By Annette Hinkle
The glamour of Broadway has been a powerful lure for an endless succession of aspiring performers who find their way from small town America to New York City in hopes of making it big.
And while some do find success in the big city, for most young actors, it’s a struggle to make ends meet as they bounce from audition to audition waiting for a big break which never comes. Competition is fierce and it’s a hard life — always has been, always will be. Which is why “A Chorus Line” still hits home, despite the fact it premiered on Broadway almost four decades ago.
Michael Bennett’s much beloved musical, which tells the story of two dozen singing and dancing hopefuls trying out for a minor role in a Broadway production, will be revisited by the students of Pierson High School next weekend.
This is not the first time the play has been on the Pierson stage — eight years ago, the high school presented “A Chorus Line.” Though director Paula Brannon recalls she had been overseeing Pierson Middle School musicals at the time, that production marked her first helming a Pierson high school production. In hindsight, with “A Chorus Line,” she admits the right play may have been chosen for all the wrong reasons.
“When we chose it the first time, we were choosing it based on the fact there was little set, having come off [the middle school production of] ‘Beauty and the Beast,’” recalls Brannon. “Then we found out how difficult the show really is.”
When it comes to “A Chorus Line,” the difficulty is not in the sets or the costuming, but the dance moves, as Brannon quickly learned when she brought in choreographer Oscar Gonzalez to work with the students.
“Oscar went crazy because we had only two kids of 25 who could really dance,” says Brannon. “He said, ‘It’s too much — never again.’ It was our first show together.”
But years have a way of working out kinks and part of the initial difficulty had to do with the blurring of Brannon and Gonzalez’s respective directorial lines. Brannon compares it to Jerome Robbins choreography in “West Side Story” in which the cast is required to sing, dance and act at the same time.
“It’s hard not to step on each others toes and we’ve since figured it out,” admits Brannon. “We’ve worked together eight years — and this time we have dancers.”
And Gonzalez, a stickler for authenticity, is putting the young actors through their paces — insisting they master the original choreography for the show, even if they aren’t dancers.
“When I first worked with Oscar, I questioned why he wasn’t creating his own choreography, but now I love that he does that,” says Brannon. “They’re exposed to more difficult and challenging work than any other school I’ve seen because he demands those standards — and he brings it to a big and better point.”
“It helps when you’re working with a cast that is unafraid to try anything,” she adds. “And in this group, we have that.”
Also helpful is the fact that before rehearsals even began, Brannon was able to arrange for the students to take part in a one-day dance workshop at Bay Street Theatre with a former cast member of the touring company version of “A Chorus Line.” By the time Gonzalez came in to work with the students they already understood what was expected.
“This is the hardest choreography we’ve had to learn,” confirms senior Marley Holder, who plays Bebe. “I feel like I’ve gotten better.”
“The dancing is the most challenging,” agrees senior Zach DePetris (a.k.a. Richie) who has been in Pierson productions since sixth grade, but has never before been called on to dance at this level. “Abi [Gianis] who plays Cassie is doing ballet, she’s the only one consistently dancing. It’s a hassle to learn these steps. We’ve been singing forever, but the dancing is new — and Oscar is passionate about it.”
“He wants it to be perfect,” says Paige DePetris, Zach’s cousin, who plays Sheila.
“Nothing is ever going to be perfect,” counters Zach DePetris.
“It’s coming along,” she insists.
Bryant Yunker, who plays Bobby, is a senior. He moved to Sag Harbor a year ago from boarding school in New Jersey and this is his first theatrical production at Pierson. He admits the rigorous rehearsal schedule and the expectations are much different than what he’s used to.
“In boarding school you can show up whenever,” admits Yunker. “All this is completely new… and I don’t dance well.”
But highlighting a range of theatrical skills is all part of the point with this play. When it comes to Broadway musicals, “A Chorus Line” is unique in that there are no obvious lead roles. Instead, it offers many opportunities for various performers to have their moment in the spotlight — sharing their talents as well as their character’s most intimate and private secrets.
“If you ask me who’s the lead, I’d say usually it’s determined by the number of songs or the number of lines,” says Brannon. “The character Cassie is sort of thought of as the lead because she has a nine minute song and sings and dances alone. But Diana also has two songs and another character has a song and a dance.”
“This play is about gypsies auditioning for a Broadway show,” adds Brannon. “Usually they’re in the background with the same smile on their face doing the same dance steps and that’s that.”
“But this show has them becoming individuals and allowing their individualism to come out because the director is looking for a different kind of chorus,” explains Brannon. “They all are allowed to shine.”
The nature of the play with its many strong characters, she notes, has allowed the cast to come together as a cohesive unit, one in which relationships are not defined by the notion of who has the lead and who is in the background.
“These guys work together and even though some of them have been [in middle and high school musicals] together for seven years, they’re forming friendships that weren’t there before,” says Brannon.
Pierson High School’s production of “A Chorus Line” runs Thursday, February 6 to Saturday, February 8, 2014. Shows are at 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, and on Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. All tickets are $7 and proceeds from Saturday’s matinee will benefit the school’s theater scholarship fund. Pierson High School is at 200 Jermain Avenue, Sag Harbor.