By Tanner Kent
The Free Press
Though she had just one year’s experience in Minnesota State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance, Cassie Johnson was shrewd enough to know it would take more than wanting to earn a role “A Chorus Line.”
The powerful microcosm of ambition, competition and sometimes painful overdedication serves as the opening production for MSU’s Mainstage season. And Johnson knew what needed to be done.
“I told myself that I was going to be ready,” she said. “I worked all summer long.”
She stretched and exercised every day to prepare for the dance-heavy role. She saw a vocal coach and practiced between her rehearsals for MSU’s summer production of “Sound of Music.” She committed to the role months before it was even hers.
When it came time for MSU’s auditions -- which were held on the first day of class in August -- exercises started with a large group dance. “A Chorus Line” opens similarly with the compulsive, demanding director, Zack, drilling a large group of auditioning dancers in a variety of techniques. The scene is fraught with tension, dancers sizing one another up and trying not to make the mistake the catches the director’s attention.
In MSU’s case, director Paul Finocchiaro said 79 students auditioned for only 19 roles (plus seven extras).
“That was very stressful,” Johnson said, “because you’re constantly comparing yourself to others. And if you screw up, you’re thinking: ‘Oh gosh, I hope he doesn’t see that.’”
After an audition that included dancing, singing and reading, Johnson was among a small group of students waiting in the green room for the final casting to be announced. Every few minutes, someone would peek into the hallway.
“When we finally saw it get posted, we were all too scared to check,” said Johnson, who was given the role of Diana Morales, the likable Puerto Rican who was underestimated by her teachers. She added that it’s not hard to draw parallels between Morales’ experience and her own.
“The whole show is about an audition. It’s so real. We all can connect.”
“A Chorus Line” tells the story of several dancers auditioning for the chorus line of a musical. Each character is shaped by a different set of life circumstances -- but all have arrived with the same desire: To earn one more chance to perform atop the biggest stage, under the hottest spotlight, on Broadway.
The 1975 musical received 12 Tony Award nominations (winning nine) and earned the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for drama, among many other awards. Its frank and candid portrayal of the gypsy-like existence of dancers is at times deeply introspective, as in the personal histories that Zack asks each dancer to deliver during auditions; and at times tragic, as when Paul injures his knee and is whisked to the hospital, leaving his fellow dancers to swallow the realization that their own careers could end just as unceremoniously.
Running throughout the show is a vein of grueling exactitude. Viewers get the sense that behind the effortless stage execution and flawless dance mechanics is a physical and emotional toll that tests the limits of all who dare to audition.
“It really is art imitating life,” said Finocchiaro, who himself played three roles -- Al, Mike and Paul -- in separate productions of a “A Chorus Line” during his performance career prior to coming to MSU. He said he’s participated in multiple auditions that last for “four or five hours. And, by the end, you’re absolutely exhausted, emotionally and physically.
“This is a great glimpse for some students of what their future will be like.”
When MSU’s version opens, Finocchiaro said it will be the most dance-heavy production in several years. With a cast that spans first-year students to graduate students, and dance novices to dance experts, Finocchiaro said choreography and dance rehearsals have been necessarily precise.
Finocchiaro added that his production will closely mirror that of the original Broadway production, which wasn’t unseated as the longest-running Broadway musical in history until “Chicago” in 2011.
He even invited two Twin Cities performers with national experience with “A Chorus Line” to discuss the show. Michael Gruber was on the closing cast for the original Broadway production as well as the 2006 revival, and Tony Vreiling was in both national tours.
“They brought hats, programs, jackets; they talked about each character for the students,” Finocchiaro said. “It was incredible.”
Finocchiaro complimented the costumes -- especially those for the group finale: “They’ve really taken on a beautiful life of their own,” he said -- as well as the “understated” but complex lighting design and the set that appears effortlessly constructed.
“It’s going to be really beautiful,” he said. “I’m excited about the opening of the show.”