Take away the nearly unseen director, the memorable songs, the dazzling dance numbers, and the high-kicking finale in A Chorus Line and what’s left are the stories of dancers desperate for a job. More than a musical about an audition, Chorus Line gives voice to the “gypsies” – the dancers who must fight for jobs as they bare their souls and try to prove themselves to a tough director.
Remembering that many stories we hear in A Chorus Line were inspired by personal stories from Broadway dancers in 1974, we went to performers in Olney’s Chorus Line to learn about their roles and hear their own stories.
Jeff Walker: After performing other roles during the Broadway revival, when did you first get to play Cassie?
Michelle Aravena: Late last year, I ran into Bryan Knowlton in a New York bar. We were in the revival of A Chorus Line together. He said he was directing the show in New Hampshire and he asked me if I wanted to do Cassie. I took about one second to say yes.
You weren’t originally slated for Cassie at Olney.
That’s correct; I was hired to play Diana, one of the roles I covered in the revival company on Broadway. I came in late to the rehearsals due to touring, and starting going over the role.
About three days after I got to Olney, their original Cassie had to leave for personal reasons. They called me and asked if I would take it and I said yes. We still had a week or so of rehearsal and luckily I had done Cassie for Bryan in New England.
Both times you have been offered Cassie, you jumped at the chance. Does she have special appeal for you?
I certainly loved Diana, but I had my time in New York to work on that and the other roles I covered. Cassie, on the other hand, is the type of role I’m looking for at this time in my career. I love her emotional journey and the challenge of doing a seven minute dance routine – “The Music and the Mirror” – all by myself. It’s probably my toughest role so far.
Playing Cassie and getting to play Anita in the national tour of West Side Story – both of these opportunities are huge blessings. I have been able to play two of the most iconic roles in musical theatre, stepping into the shoes that came before me.
What makes A Chorus Line timeless?
It really speaks to anyone who has had a career and has to face that moment of fear – what if it stops or what if it changes? Any type of job or industry has to sometimes fight for a place.
Do any of the dancers’ stories resonate with you?
I believe we get hired at specific times in our career and the roles you connect to changes. Back in 2006, I identified with Diana, her optimism. Her place was very much where I was at that time. Covering that role and some of the others was a perfect fit. Now, six or seven years later, things have changed. I am older and I have started to think about how long my career will last or how will my body hold up. So, now, I feel like I share the same space as Cassie – revisiting my career and thinking about it differently like she does.
How early did you start performing?
Almost since the womb. I started as a tumbler around pretty young, three, four or five. Then I was put into dance which lead to community theatre. I got my first paycheck for a professional production when I was nine. Then at 16, I got my Equity card playing the Mistress in Evita.
Your parents were supportive?
My family has been incredibly supportive. I can partially thank my mom for helping get my Equity card. You earn points in order to get your card and I was short a week’s worth of points during the Evita when I was 16. My mother persuaded the theatre to extend the show by a week, which they did graciously, and I was able to get my card.
Turning back to Chorus Line – what sets the Olney production apart from the others you have been in?
I saw a lot of people go in and out of roles during the New York revival and I thought I had seen all the lines readings and takes on the characters I would see. After I got to Olney and I heard our cast go through the scenes and the lines, I have to give props to them and to our director Stephen Nachamie for taking things in different directions. We have been allowed to step out of the mold, while honoring the script and the music.
And the audiences are incredibly supportive; they are doing exactly what they need to do for us.
Jeffrey Walker: You got your first Broadway credit playing Paul in A Chorus Line. How did that happen?
Bryan Knowlton: In 2005, I was out on tour in Oliver! when I heard they were going to cast for the new Broadway production. I went in, did a long round of auditions and did not get it originally. Much later, they were having replacement auditions, and I thought, this is it, one more chance and I’d leave it to the Dude upstairs. I auditioned and kept getting call backs. On one of the last ones, they asked me to do Paul’s monologue and I got to do it on the stage of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, where they were performing the show. That made me freak out a little. I thought it would be several days, but I got a call from the casting director, Jay Binder saying “You’re the next Paul on Broadway.”
