Monday, May 19, 2008

Flex And Flexing

Flex And Flexing

Back in March, I took issue with the stunt-casting of Broadway's current revival of A Chorus Line with Mario Lopez.

Then on May 7, New York Post's Michael Riedel used his column to dish about the "Disease of the Vain" in the revival's sudden battle of the biceps:

Lopez, who just took over the role of Zach, the exacting director of A Chorus Line, is mighty proud of his biceps. So proud, in fact, that he refused to wear Zach's costume, a tan sweater with long sleeves.

It's an iconic outfit, based on that worn in real life by A Chorus Line creator Michael Bennett, and it's been worn by countless Zachs in productions of A Chorus Line all over the world for the past 30 years.

But "Flex" Lopez wanted to wear a brown shirt with short sleeves so that he could show off his biceps.
The only trouble is, Flex is sharing the stage with a pair of biceps larger than his. They belong to Nick Adams, who plays Larry, the assistant choreographer.

Larry's iconic costume is a navy blue tank top with the number 17 on it. For A Chorus Line nerds, that number is significant -- there are 17 performers auditioning for the eight spots in the chorus.

Flex, sources say, was concerned that Adams' biceps would upstage his, so he requested that Adams wear a hoodie over his tank top, which Adams does whenever he's next to Flex.

In response to Riedel's request for feedback on who has the bigger biceps, I'm sure he was surprised upon receiving a thoughtful letter, which placed this entire kerfuffle into perspective, particularly on how the show was meant to be performed. That letter, which Riedel quoted last Friday, came from the original production's Richie, Ron Dennis (pictured, front row, third to left, with other members of A Chorus Line's original cast at the opening of the revival).

Currently making his home in California, Dennis now teaches dance at the Hollywood Dance Center in Los Angeles, instructing adult actors/dancers "who are still loving dance as their form of exercise and craft," and he frequently subs at the performing arts schools. How fortunate all those students should feel.

Dennis tells me, "I've not been on stage to perform since the STAGE benefit from 3 years or so ago when the music of Marvin Hamlisch was part of the composer being honored that year, and we did a mini-cut version of A Chorus Line."

Given the integral role Ron Dennis played in shaping the beloved original production of A Chorus Line -- which still ranks as one of the longest running Broadway shows of all time -- he has granted me permission to share the full contents of his letter to Riedel:
Hello Michael:

I'm Ron Dennis the original "Richie" in A Chorus Line, and I also had the unclaimed fame of writing the "Gimme The Ball" song in the 3rd montage of the show that so few are aware that it was not Marvin Hamlisch who wrote my song. Michael Bennett took me aside a week before previews Off-Broadway, and in that rehearsal room with
Fran Liebergall our pit and rehearsal pianist and drummer Bobby Thomas, we sat in the room as Michael gave instructions on how he wanted the tempo to go with the song with his very Joe Cocker-like vocals, although not nearly as tuneful. Michael was not a singer.

I went home that night and channelled my favorite vocalist, Aretha Franklin, voice only, not her clothes, as my inspiration for the melody that I wrote for "Gimme The Ball."

When I attended the October, 2006 opening of this revival along with the majority of my other original castmates, there were several changes in this revival that were "tinkered" with. The guitar passages in "Gimme The Ball" had been changed to big horn sounds, which were not what Michael originally had orchestrated for the song, and this was validated by my conversation with
Donald Pippin, our original Conductor, at the opening night post-show dinner, who brought up his disappointment with this big horn change in the song that has virtually taken all the "funk" out of the song as originally sung by me and orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, back then was my understanding.

So the "Flexing" of muscles has been ongoing with this revival from the beginning with the tinkering that you write about in your article about Mario Lopez, ie: "Flex" and his biceps.

Bob LuPone, our original Zack, had no need to have biceps since his character was about the dancing, which Bob did as brilliantly as the rest of us along with his brilliant acting too, I'd like to add.

It appears that the "powers that be" have to do whatever they need to do to keep butts in the seats to keep this revival up and running and making money. The fact that they are allowing Mr. Lopez to flex his "star muscles" in order to flex his vanity muscles for a show that is about "Dancers, Dancing and how dancing is metaphoric for anything one does for love," does a great disservice to the memory and brilliant directorial decisions of the late Michael Bennett.

Michael would not have let Mr. Lopez be this preening Zack with the arms and body to distract the character line of the Zack as the director hiring the 17 of us on that line.

Mind you, the late
Clive Clerk, did have muscled arms but not the pumped ones you talk about in your article, as did the also late Roy Smith who was our Larry when the show moved to this coast after our less than a full year on Broadway as a "complete, original company."

Not any of the various Zacks that had that role during my 2 years and 8 months with the show wore a tank top, nor did the topic come up about biceps being revealed. It was always about the acting/dancing -- the relationship Zack had with those of us "On The Line" auditioning for that needed job, and certainly with Cassie as the other drama through-line in our show then.

So much for honoring the Pulitzer Prize winning show that all of the original members of A Chorus Line helped to create along with our talent and those of our original powers that be in 1974.

Would a revival of Porgy And Bess have a "Sporting Life" in a tank top just because he had impressive biceps to show off? I think not!

Some things just should not be tinkered with, period, in my opinion. Tinkering leads to more tinkering and we all know that tinkering is exponential. A Chorus Line has been tinkered with since the time the show left Broadway in 1976 and bombarded the world with the show I knew so well, with adjustments to dance steps that have been altered over the years and not for the better in too many ways.

It's a different show and the tone has changed and not with the same original message.

The seats would be filled if our "original" message was intact as the audience and ticket buyers were being moved as they were back then in 1975 when the show first opened. Theater folks are savvy and know and expect to be moved in a theater setting. This is a simple fact.

Put the sweater back on Mario, and work to be a better dancer and director as Zack. The world can google your muscles if we care to view them, and after watching your dancing on "Dancing With The Stars" last night with your fellow cast dancers, you are not up (to) their par as a dancer and your muscles did not distract my dancer eyes from your shortcomings as a Broadway trained dancer, and all of this Internet chatter about your muscles may fill some seats but that novelty will wear off very soon.

Where are the trained and accomplished dancer men who could have and should have been cast as the new Zack in A Chorus Line. I know several who'd fit the bill.

I bet you could name quite a few dancers, Mr. Riedel, that would have been a sensational addition to this revival, too?

This is not my sour grapes, but if one is going to reinvent math at least make it as good along with the better, not just different.

The tour opens here on May 22nd and we LA-based originals will be attending and hopefully this production will have gone back to a more accurate representation of what A Chorus Line was back in the day, where the muscles came from the dancing and not the gym and heavy weights.


Ron Dennis
Thanks so much, Ron, for sharing not only your personal insights into what made the original production the vaunted show it was, but also for being so candid regarding the current revival's shortcomings.

It's been said that vanity kills. If that is the case, it appears that vanity is killing the spirit of this hallowed classic, if not the show itself.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
A Chorus Line: From Priscilla To Mario Lopez (March 5, 2008)

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At 20 May, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

When I saw the exhibit on musical theatre at the New York Public Library, some of the original notes from "A Chorus Line" were on display. It was very clear that the creators of the show had specific instructions for the way they wanted things done, down to the smallest details. To change something that seems so integral to "A Chorus Line" simply because of one person's vanity is wrong.

At 20 May, 2008, Blogger Mondschein said...

Nick Adams goes to my gym.

His biceps?

AWESOME! (slurp)

At 20 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, What I believe infuriates those so close to the original A Chorus Line is that it is so innately personal, telling their own collection of stories. I can appreciate why they may be incensed.


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