At the recent Theater District Open House, TUTS Artistic Director Dan Knechtges gave an honest prelude to this year's season.
“When it comes to shows that are the best versus shows you love, there are some you recognize as being the best because they are brilliant theater, and maybe some that you love that are cringeworthy, but you just love them anyway," he told the crowd. "I want you to know, A Chorus Line tops both of those lists for me.”
For the record, he also doesn’t think there’s anything cringeworthy about his production of the Michael Bennett musical with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban, set to open the 2019-2020 TUTS season this week. The 1975 original ran for more than 6,000 performances on Broadway, at one point being the longest-running musical in history. “It’s both simple and complex,” Knechtges said, “and it’s also brutally truthful.”
A Chorus Line follows a group of dancers through a grueling audition process to get one of 16 coveted slots in a new musical. As they are put through their professional paces, the show’s director, Zach, also asks them a series of personal questions about how they got into theater. These personal stories form much of the show’s musical numbers.
The iconic show was lauded for its insider look at the theater industry and represented a stark departure from the nostalgia-driven, happy-ending shows that had dominated Broadway in the 1950s and ‘60s. A Chorus Line’s unflinching look at infidelity, racial prejudice, and the push-pull of looks versus talent struck a chord not only with the industry itself, but with audiences. Knechtges believes that modern audiences may not be as shocked by the musical’s themes, and figures they will come to identify with the characters on stage.
“You know, there’s 12 songs in this show,” he said. “That’s rare for a modern musical. But those 12 songs tell so much of this story.”
So, too, does the choreography, which is inextricable from the story. Knechtges refers to it as “visual text.” Within the scope of the show, the dancing itself becomes not only a driving force to the plot, but also almost its own character, this thing so loved by these characters that it takes on much larger meanings, becoming symbolic not only of the lives they want, but their very selves. “This audition they go through isn’t just about a job,” Knechtges said. “It’s about who they are.”
Knechtges is looking forward to having TUTS bring the beloved classic to the stage. While he knows many of the audience will be familiar with the show—and may even have seen earlier productions, including the original one on Broadway—he also recognizes that it will be a fresh experience for many others, including some of the company’s own cast.
“Some weren’t even born in the ‘70s,” he said, laughing. “But that’s great, because it gives them a fresh take on this; they have nothing to compare it to.”
That kind of fresh perspective is one of the things that energizes Knechtges about not only this show, but others across the seasons he’s led at TUTS. He’s made no secret of his goal that the company should be the premier home for musical theater in Houston, and he wants to be known not only for producing great musicals, but also for launching new ones. He realizes that musical theater evolves, and he wants to pay homage to that evolution.
That’s one reason having A Chorus Line in the season makes so much sense for him. The show is nearly 45 years old, but it was such a modern take on its subject when it opened, and it still feels relevant today.
“People still change their names to sound ‘better’ for certain industries,” he said. “We still have conversations about someone’s looks versus their ability. So this show is still important and still honest. That’s why it’s still one of the best.”
September 10–22. Tickets from $40. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 713-558-2600. More info and tickets at tuts.com.