Before coming to Olney to perform Paul again, you went back to your own hometown and old stomping grounds to direct A Chorus Line.
It was about 13 years since I had left my hometown. To attack the show and go back there, I was intimidated at first. But it was a wonderful and incredible experience and it was great that my friend Michelle Aravena was a part of it, getting to be Cassie. She is one of the hardest working people in show business.
And now you are back to playing Paul. How did you come to Olney?
I had worked with Stephen Nachamie as Mark in A Chorus Line about ten years ago. He called and asked if I would come for it. Revisiting the show together is great because he knows the show so well. I came in to assist and became the dance captain as well as playing Paul.
A Chorus Line
Closes Sept 8, 2013
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
2 hours, 10 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $31 – $63
Tuesdays thru Sundays
It’s the audition. Every dancer and musical theatre person has to do the same thing. In this show, it’s like a reality show, the behind the scenes view of what can happen. But in a way it’s still timeless.
For me, the special appeal is Paul; it’s my dream role in my dream show. It’s also about recreating Michael Bennett’s choreography in a big arena. We’re telling real stories of the people who helped create this show: Paul’s monologue is almost verbatim the story Nicholas Dante told back when they made the original tapes that helped develop the show.
We have to honor the people who came before us.
Is there any one story that rings true for you?
Being a part of this show for so long, I have found myself in everybody. There’s a little part of my life in all the characters. But Paul really does ring true, being gay, wanting acceptance. I think that’s why I can connect with him so much.
I also think about when the show was new, in the mid-1970s. Paul’s story – that one story – gave a voice to so many young, gay men, It’s pretty amazing how inspiring it has been.
Can you also identify with starting to dance as a child?
I did start dancing very young. My grandmother took me to see “Stayin’ Alive” and I kept saying, “More dancing, more dancing!” My mom, my aunt and my grandmother were all dancers; I started when I was five or six.
Through school, I was really a track star and played soccer. I was doing musical theatre but was not a great dancer. Around 14 or 15 I went pretty hard into dance and went to college to major in modern dance, with an emphasis in Paul Taylor, at University of the Arts in Philadelphia. The practicality of it was that I found that there was not much money in modern dance so I switched back to musical theatre. I moved to New York and that’s what I’ve been doing.
You have begun to direct, teach and choreograph in addition to performing. Are you looking at the future in case you stopped dancing or couldn’t anymore?
Our livelihood is not fun and games; it’s hard work. In this business, your name and your body is your brand. You have to set yourself apart from everyone else in some way.
Are you leaning one way or the other?
I like doing both directing and choreography. With choreography, I get to use a different part of my brain and I like using dancers as chess pieces to find out the best way to win.
I have been inspired by people I have worked with and been not inspired by others. I think I have definitely found my own voice.
When you look at this production of Chorus Line, what is unique about it?
For me, the set has been a really exciting aspect. I don’t want to give it all away, but we are doing things with the set that I have never seen done before. Scenic designer James Dardenne’s work really adds a new element to the show that goes beyond the traditional periaktoi [three-sided set unit that revolves] and mirrors.
Now that the show has opened, what has the audience reaction been like?
It’s been great. But there was one moment that stands out so far. It was during last Sunday’s matinee. It involved the parents of Angela Millin, who plays Bebe. We were doing the final kicks on Sunday afternoon. I saw Angela’s parents looking at her in the line. They were so proud of her and you could just tell, they beamed joy and love. It was pretty amazing and I got a little teary-eyed. For me, those are the moments that make it all worthwhile.
Jeffrey Walker: You have not had too many chances to show off your dancing among your DC theatre credits. Did you start dancing when you were a kid?
Kyle Schliefer: I have been dancing since I was eight years old. I have certainly liked the acting roles, but this show is so nice. I get to do tap and my tumbling, which I have been working in since I’ve been in school in New York.
