This story is part of a series of articles spotlighting Thespian troupes and the shows that earned them 2020 International Thespian Festival main stage recognition.

TROUPE 5634 of Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina, returns to the International Thespian Festival main stage with A Chorus Line. The troupe previously presented The Color Purple in 2013. A screening of Purple Dreams, a documentary about the journey of that production to ITF, opened the festival in 2018.

Hailey Thomas, Carson Palmer, and cast members of the Northwest School of the Arts production of A Chorus Line.

Brandon M. Turner and cast members of the Northwest School of the Arts production of A Chorus Line. Photo courtesy of Corey Mitchell.

STORY

A Chorus Line is the story of a group of dancers auditioning for the chance to appear in the ensemble of a new Broadway musical. As the grueling day proceeds and the field narrows to just 17 finalists — vying for half that many spots — the director asks those left onstage to share personal stories that illuminate why they started dancing, the ups and downs of their careers, and the dedication and sacrifices they make daily for the love of their craft.

BACKGROUND

Director and choreographer Michael Bennett said he conceived of A Chorus Line as a tribute to Broadway’s unsung heroes, the chorus dancers who “work like dogs, they get less money than anybody else, and they don’t get any real credit. I want to do a show where the dancers are the stars.”

Bennett led a series of conversations and later workshops to develop the show’s narrative. Initially, he recorded the stories of 19 Broadway dancers, eight of whom appeared in A Chorus Line’s original cast and whose verbatim words made their way into the script by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante. The show’s iconic songs — including “At the Ballet,” “Nothing,” “What I Did for Love,” and “One” — were composed by Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Edward Kleban.

A Chorus Line premiered at New York’s Public Theater in 1975 before making its Broadway debut later that year. The show won nine Tony Awards, including best musical, as well as the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The original production ran 15 years, a record at the time, and remains the seventh longest-running musical in Broadway history. The 2008 documentary Every Little Step chronicles the casting of the show’s first Broadway revival in 2006 while spotlighting the musical’s unique history.

TROUPE 5634’S PRODUCTION

Director Corey Mitchell envisioned A Chorus Line as the perfect coda to his storied 25-year teaching career, one that, in 2015, earned him the inaugural Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education. “I had told people at the end of last year that this was going to be my final year, that I was going to retire,” Mitchell said. “I was thinking about a show that would work well as a final curtain call on what, I thought, has been a pretty decent career at this school, and when you look at A Chorus Line, it speaks to the passion and the sacrifices and the love for the arts.”

Mitchell’s students were ecstatic — and more than a little intimidated — at the prospect of working on the production. “I remember the moment Northwest announced our 2019-20 season,” said senior Hailey Thomas, Thespian Troupe 5634’s president and the show’s Sheila. “I was on vacation with two of my best friends, and we were waiting to get on the monorail at Disney World, when my phone started blowing up with my classmates’ reactions. I screamed out loud and probably startled all the people around me. … A Chorus Line is a show every theatre lover knows and adores. I have done the opening number choreography in multiple dance calls, and I was familiar with every song in the show. I knew off the bat … it was, without a doubt, going to be challenging.”

Northwest School of the Arts students paid faithful homage to the original production of A Chorus Line.
Northwest School of the Arts students paid faithful homage to the original production of A Chorus Line. Photo courtesy of Corey Mitchell.

Thespian senior Carson Palmer, who plays Mike and served the production as dance captain, jumped at the chance to work on A Chorus Line for the third time in his young career. Palmer previously appeared in summer stock productions of the show after his seventh and ninth grade years. “I wasn’t always the strongest dancer, but when I did [A Chorus Line] after my freshman year, I realized, ‘Carson you’re the weakest link, and that’s OK.’ I wasn’t bad, but I knew: I need to keep pushing myself, I need to keep stretching, I need to keep working on flexibility so that the next time I do this show, I can be 10 times better. When [Mitchell] announced we were doing it, I was like, ‘Yes. Redemption round. Let’s go.’”

Mitchell and his team wanted to ensure Northwest’s production of A Chorus Line was a faithful homage to the original. Their show’s nearly two-ton set was rented from New York’s City Center, which staged A Chorus Line in 2018 for its annual gala presentation. Costumes were rented from the 2006 Broadway revival. “I would say the biggest difference between the original and what we did is the amount of diversity you see on the line,” Mitchell said. “The shapes, the sizes, and the colors of the actors in this production, I think, are an even closer representation of the artists coming up and going after work right now on Broadway.”

Not surprisingly, interpreting Michael Bennett’s celebrated choreography proved the most challenging aspect of the show for students. “A Chorus Line was my eighth musical, and it was unlike any of its predecessors,” said Nicolas Zuluaga, the Thespian senior and first-year Northwest student who plays Paul. “In previous musicals I performed in, dancing was often not the focus of the show compared to singing and acting. However, this obviously was not the case for A Chorus Line. Every person in the cast used up every hour of rehearsal before school, after school, and on weekends perfecting their choreography, regardless of how much dance training they had before the show. Our choreographers Amelia Binford and Emily Hunter also worked tirelessly to ensure our dancing did the original production justice.”

Cast members rehearsed six days a week, with extra stretching and ballet classes added to the schedule to help them prepare for the precise and highly technical dancing. Even those with extensive dance experience felt the pressure of perfection. Brooke Watts has been dancing since she was 3 years old, but she earned her first musical theatre leading role as Cassie, the former featured dancer looking for an opportunity back onstage in the ensemble. “People come into the room with an expectation because it’s A Chorus Line,” she said. “It was just breaking down every itty-bitty thing for this show, literally, with the dancing. Like if your foot is not pointed, it needs to be. If it’s not, it’s bad.”

