn't have to audition for it, Victoria did. She's a professional at this stuff, and I'm not. She did her thing and she got the part.
From that point on A Chorus Line, like any other show my wife has been involved in, became a part of my life.
So what's this show really like? Well, it's real to life. All through A Chorus Line the desire for the job is underpinned by a harsh reality - these kids aren't rich; they aren't doing it for fun; they've got bills to pay. They don't know how to do anything else. They need this job.
From the actors' point of view, it's a psychologically demanding show. The cast rarely leave the stage for the two-hour (without interval) duration. They stand ‘on the line', tight-fitting costumes exposing every inch, especially the sweat patches. When it's their turn they step forward and speak into the white spotlight. The tension builds, you start to really feel for the cast, each one has a personality, aspirations, fear. On that stage at that moment they are alone and exposed; some of them deal with it better than others.
The cast on the line have limited interaction with one another - one or two lines over the whole show, adding to the isolation and the tension. They have to stand and wait, looking out front, thousands of eyes watching them auditioning every night under the spotlight.
For a part like that, you've got to have thick skin. You're tired? You're feeling ill? You're having a bad day? You still have to stand there, the audience scrutinizing your every move, waiting for your next line. But thick skin is something performers have. As the audience you can feel the tension and it can, at times, be uncomfortable to watch.
A Chorus Line is more than the Fames or the Greases. It's real, a harsh reality check in a world of sugar-coated, follow-your-dreams musical theatre. A Chorus Line is a rude awakening. It tells you theatre life is tough. Teachers won't always build your esteem; your career won't always go from strength to strength. Your family won't always support you, and if you do make it to an audition, you're probably going to get cut. However, it's still the performers' show and the world needs to see it to really appreciate how hard being a performer is.
And hard it is, but... love is hard.
The driving message in the show is the song, "What I Did for Love", a song that rings true for every performer. Why do you do it? You don't do it for the job security, questionable pay, weekend working, or the dangers of backstage. What happens if you get injured, or sick? Performers are vulnerable.
On the other hand, what a great job: you're a performer, a real artist. When was the last time you had a thousand people applauding you? And it's true; you love it, you really do. Like the purest form of love, it isn't something you chose. You can't choose true love, true love chooses you. It grows from the small in your belly, until it swells, and flows into your body. The love burns in your heart, crawls through your veins, electrifies your muscles and stinks in your sweat.
When Victoria and the rest of the cast found out the show was closing, as challenging as it is to perform, they were far from happy about it. They took it hard. It's a great gig and now they're going to have to go through the audition process again, for real. But this time they aren't going to get paid or even necessarily applauded. Speaking with my wife and other cast I've learnt that performing in the show has really brought home to them how hard being a performer can be.
It was an emotional show on the night the company found out, especially during "What I Did for Love' when, I'm told, there wasn't a single dry eye among the cast.
So do I care A Chorus Line is closing? Now, I do. And not because Victoria will be out of work and she'll have to go through the trials and tribulations of auditioning for something else. Victoria is tough, she can handle it. I care because it was not seen by more people. Public opinion has a major impact on the lives of performers and in a world of X Factor and Britain's Got Talent the public have lost sympathy for how difficult life can be for those who walk the boards.
A Chorus Line cuts through the bright lights and colourful sets to what auditioning is really like. And, the public aside, I think it should be seen by more performers. There isn't a more true to life musical than A Chorus Line. Yes, theatre life is tough, but you're also part of a privileged few who have a job doing something you really love.
With the show closing on 31 August, life goes on for the cast, some of whom may well follow the show in the inevitable tour. Others will find a new show to pay the bills; one or two may even leave the musical theatre business altogether, with A Chorus Line as their final swan song. Life is about moments, and you only have a limited number of them. But whatever the actors do next, they can all look back with pride and know that they did it... and they did it for love.
- West End
- London Palladium
- A Chorus Line
- Victoria Hamilton-Barritt
- Leigh Zimmerman
- Scarlett Strallen
- John Partridge