BWW Interviews: Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique Talk A CHORUS LINE
Step, leap, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch…again!
I recently had a chance to chat with Director Danny Herman and Choreographer Rocker Verastique of Georgetown Palace Theatre's spectacular production of A Chorus Line which plays its final performances this weekend.
Given their long history and association with A Chorus Line, this project is indeed a labor of love. Danny started his career in the Original Broadway production of A Chorus Line and continued to perform in other Broadway shows such as Leader of the Pack and Song and Dance before directing and choreographing such shows as three different editions of Ringing Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the well-received Dreamgirls – 20th Anniversary Benefit Concert for The Actors' Fund. Rocker is an acclaimed dancer and choreographer. He has danced alongside greats such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ann Reinking, and Janet Jackson and has choreographed Austin Playhouse productions of Stop the World I Want to Get Off, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well, The Fantasticks, and A Funning Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and other local productions of Chess, The Pajama Game, and City of Angels.
Together, Danny and Rocker filled me in on everything about being on the line, from what it was like to work with Michael Bennett and Marvin Hamlisch to why the show is still relatable some 37 years later. Here's what they had to say…
JD: thank you so much, Danny and Rocker, for joining me today, and congratulations on a great production.
DH: Thank you so much.
RV: Thanks Jeff.
JD: So let's start with you, Danny. I know that you have a really long history with A Chorus Line. Do you want to tell me about your prior involvement in the show?
DH: Absolutely. I joined Chorus Line right out of high school in the late 70s as Mark and I kind of spent I think eight years there on and off. I started with Mark and then I went to Mike and Larry and eventually Zach. I kind of grew up in the show, during which I became involved with the creative team and Michael Bennett, and I learned all the things that they had worked on. I actually served as the Associate Choreographer on Michael Bennett's final project, a musical called Scandal with Swoosie Kurtz and Treat Williams that we workshopped in the early to mid 80s for two years, and then [Michael] died.
JD: And what was it like for you to work with Michael Bennett?
DH: Oh, it was crazy. He was extremely talented and had a great eye. You know, it was the 70s. Those gentlemen who were directing and choreographing back then were powerful megalomaniacs. He was exactly that. At times it was uncomfortable but at times it was amazing and I learned things there that I didn't learn anywhere.
JD: You mentioned that you played several different roles during your run with the show in the Original Broadway Cast. Are there any characters in the show that you feel particularly drawn to or feel that you're similar to in any way?
DH: The character Mike is very similar to me. He's Italian and I'm Italian and he started dancing very young. He was a kind of a gifted dancer. I was a tap dancer and a gymnast. It was a role that fit like a glove in terms of his skill as well as his background.
JD: And Rocker, what about you? Any characters that in the show that you feel you closely identify with?
RV: Well, I've performed Larry and Paul, and I identify a lot with Larry because I feel like I'm in that role a lot in my life so I connect with that. In terms of characters that I have never really gotten to perform, it would be Bobby. I'm a Bobby character.
JD: And why do you think A Chorus Line is such a big hit? Why is it so well-known and done so often?
RV: I would have a hard time answering that because it was the first Broadway show I ever saw. It's what made me fall in love with theater and with the craft. So I've always loved Chorus Line. When people talk about the Chorus Line movie, I'm like, "Well, there's a whole other Chorus Line." A lot of people here in Austin, you know, they haven't seen the stage version. They've only seen the film, and I think bringing them A Chorus Line, it's such a gift.
DH: I think there are a million reasons. I think for one, it revitalized Broadway. If you were in New York when Chorus Line opened, there were not a lot of musicals and musicals that were done were big and splashy and old-fashioned. No one had tried to transform Broadway stylistically, but Michael did, and not only was it a successful transformation but it was inexpensive. To tour a show with five sets and whatever and a busload of people, it's expensive, but A Chorus Line had a chance to go out, and people identified with the honesty of it. A Chorus Line was totally outside the box. It was contemporary and it was exactly about 1975. That generation identified with it.
JD: For both of you, what do you think about the show is appealing to modern audiences?
DH: For me, I think it's the need of the characters. I think it's that when you see desperation and when you see despair, you connect with it consciously and subconsciously. I think that's what a lot of musical theater and a lot of plays are born out of, and it's that's the foundation of this. It's something that people feel in their soul even if they don't feel it in their head.
RV: A lot of that urgency and that need you set up in the very opening in the audition, and then when the audience starts to get to know the characters and connects with their humanity, that's what really starts the ride. You want to know what happens to them, and by the end of the audition so much has happened.
DH: The device of growing up and those montages also allows people to revisit and remember parts of their childhood that everyone has experienced. People connect with that. They'll start to say, "Oh, I remember that," or "I knew someone like that." And also, at the time, you had never seen backstage at an audition. We'd never seen it once on TV.
RV: It's a reality show on stage.
DH: It really is. It was then first time someone peaked in. Now I wonder sometimes because audiences now see so much of it. [Laughs]
JD: I really never thought of that, but it's true. It really is like a reality show. So Danny, what is it like for you to revisit this show several years later and as a Director?
