I thoroughly enjoyed Every Little Step, a new documentary now in theaters that compares the casting of the original A Chorus Line (1975) with that of the 2006 Broadway revival. The movie will thrill anyone who loves Broadway musicals and the extraordinary dedication required to create them. (I'm in that group.) And it may find a secondary audience among people who follow audition shows like American Idol but suspect there's more to life (and art) than that.
If you've seen A Chorus Line on Broadway or on the road*, you know the original production was a labor of love, crafted from the true and often heartbreaking stories of the performers who volunteered to be taped. (The archival tapes, and some grainy movie footage, are used to great effect in the film.) It broke the mold of American musicals and brought a bracing verisimilitude to a theatrical form often disdained for its artificiality. And it won nine Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
What you may not know—what I hadn't known—is how the show kept evolving even after opening night. One story in particular captured my attention because it demonstrates the power of a name.
One of the chorus members, Val, sings a comic tribute to plastic surgery. The number was originally called "Tits and Ass," and in the show's first performances it flopped. Nobody laughed. Composer Marvin Hamlisch recalls for the camera that he and Michael Bennett, the show's director/choreographer, couldn't figure out why. The lyrics were funny, dammit!
Then, Hamlisch says, they had an insight. They decided to see the song before they heard it, the way the audience first did: by reading the program before the curtain went up. When they saw the title in the list of songs, they got it: "Tits and Ass" gave away the punchline. There was no element of surprise or delight.
To find a new title, they went back to the spoken vamp to the song:
...But after a while I caught on...I mean, I saw what they were
hiring! I also swiped my dance card once after an audition, and on a scale
of ten, they gave me for dance: TEN, for looks : THREE! Well!
Overnight, "Tits and Ass" became "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three." And the first time A Chorus Line was performed with a reprinted program the song stopped the show. As it has done ever since.
The moral of the story: Believe in your work, but respect your audience's (customers') feedback. Make your title (or your company name) intriguing, but don't give away the store. And have the humility to accept when it's time to change.
Watch Jessica Lee Goldyn, as Val, sing "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three" from the 2006 production of "A Chorus Line."
* The 1985 movie, starring Michael Douglas and directed by (huh?) Richard Attenborough, is pretty universally agreed to be a travesty. There are many things that—to borrow another song title from the show—I'll do for love, but seeing this movie hasn't yet been among them.