Theatre in Film: A Chorus Line (1985)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

September 6, 2016

Have a love affair with theatre and film? Me too! It’s an ongoing relationship that’s a thrill to have, and Performer Stuff’s Theatre in Film series celebrates the great films that effectively depict a life in the theatre. Part III in our ongoing tribute to theatre-centric cinema continues with the 1985 stage-to-screen adaptation of Kirkwood, Dante, Hamlisch, and Keban’s Broadway musical A Chorus Line.

A Chorus Line (1985)

Director: Richard Attenborough
Starring: Michael Douglas, Terrence Mann, Alyson Reed, and Sharon Brown

What happens:

Dancers from all over New York gather on the stage of a Broadway theatre in hopes of being cast, not as a lead role, but in the chorus of the next hit Broadway show. The show’s choreographer, Zach (Michael Douglas), is a gruff, no-nonsense overseer and his tough yet gentle assistant choreographer, Larry (Terrence Mann), commands the stage as he orchestrates audition routine after routine. Zach’s secretary, Kim (Sharon Brown), does her best to keep the auditions running smoothly, and all three — Zach, Larry, and Kim — attempt to deal with the arrival of Zach’s ex-girlfriend, Carrie, a former Broadway dancer who has had her fill of Hollywood and is back in New York seeking a job.

Zach cuts the hopefuls down to 16 dancers, all from different backgrounds and experience levels. He informs them that this won’t be like other auditions. “I don’t want anybody to try to act,” he says. He wants dancers who are vulnerable, real. Zach grills them on who they are as people, initiating a sort of therapy session, and what transpires over the next hour and a half is an interweaved set of stories from each dancer in which every performer attempts to show Zach that they can dance and bear their soul at the same time.

Why it matters:

Though our “Theatre in Film” series generally focuses on the importance of a film and the themes of theatre it explores, sometimes a side trip is necessary in order to explore why a theatre-centric film does so poorly. We think that movies should be the most capable of capturing theatre the best; after all, film comes from theatre. Sometimes, however, a director’s understanding of how to adapt the spirit of theatre to the screen encounters difficulty. This is one of those times.

A Chorus Line, upon its 1985 release, was hailed by only four prominent reviewers as a hit. Nine others gave it lukewarm to negative reviews, one reviewer calling it “an expensive souvenir program”. Why did it do so poorly? The answer may lie in aspects that are entirely the tragic fault of director Attenborough. The stage musical expresses the reality of theatrical life while including Hamlisch and Kleban’s music and lyrics; the screen adaption, instead, can’t seem to decide on whether it’s a straight play or a musical. Musicals, by nature, occur in heightened realities of fantasy and therefore require a heightened style of acting to match the fantastical spirit of their musical numbers. Attenborough’s cast acts for the camera, not the overall musical story, and it results in choppy tone shifts (which aren’t helped by the tinny, false, pre-recorded sound of every song). The honesty expressed by characters while they monologue doesn’t transfer to their respective musical numbers. And the most detrimental aspect of this film’s effect on the story of A Chorus Line? Flashback moments from Carrie’s point of view that aren’t clearly shown to be flashbacks (unless you count the change in the length of her hair — long in flashbacks and short in the present). The way these moments are edited together make it appear as though there is a passing of time forward instead of a flash to the past.

However, despite being condemned by most critics as a mediocre, ineffective, corny, halfhearted, and tonally inconsistent attempt at a stage-to-screen musical adaptation, the film achieves exactly what it’s meant to: a slice of life portrait of the inner workings of a Broadway dance audition.

We see every step of the process: dancers arriving at the theatre, obtaining their audition numbers, getting dressed in tights and legwarmers and leotards, learning the combinations, and then celebrating their triumphs when they make the cut…or mourning their failures when they don’t. The love story between Zach and Carrie, although a bit distracting, reminds us of complications that can occur when love is found in the midst of our professional lives, especially when that love is found through the profession. A Chorus Line displays what a tough business theatre is, especially for dancers, who must endure the harsh judgement of directors, and whose livelihood and legacy may depend upon one shot at something big.

Below is an alternate trailer — more of a commercial — that shows various actors from the film briefly talking about what A Chorus Line is about in terms of the business of theatre. “You’re either in…or you’re out.”

This film is the first featured in Part III of “Theatre in Film”. See below for the others in Part III.


Want to start with Part I? Check out 42nd Street (1933). Didn’t get to read Part II? Begin with The Band Wagon (1953).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from A Chorus Line. Copyright © Columbia Pictures 1985.