Irving — On April 16, 2015, the Broadway cast from Hamilton paid tribute to the 40th anniversary of the original performance of A Chorus Line, which had opened April 16, 1975 on the Newman Stage at The Public Theater. Lin Manuel-Miranda welcomed the original cast members from A Chorus Line to take their place onstage as their names were announced. Among them, and the last name to be announced, was original cast member Michael Serrecchia-Robinson (Frank). A native New Yorker, Michael decided on Dallas as his home decades ago, working as a performer and as a director.
He is currently the director for the Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas’s production of A Chorus Line, opening Friday.
So much has been written and filmed over the years about this show (including the 2008 documentary Every Little Step), which remains one of the top 10 longest-running musicals on Broadway, in addition to being considered one of the groundbreaking works in the canon. Nothing beats having a conversation someone who was there from the beginning.
Serrecchia agreed to meet over breakfast and talk about the show that changed his life, and which played a role in ensuring that future musicals (including Hamilton) were able to have their start at the theatre everyone refers to as simply The Public.
Michael began our conversation by expressing his gratitude to Mainstage and his creative team for their support of him during this production. He is now in remission from a serious illness. Having emerged on the other side of that experience, his work with this production has a deeper significance for him personally, adding a level to the intimate relationship with the piece that already existed. Of the actors who play the four gay male characters in the original cast, Michael is the only one still living.
Michael Serrecchia-Robinson: Mainstage has been wonderful. They have given me all of the time I need to work with this show. Michael Bennett’s assistant, Baayork Lee, was initially going to teach all of the dances for us but she is in Spain working for Antonio Banderas’ theater, which he started so he can do this show. Baayork has graciously allowed her assistant to come and do a dance intensive with the cast. That was so lovely of her to do.
My beautiful assistant Megan Bates has been great. We have worked together for at least 12 years. My newest angel is Julie Russell Stanley, who has embraced this whole culture of A Chorus Line and is in a position to teach it. She teaches at the Oklahoma City University.
TheaterJones: In this production you’re working with so many young actors who may not know the history and significance of this show. What questions have they asked, and what secrets have you revealed?
MSR: There are so many little things that make a difference to the characters. During the opening number (“God I Hope I Get It”), originally Cassie arrived late and just stepped in the line and that started to annoy Zach. What many people do not know is that all the way through the previews on Broadway, Cassie never got the job.
Neil Simon [the script doctor] and Michael Bennett worked on many shows together. Simon and his wife Marsha Mason were at the preview. Afterward Marsha told Bennett: “Michael, you can’t do that. You have to let Cassie get the job. The audience is so mad at you. You have to let her get the job.” The next night, he let Cassie get the job. The audience response took the roof off the theatre. It’s all of those little things, everything falls in place and boom! That was a lesson for me.
A Chorus Line did well at the box office, and garnered Tony Awards for best musical, book of a musical, choreography, direction, original score, leading actress, featured actor, and featured actress. In 1976, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in drama. The city was not in great shape, though — it had been on the verge of bankruptcy throughout the 1970s.
New York City had been through really hard times. A Chorus Line was credited with helping to turn around that economic downturn by making it possible for The Public Theater to remain afloat. Everyone wanted to see the show but it was constantly sold out so there were no tickets. Even Diana Ross could not get tickets to the show. She wanted to see it so badly, she sat on the stairs.
How did the idea for the show begin, and how did the show develop from there?
It was the wonderful gypsies, Tony Stevens and Michon Peacock. They were ahead of me and I was privileged to work with both of them on other shows. As it turns out, neither of them did A Chorus Line and the whole thing was their idea.
They were sitting around Barrymore’s, talking about how [chorus dancers] do all the work without the credit and compensation. Our longevity is short as dancers because our bodies take a beating. They spoke of the star who would come onstage, start a song, and then go upstage leaving the gypsies to dance and work the audience into a frenzy. Then the star would reappear in a different costume and strike the final pose. Enough!
We have a story. Who’s going to tell our story? Somebody should write a musical about us. So, they took their idea to Michael Bennett. He had started as a gypsy just like the rest of us. He was in the same generation as Tony and Michon; one generation ahead of me. He had already choreographed a Broadway show and started directing. He co-directed Follies with Hal Prince. He was starting to make a name for himself but was still one of the kids.
One evening after dance class, he told the first story so people would/could know they were safe. What he told us was very personal, insightful and private. He opened the floodgates. He said “I don’t know what this is. I don’t know if we have something or not. But let’s just figure out why everybody did this.”
Then he started talking about many things you don’t normally hear. He gave us permission to be brutally honest, created a sacred, safe space. That went on for two days.
Talk about the role Joseph Papp, who ran the Public, had in this?
[Bennett] was smart enough to take it to Joseph Papp, who was making his name as a maverick by opening The Public Theater and bringing free theater to all the boroughs. They had flatbed trailers they would pull though the city and the flatbeds became a stage.
Papp was “Uncle Joe” to them. [Bennett] discussed the idea and asked for advice. Uncle Joe told him “you don’t have a book; you don’t have a space.” They talked and worked out a deal to use The Public as rehearsal space for two or three months at a time. There were two rehearsal periods. They received small stipends. It was a labor of love. After the first readthrough, three people quit. Then the magic began.
What was cut out before the show started previews?
There was a fight scene that they took out because they wanted to show the gay characters as fully accepted and a non-issue. These are not damaged people. They are the norm. This was very important because of the time being so close to [the] Stonewall [riots].
How much did the choreography change before opening night?
Until it opened on Broadway, the four guys used to do the end of the “Music in the Mirror” dance with Cassie. I was one of those men. They used to move the mirrors out for her instead of flying them in, and then we would join her at the end of the dance. I kind of think maybe those functioned as support for her as she built up the stamina for that number. That’s a seven-minute number.
Michael Bennett’s genius was in editing. Each person on the line was a composite of several other people’s stories. There was a song “Résumé.” The only thing that remains of it is the line “Am I my résumé.”
In those days, [chorus people] was either Bennett dancers or Fosse dancers. Fosse choreographed stylistically to camouflage his weaknesses. Bennett was more of a street dancer.
What about working with composer Marvin Hamlisch?
Marvin Hamlisch composed in front of us. He would be at the piano with his coffee [and] a bagel. He wore patent leather tap shoes every day because he liked the sound of them. Never danced a day in his life.
Sounds like this show was intensely personal for you and the original cast and crew.
A Chorus Line kept getting bigger and bigger. It did not tour. The decision was made to mount six shows at one time. The cast had to go teach the other teams, internationally, at the same time.
Imagine having put two years of your life into a story that is about your life and then having to audition for a part in that story, and not getting the part. There was a lot of that. If you did get to play your part, you were this huge success, while also being a factory foreman to train six other people to be you. This, and after Michael Bennett has pulled everything out of you, the door slams. The labor of love is over, and the money machine begins. Some people’s lives were shattered.
So, this is why it is very important to me to do this show correctly.