Director Matthew Gardiner on Why ‘A Chorus Line’ was the ‘Hamilton’ of 1975

The long-running Broadway musical opens at Signature Theatre tonight.

The Chorus Line cast in rehearsal. (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

It won nine Tony Awards. A Pulitzer Prize. And was once the longest-running show on Broadway.

A Chorus Line, a musical about 17 dancers desperate to be cast, opened off-Broadway in 1975 and soon moved to Broadway, where it ran until 1990. Originally directed and co-choreographed (with Bob Avian) by Michael Bennett, the show was based on recorded sessions with real-life dancers and was quickly hailed as “quite possibly the simplest and the most imaginative” Broadway musical of its day. It features the ballad “What I Did for Love” and showstoppers such as “One” and “The Music and the Mirror.”

Beginning tonight, Signature Theatre presents this groundbreaking show—a premiere for the Shirlington company—under the direction of Matthew Gardiner. The theater’s associate artistic director, who grew up in College Park and is a trained ballet dancer, has directed and/or choreographed close to 30 productions at area theaters, including Studio Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company and MetroStage.

We caught up with Gardiner earlier this week to chat about his vision for the show, which runs through January 5. Though the Helen Hayes Award-winning director has performed in a couple productions of the musical, directing it presented a new opportunity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Describe your overall concept, and how closely you are hewing to the original production.

We are very lucky in that Michael Bennett’s estate gave Denis Jones, the choreographer and I, permission to re-imagine the show. Usually, it’s expected that [directors] will just recreate Bennett’s original staging. [We’re] really taking this opportunity to show it through a new lens, to not allow this to be the same production we’ve seen since 1975.

There are lots of musical gems in this show. If you had to pick one, which would it be?

“At the Ballet” is my favorite; it speaks to my own experience as a young person. I felt a sort of escapism in the world of ballet— [experiences dancers] weren’t able to get in their school life or their home life.

What would you say to folks who may not be huge fans of musicals to sell them on a show about, well, auditioning for musicals?

That’s the thing that has made A Chorus Line so popular over the years; it’s really not a show about dancers. Dancers are the entry into a story about what it means to be human, and put yourself on the line. And the story is about growing up more than anything else. It starts with dancers sharing their earliest memories as children. Then the show proceeds to be about growing up, and to have a purpose and fulfill a goal and to have drive in your life. Anyone can relate to that story.

And for people who don’t like musicals, I would say A Chorus Line over the years has become cliche and troped. In 1975, it was our Hamilton; it was the most exciting, thrilling piece of theater. It was plainspoken, almost rated R. My goal is to make the production feel as honest and fresh as possible. It’s a great script, and it came from real people. Nothing about it is manufactured.

Last question: Will there be gold top hats?

They won’t be gold, but there will be top hats.

A Chorus Line runs now through Jan. 5, 2020 at Signature Theatre. Tickets start at $66.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment