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“Once you’ve seen everything,” runs a lyric in the 1964 Rosalyn Drexler–Al Carmines musical Home Movies, “what is there to see?” The answer—delightfully, ruefully, grimly—is that you can start seeing it all over again, with newly matured eyes. It will look a little different, but it will also look refreshingly the same. “Everything being the same,” as Gertrude Stein sagely remarked,” everything is always different.” I spent a lot of this past week thinking about Stein, Carmines (who set many works by Stein), Drexler, the downtown playwrights of their heyday—and also about James Kirkwood, Nicholas Dante, Edward Kleban, and Michael Bennett, all now long gone, who, with composer Marvin Hamlisch, created A Chorus Line. The latter group probably had only a vague awareness of the downtown theater world in which Carmines’s musical enhancements of texts by writers like Stein and Drexler were such a major energizing force.
And yet they caught its vibe: A Chorus Line marks a pivotal moment in the history of the American musical, the end of the old square-built form, with its chunk of book followed by a chunk of song followed by a chunk of dance. A Chorus Line‘s fluidity in streaming the three elements together was partially learned downtown, where the lack of production resources had forced the invention of a theater that, in its free-form directness, could create virtually anything with actors’ bodies on a bare stage. A Chorus Line began, like much downtown work, as a director’s vision. Nurtured at the Public Theater, a principal locus of cultural exchange between uptown and downtown, it drew from its performers’ own lives and was workshopped over a long period, much the way downtown ensembles often did it. One famous moment in A Chorus Line, where the auditioning dancers hold their résumé shots in front of their faces, echoes a similar moment from one of Joseph Chaikin’s late Open Theater pieces, Mutation Show, in which, early on, the actors also hold photographs of themselves in front of their faces. But in Mutation Show, the pictures are of themselves as children. Chaikin’s image dramatizes the changes that time works on us all; Bennett’s embodies the difference between person and performer. The on e is about life, the other about the presentation of life. The same only different.
Bennett did not create A Chorus Line as a commercial Broadway venture. A dancer before he became a choreographer or director, he wanted to explore the themes and questions of his own life the way he saw others, downtown, exploring theirs. He did it using the Broadway forms and materials he knew, drawing on the lives of colleagues and friends. When the result became a giant commercial success, he arranged for those who’d contributed to receive a goodish chunk of his royalties. (That the current producers have thus far declined to follow his precedent is a typical fact of our disheartening time.) The show gets its widespread appeal from Bennett’s simultaneous devotion to both the messy personal truth and the glamorous show-business myth of a dancer’s life; the cognitive dissonance generates its creative dynamism. Broadway dancing, to the hopeful auditioners, is at once both the most exciting thing in the world and a drudging, grinding, painful, risky way to earn a bare living, with no upward mobility and no guarantee of alternative employment when your body gives out. The childhood impulses and adolescent awakenings that steer people into a dance career, graphed in the cornucopia of personal stories that tumble out in the show’s collage of outward presentation and inner monologue, have metamorphosed, by the end, into the dazzling, troubling unity of “One,” with its immaculately drilled unison line of spangled strutters. The quintessence of Broadway glamour, it’s also dehumanized and empty, a mechanistic tribute to a “she” who isn’t there, in a hypothetical show that we know nothing about, with the excitingly varied personalities we’ve just met welded into an abstract unit. A line is a two-dimensional thing.
Personal truth was precisely what the young writers and performers who flocked to the Off-Off coffeehouses and church halls of the 1960s were seeking. They didn’t look for it on Broadway, having mostly grown up far from access to its shows and viewing its commercialism as far from their downtown lifestyle. Bennett’s dancers sing “What I Did for Love”; the more devout Off-Offers saw them as doing it mainly for money. Theater for love was carried on in basements, storefronts, and anywhere else young bohemians could gather. Since many were gay men, the plays often dealt with then edgy sexual issues; Off-Off Broadway was the prelude to gay liberation. Robert Heide’s The Bed, a Caffe Cino perennial, nightly committed what was then a legal misdemeanor by showing its two male characters in bed together.
An excerpt from The Bed, performed while the title object was towed up Seventh Avenue South, was the highlight of Peculiar Works Project’s OFF Stage: The West Village Fragments, which performed downtown while the revival of A Chorus Line was previewing uptown. The event might be called off-site-specific: Linked by the tenuous thread of an imaginary quest to raise bail money for Judith Malina (inspired by her 1966 arrest for breaking the IRS padlock on the Living Theatre), the walking tour went to spots where Off-Off plays or theaters had once thrived, performing choice bits from ’60s works in the streets outside these mostly vanished landmarks. Lanford Wilson’s Madness of Lady Bright stopped traffic on Cornelia Street; jazz from the restaurant that replaced Circle Rep underscored the vaudeville repartee of Maria Irene Fornes’s Successful Life of 3 ; and a long, wacky excerpt from Home Movies, complete with accordion accompaniment, swelled the crowd outside the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal.
The loose-jointed, high-spirited event dramatized, forcefully, the many differences between the ’60s and today. From Heide’s dark fatalism and Sam Shepard’s vivid street poetry through the off-kilter playfulness of Drexler and Fornes to the ornate verbal cadenzas of Robert Patrick and Doric Wilson, the excerpts ranged far more widely than the bulk of today’s downtown work, so constipated by academicism. It drew from many more styles of theater and used them with far greater political and dramaturgic daring; it bounced imaginatively off TV and movies instead of imitating them, like the often mediocre stuff our budget-conscious Off-Broadway institutions feed us today.
West Village Fragments brought all this back, though without the nuance and charm of the old intimate spaces: The acting here was coarse-grained and shouty, as happens when you’re fighting to be heard over street traffic. Still, the commitment and inventiveness were real. On technical terms, the skill of the new Chorus Line cast is in a far bigger league, but here, too, something has waned a little: Time has produced in these young dancers a distance from the material that slightly tones down the feel of truth. But Chorus Line is all of a piece, and still works wonderfully as such. The West Village Fragments, like the theater that inspired them, have vanished; stay tuned for East Village Fragments next spring. Stay patient, hoping for the new theater that will build with imagination on the memories the ’60s left for us.