- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
What would you encounter if you dropped by a run-through rehearsal of “A Chorus Line” 2 1/2 weeks before it opened at Texas State University?
Actually, something very close to a fully consummated version of the hit 1975 show about performers auditioning to appear on a Broadway chorus line, meanwhile revealing their personal histories.
White light illuminates a few pieces of scenery. Young performers line up in studio togs. The late Marvin Hamlisch’s genius score, though rehearsed this night without orchestra or microphones, shines through.
Because these performers are part of the San Marcos school’s nationally ranked musical theater program, not only is the singing and dancing already top-notch, the original anecdotes that grew out of a singular play development process — it somewhat resembled group therapy for working chorus members — are deeply felt and communicated.
BACKGROUND: Taking Texas State to the top in musical theater.
Inspired by the rehearsal, we asked a few questions of director/choreographer Cassie Abate, who had a big share in devising other banner Texas State shows such as “Kiss Me Kate,” “Legally Blonde,” “Urinetown,” “Rent” and “Anything Goes.” This conversation was lightly edited.
American-Statesman: Why did you choose to direct this show? Do you have a history with the material?
Cassie Abate: We wanted a dance show that was going to push the students, and we felt that the student body was really ready. I jumped at a chance to direct this show. It is my second time directing the piece, and every time you learn something new. The material is so powerful, and I kept telling the students that if they were open to it, working on this show would change them. By the time we got to “What I Did for Love” in rehearsals, I think they felt that.
What made you sure in advance that Texas State students could dance these roles so well?
Seeing the students progress every day in my dance classes and in our incredible ballet and jazz teacher Kiira Schmidt’s classes, we knew that the students were ready to tackle this show. I also spend time in my musical theater dance class teaching original choreography from all the major choreographers, so the students had already gotten a taste of Michael Bennett’s style and movement quality.
In finding the reality of these roles, did the students go through some shared introspective process about their lives so far in show biz?
Throughout the rehearsal process, I kept stressing the fact that these characters were real people and encouraging the students to find the part of themselves that was that character. I didn’t want them to play at being the characters or do an imitation of performers that had come before. I wanted them to tap into their own experiences. When we got to the scene after Paul gets injured, I sat the whole cast down in a circle and asked them what they would do if they couldn’t perform anymore. I also asked them what their 10-year plan was. This opened up a long sharing session of their passions and fears. It was a very unifying moment for the cast.
Are you required by contract to use the original choreography?
We were not required by contract to do Bennett’s original choreography. As an educational setting, I felt it was important to stay true to the opening and the finale so the students had the opportunity to dance that material. It is also so deeply embedded into the script and the lyrics. However, I also wanted to find new ways of telling the story in moments like “At the Ballet” and the montage sequence. So this production is a combination of original and new choreography.
This is a tough show on young voices. How did your musical director prepare them for the task?
Because we were going into rehearsals so early in the semester, we actually cast the show last spring. Over the summer, the students were given rehearsal tracks of their vocal parts as well as videos of the opening jazz and ballet combinations for them to practice. So everyone came into the first day of rehearsal already having spent some quality time with the vocal parts. Then our amazing musical director, Greg Bolin, was able to spend music rehearsals helping the students find the best yet most efficient way to sing the score healthily.
I was told that everyone in the cast landed jobs in summer stock around the country this year.
By going out and working summer contracts, the students have the chance to put into practice all of the things they learn in class. This helps them start to make sense of it all and discover their own process. Having the opportunity to work with other creative teams and other performers also helps the students grow as artists and people. Many times, summer contracts have very short rehearsal processes, so the students also learn how to work productively under a time crunch.
How has your own career been like — or unlike — the stories told by the characters in this script?
There isn’t one specific character in this show that I completely identify with, although as a short tap dancer working in New York at a time when tap shows were being cast with tall, leggy show girls, I understand Connie’s struggle. I think what I most identify with are the lyrics in “What I Did for Love.” My favorite line in the entire show is, “The gift was ours to borrow.” I think about the vastness and timelessness of theater and feel honored that I get to be a tiny part of it. And then as an educator, I get to pass it on to the next generation of theater artists.
Often in professional companies of this show, the performers tend to be older than the characters. Not so here. Does that make a difference in the way we perceive their stories?
Yes and no. “A Chorus Line” is one of those shows that you can constantly come back to at different points in your career and it will mean different things. As college students who have not yet been out “pounding the pavement,” there are certain aspects that they cannot fully understand yet, but the idea of uncertainty of what is coming next is definitely something that the students, especially the seniors, can tap into. And every student has life experiences that help them personally relate to the story of their character. There is something very moving about seeing a generation of theater artists just getting ready to embark on the next phase of their journey telling these stories. While they can relate to the hardships, there is also this powerful hope that is present. And when they do the show again in their late 20s or early 30s, they will look back and say, “Oh! That’s what that line is speaking to.”