Brooke Watts dances "The Music and the the Mirror" in the Northwest School of the Arts production of A Chorus Line.
Brooke Watts dances "The Music and the the Mirror" in the Northwest School of the Arts production of A Chorus Line. Photo courtesy of Corey Mitchell.

A Chorus Line’s themes resonated with the cast, many of whom identified with their characters. In “I Can Do That,” Mike recounts falling into dance training by trailing after his sister. Palmer, too, followed in his older sister’s footsteps, quietly observing her rehearsals until he could start auditioning at age 6 and tap dancing at 7. “I would watch my sister and not necessarily say I can do that, but I am gonna do that, I’m gonna do that one day,” Palmer said. “I loved telling that part of the story because it was me being me.”

A former competitive dancer, Watts understood the exasperation Cassie faces as she struggles to step back from the spotlight and blend into the line. “[The director] Zach is always telling Cassie, ‘Cool it, calm down, you’re too good,’” Watts said. “So, when Cassie would get frustrated with Zach, I would get frustrated in real life, because I’ve heard that.”

Zuluaga latched onto Paul’s honesty in his heartbreaking 10-minute monologue during which the character recounts the moment his conservative father discovers his son is gay. “In his monologue, he is not asking for pity or sympathy. … This makes his breakdown at the end even more poignant and emotional to portray,” Zuluaga said. “As a person of color who has personally struggled with the controversy between religion and sexual orientation, I was able to connect to some of Paul’s own experiences and express those in my performance.”

Though she at first struggled to find similarities with Sheila, Thomas grew to appreciate her character’s complexity and the dissonance between her outwardly assertive personality and inner vulnerability. “The more I got to know the character, the more I saw parts of me in her,” Thomas said. “It was important to me that I perfected the moment where Sheila gets denied a spot on the final line. That specific moment in the show was a moment I identify with — the feeling of not being enough, of wanting something so badly you completely put yourself out there, and it still does not unfold in your favor. It’s heartbreaking, but very relatable.”

Mitchell’s directorial approach helped students find these character connections. “My process began with what your self-identity is and the things you have in common with these characters, as opposed to the things that are foreign to you,” he said. “That’s always where it begins. I tell people all the time, at the ripe old age of 15, you’ve felt pretty much every emotion there is in the spectrum of human emotion, be it joy to grief or ecstasy to heartbreak and sadness. It all depends on the degree and your willingness to access those feelings.”

There were times the cast felt they were pushing themselves to the edge. “I was sore all the time,” Thomas said. “I don’t think I ever stopped being sore until a few weeks after the show. I would come home and take an Epsom salt bath every night, then roll out my muscles. My worst fear was I was pushing my body to its limit, and I did not want to get injured.”

Those fears came to pass for Zuluaga. In a surreal instance of life imitating art, midway through rehearsals Zuluaga broke the fifth metatarsal bone in his foot, echoing his onstage character, whose injury prompts the other performers to reflect on what they would do if they could no longer dance. While Paul is forced to exit the audition, Zuluaga was fortunate to return to A Chorus Line during tech after being sidelined for three weeks with a boot and crutches. “Ironically, this unfortunate experience allowed me to connect more deeply with Paul’s injury in the show, as well as with the song ‘What I Did for Love,’” Zuluaga said. “Being able to perform at the same level as everyone else in my cast even after an injury taught me to feel proud of myself as a performer and that enduring through hardship can make the reward even sweeter.”

The cast of the Northwest School of the Arts production of A Chorus Line.
The cast of the Northwest School of the Arts production of A Chorus Line. Photo courtesy of Nicolas Zuluaga.

Ultimately, those rewards outweighed any momentary setbacks. On opening night, Watts was recognized with an extended mid-show standing ovation following Cassie’s showstopping dance solo, “The Music and the Mirror.” And the finale drew deeply felt audience appreciation. “When we started the iconic ‘One’ choreography, the lights changed and we all were in unison in our gorgeous gold costumes — the crowd went insane,” said Thomas. “It is the very end, we are all so exhausted, and there was so much chaos backstage because everyone on the line is quick changing. Yet, when the crowd cheered, I suddenly didn’t remember that my feet were on fire because I had been standing and dancing in three-inch heels the whole night, or that I almost didn’t make it onstage because of the quick change. In that moment, there was so much powerful, positive energy and love in that room, nothing else mattered. We knew all the blood, sweat, tears, and heart put into this show had truly paid off.”

A Chorus Line is fast approaching its 45th anniversary, but the cast feels its message remains powerfully relevant. “The show revolves around [people] just trying to get a job in our industry,” Watts said. “Just being in New York, going to open calls … there are people that go every single day to open calls and get rejected and have to keep going back. There are people out of jobs because nobody wants their talent. That’s real life, and that really made us think.”

Zuluaga believes the show appeals to performers and nonperformers alike. He said there’s a “feeling of union between aspiring artists and everyday civilians that results from the story. For me, every person on and off the line is an opportunity for an audience member to connect the drive and passion toward performing to a drive and passion of their own, whatever that may be.”

New realities of the pandemic helped Palmer find special relevance in that message. “In A Chorus Line, they were all trying to share their stories,” Palmer said, “and I think now is the most important time for Thespians, as students, to share our stories. … We should think to ourselves that we have to perform every day as if it’s our last time performing because we don’t know when something like this could happen again. Keep creating art and figure out all the different ways you can.”

Mitchell endorses that sentiment. “Every day you have the opportunity to do something amazing,” he said. “People crave those amazing stories. … Wake up every day with that goal.”

As for A Chorus Line serving as Mitchell’s career coda? Given the abrupt ending to this school year, it appears Mitchell will be staying in the classroom a little longer. “I thought the artistic level of accuracy needed for a show like this would be an exclamation point,” Mitchell said. “But now it looks like it’s going to be an ellipsis instead.”

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