With nineteen main characters, it is set on the bare stage of a Broadway theatre during an audition for a musical. The show provides a glimpse into the personalities of the performers and the choreographer as they describe the events that have shaped their lives and their decisions to become dancers.
The original Broadway production was an unprecedented box office and critical hit, receiving 12 Tony Award nominations and winning nine of them, in addition to the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It ran for 6,137 performances, becoming the longest-running production in Broadway history up to that time. It remains the longest running Broadway musical originally produced in the United States. The show has enjoyed many successful productions worldwide and was revived on Broadway in 2006.
The first candidate, Mike, explains that he is the youngest of 12 children. He recalls his first experience with dance, watching his sister's dance class when he was a pre-schooler ("I Can Do That"). Mike took her place one day when she refused to go to class – and he stayed. Bobby tries to hide the unhappiness of his childhood by making jokes. As he speaks, the 17 dancers have misgivings about this strange audition process and debate what they should reveal to Zach ("And..."), but since they all need the job, the session continues.
Zach is angered when he feels that the streetwise Sheila is not taking the audition seriously. Opening up, she reveals that her mother married at a young age and her father neither loved nor cared for them. When she was six, she realized that ballet provided relief from her family life. Bebe adds that, as she was not a beautiful child, she was also drawn to ballet, where she could feel beautiful. At the ballet, notes Maggie, someone is always there, unlike the father she has never had ("At the Ballet").
The scatter-brained Kristine is tone-deaf, and her lament that she could never "Sing!" is interrupted by her husband Al finishing her phrases. Mark, the youngest of the dancers relates his first experiences with pictures of the female anatomy and his first wet dream, and the other dancers share memories of adolescence ("Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love"). Gregory speaks about his discovery of his homosexuality, and Diana recollects her horrible high school acting class ("Nothing"). Don remembers his first job at a nightclub, Richie recounts how he nearly became a kindergarten teacher, Judy reflects on her problematic childhood, and the 4'10" tall Connie laments the problems of being short. Finally, the newly-buxom Val explains that talent alone doesn't count for everything with casting directors, and silicone can really help ("Dance: Ten; Looks: Three").
The dancers go downstairs to learn a song for the next section of the audition, but Cassie stays onstage to talk to Zach. She is a veteran gypsy who has had some notable successes as a soloist. They have a history together: Zach had cast her in a featured part previously, and they had lived together for several years. Zach tells Cassie that she is too good for the chorus and shouldn't be at this audition. But she hasn't been able to find solo work and is willing to "come home" to the chorus where she can at least express her passion for dance ("The Music and the Mirror"). Zach sends her downstairs to learn the dance combination.
Zach calls Paul on stage, and he emotionally relives his early career in a drag act, coming to terms with his manhood, homosexuality and sense of self. Cassie and Zach's complex relationship resurfaces during a run-through of the number created to showcase an un-named star ("One"). Zach confronts Cassie, feeling that she is "dancing down," and they rehash what went wrong in their relationship and her career. Zach points to the good-but-not-great dancing of the rest of the cast, the gypsies who will probably never get out of the line. Cassie replies, "I'll take chorus, if you'll take me!" During a tap sequence, Paul falls injured and is carried off to the hospital: his audition is over. Zach asks the remaining dancers what they will do when they can no longer dance. Whatever happens, they reply, they will be free of regret ("What I Did For Love"). The final eight dancers are selected: Cassie, Bobby, Diana, Judy, Val, Mike, Mark and Richie.
"One" (reprise/finale) begins with an individual bow for each of the 19 characters, their hodgepodge rehearsal clothes replaced by identical spangled gold costumes. As each dancer joins the group, it is suddenly difficult to distinguish one from the other; ironically, each character who was an individual to the audience is now an anonymous member of an ensemble.
Michael Bennett was invited to join the group primarily as an observer, but quickly took control of the proceedings. In later years, his claim that A Chorus Line had been his brainchild resulted in not only hard feelings but a number of lawsuits as well.
During the workshop sessions, random characters would be chosen at the end for the chorus jobs, resulting in genuine surprise among the cast. Subsequent productions, however, have the same set of characters winning the slots.
A Chorus Line opened off-Broadway at The Public Theater on May 21, 1975. At the time, the Public did not have enough money to finance the production. They were $1.6 million in debt in order to produce the show. The show was directed and co-choreographed (with Bob Avian) by Michael Bennett. The original cast starred Scott Allen, Kelly Bishop, Robert Lupone, Wayne Cilento, Ronald Dennis, Baayork Lee, Priscilla Lopez, Donna McKechnie, Thommie Walsh, Nancy Lane, Kay Cole, Ron Kuhlman, Rick Mason, Don Percassi, Renee Baughman, Pamela Blair, Sammy Williams, Clive Clerk, and Trish Garland.
Advance word had created such a demand for tickets that the entire run sold out immediately. Producer Joseph Papp moved the production to Broadway, and on July 25, 1975 it opened at the Shubert Theatre, where it ran for 6,137 performances until April 28, 1990. When it closed, it was the longest running show in Broadway history until its record was surpassed by Cats on June 19, 1997 and then The Phantom of the Opera in 2006.
On September 29, 1983, Bennett and 330 A Chorus Line veterans came together to produce a show to celebrate the musical becoming the longest-running show in Broadway history.
A Chorus Line generated $277 million USD in revenue and had 6.5 million Broadway attendees.
The production was directed by Bob Avian, with the choreography reconstructed by the show's original Connie Wong, Baayork Lee. The opening night cast included Ken Alan, Brad Anderson, Michael Berresse, Natalie Cortez, Charlotte d'Amboise, Mara Davi, Jessica Lee Goldyn, Deidre Goodwin, Tyler Hanes, James T. Lane, Paul McGill, Heather Parcells, Michael Paternostro, Alisan Porter, Jeffrey Schecter, Yuka Takara, Jason Tam, Chryssie Whitehead, and Tony Yazbeck.
On April 15, 2008 Mario Lopez joined the cast as the replacement for Zach.
The production received two Tony Award nominations in 2007 for Featured Role (Charlotte d'Amboise) and Revival (Musical).
The original contract for A Chorus Line provided for sharing the revenue from the show with the directors and dancers that had attended the original workshop sessions. However, the contract did not specify revenue when the musical was revived in 2006. In February 2008, an agreement was reached with the dancers and Michael Bennett's estate.
A London, England production was mounted in the West End at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1976. It ran for several years. Jane Summerhays and Geraldine Gardner (aka Trudi van Doorn of the Benny Hill Shows), played Sheila in the London production.
An initially unsuccessful film adaptation was released in 1985.
Since its inception, the show's many worldwide productions, both professional and amateur, have been a major source of income for The Public Theater.
On the Line: The Creation of A Chorus Line by Robert Viagas, Baayork Lee, and Thommie Walsh, published by William Morrow (1990) ISBN 0-688-08429-X