Yes, I saw some YouTube clips of your stunts.
You saw those? That’s great. Yes, I think it’s great that in the last dance break, I get to incorporate my tumbling. Several people have said it came out of nowhere and was very surprising.
You also started your stage work very early.
When I was eight, I auditioned and got in Once Upon a Mattress and was in the ensemble. At 13, I was Barney in A Member of the Wedding at Ford’s Theatre. After that, Olney has been a big part of my theatre life and growing up. I was a sophomore when I did Fiddler.
And now A Chorus Line.
That’s what is so strange. I was not sure I was right for Mike, which is based on a short, Italian tap dancer’s story; I’m 6’1”. I went in saying I would do anything and when I got the call offering me Mike, I was honestly shocked. But this is really a blessing; I get to show everything I can do.
What is the appeal of the show?
The biggest thing is that it’s a look behind the scenes at professional auditions, even though they have changed today. But you don’t have to be dancer or musical theatre performer to appreciate it. It’s about having people see you for who you are; it could be any interview.
It’s also nice because DC has not had a ton of dance shows.
What part of A Chorus Line seems ripped from your own experiences?
I would say the pressure cooker of auditions and the competitive nature of auditions, when you look at other guys who are there. I know I have looked at other guys who look like me and thought ‘I can do this better than them and I’ll show you.’” I also definitely identify with Mike’s first scene with Zach, talking about my background and trying to show confidence.
And the ending, it’s pretty brilliant, of course, but it’s also pretty much true when some people don’t make it. You don’t always get an explanation as to why you don’t get the job.
One of the emotional scenes in the show is when one of the dancers is injured. After he’s taken off stage, Zach asks the others what if you can’t dance anymore. Looking at that not as Mike Costa but as yourself, how do you respond?
I am hooked on doing high risk activities – the tumbling and stunts – on top of acting, singing and dancing. If I couldn’t do any of those things, I guess I would go and become a financial planner and join my dad. It would not be my passion, but that would be the reality. Hopefully that doesn’t have to happen.
What sets this production apart?
I am very impressed with the lighting and how Olney can take the big, Broadway finish and translate that onto their stage. It’s just a well put together show. The audiences can’t see or know the work that went into the show. .. it looks like it’s effortlessly put together.
What are you favorite moments, watching from backstage?
I really like to see Michelle Aravena dance as Cassie, especially now that it’s in her body more. She’s one of the people with whom you can’t tell how hard she’s working. And there’s Bryan Knowlton who is our dance captain and is playing Paul San Marco. He really is a triple threat; he is such an example of professionalism. And his monologue as Paul gets better with every performance.
But I’m not going to lie – my favorite number is “I Can Do That.”
That’s a big moment for you.
It is and this whole show is. – I am just enjoying it and trying to make the most of it while it lasts.
A Chorus Line . Concept by Michael Bennett . Book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante. Music by Marvin Hamlisch and Lyrics by Edward Kleban . Directed by Stephen Nachamie . Original Michael Bennett choreography recreated by Stephen Nachamie . Featuring Michelle Aragena, Kurt Boehm, Elyse Collier, Jennifer Cordiner, Parker Drown, Sam Edgerly, Christie Farrell, Jonathan Blake Flemings, Jay Garrick, Arielle Gordon, Colleen Hayes, Jaimie Kelton, Heidi L. Kershaw, Bryan Knowlton, Angela Millin, Carl Randolph, Taylor Elise Rector, Kyle Schliefer, Steven Sofia, Momoko Sugai, Derek John Tatum, Tony Thomas, Joseph Tudor, Jessica Vaccaro, and Carl Michael Wilson.
Music Director/Conductor and New Orchestrations: Ross Scott Rawlings . Scenic Designer James Dardenne . Costume Designer Brad Musgrove . Lighting Designer Andrew F. Griffin . Sound Designer Matt Rowe . Produced by Olney Theatre Center .