DH: Well, I hadn't worked on a production of it in maybe five years until last year with the production with Marvin [Hamlisch], and in a weird way, I walked away from that production thinking it was dated and that it was uninteresting. It was a success in many ways, but at the core of it, you know, people didn't walk out at intermission with a problem in their heart. This time I wanted to fix that. Why didn't it feel urgent? And this time, we spent a lot of time with the kids on the differences and the similarities between now and 1975 so they could understand the depth of the despair and the kind of abusiveness of Broadway back then. It was a different animal then. It was so competitive and unsafe.
RV: The stakes were a lot higher.
DH: Yes, the stakes were much higher, and I think I learned that A Chorus Line isn't at all about the success. It's about the attempt. I feel like I never really knew what A Chorus Line was about until recently, really at the core.
JD: Now with this production, are you recreating the original Michael Bennett choreography?
RV: Yes. Everything's the original choreography except for some of the staging. It's a much smaller stage.
DH: Yeah, we had to cut some stuff down. Occasionally we had to make adjustments for spatial issues, but otherwise, it's all the original choreography.
JD: So how hard was it to teach that choreography to the cast?
RV: Well, it's always really hard to find true triple threats, so we have a lot of people who are really strong singers or really strong dancers, so to even it all out, we do a really thorough warm up of 45 minutes every day. It's a condensed class with technique and core because they need to know how to hold themselves and know how to get through all these performances. We also have lots of understudies because we know A Chorus Line is a very physical show and we've been physically training them to get them ready because the show is just grueling on the body.
DH: If you want to know the truth, in 1975 there really were no true triple threats.
DH: This was a new idea, and the choreography was designed to be able to be learned by people who didn't have as much technique as other dancers. The first day that I learned the show, the Dance Captain that taught me the show said, "Now learn this choreography not like you're a dancer. Learn this like you're a cheerleader." It was really interesting. He went though it pose by pose by pose. We really didn't dance it, and then as you start to learn the show, you started to dance through all of those poses and it kind of worked and kind of came together.
RV: So that's how we do it. Pose after pose after pose, you know, and that way it doesn't intimidate. It's just small sections to learn.
DH: And I have to say, this cast really put the hours in. They worked hard, and we are so happy with the production and how it came out.
JD: Well since the show is all about auditions, I have to ask, do either of you have any memorable audition stories?
DH: Well, the Chorus Line audition I had with the Broadway company was kind of memorable. I was a Senior in High School, and I came up to New York to audition. It was my first audition for anything. I just wanted to survive a New York audition, so I auditioned for A Chorus Line and there were a lot of people there. In the middle of the second day, the room changed and you could see this little, tiny man with a red baseball cap in the back of the house and he kind of came forward and saw that some people were struggling with the choreography and he said, "If you want to see how the combination should be done, watch him do it," and he was pointing in the corner of the stage where I was, so I turned around to try to see who he was talking about, and this guy taps me on the shoulder and says, "I think he means you." So I did the combination, and about three months later, I was in the show.
JD: Wow! That's awesome.
DH: It was kind of wild. I've never had an audition quite that successful since. [Laughs]
RV: I think probably my favorite audition story for me is the one audition that never happened, which would be Chicago. It was an interview with Ann Reinking. She just came and talked, and I got the first Encore production of Chicago and then went on to do the original cast on Broadway. People ask me, "Well how did you audition?" and the answer is that I was doing all the Fosse! workshops. Fosse! was just about to happen, and Annie was doing the production of Chicago for Encores and needed a few more dancers that she didn't know so she did interviews, and there were only about four of us. We talked a little bit, and bam, I got a phone call.
JD: That's a great story. I now kind of have this picture in my head of Ann Reinking as Zach in A Chorus Line. You know, back of the theatre, on a God mike saying things like, "So tell me about your life."
RV: Yeah it was nice and easy and lead to a wonderful experience.
JD: So I really wanted to ask both of you about Marvin Hamlisch who wrote Chorus Line's beautiful score since he passed away right before you opened this production. I'm sure his passing must have impacted the show in some way. Do you have anything to say about Marvin?
DH: Yes. One of the things that he said that I'd love to pass on is that "A show is often one second away from being brilliant." He told me that early on, Chorus Line was not working, and audiences were not walking out overjoyed. They couldn't understand why. They were about four days away from opening, and Neil Simon's wife was in the audience, Masha Mason, and after the show, Marsha said, "Give Cassie the job," because at that point Cassie did not get the job. Michael said back, "Well that's an unrealistic notion. She'd just be in the chorus." But they tried it, and the show turned instantly. Audiences were overjoyed and it actually was the turning point that made A Chorus Line such a revolutionary hit. So Marvin just always thought, you know, don't give up. Don't give up. You never know. I mean, there was that point where A Chorus Line, for whatever reason, wasn't working but was saved through perseverance and their desire to want it to succeed so badly that they were willing to try something new and different. And it succeeded.
RV: I liked what he said about not over-singing the score. He talked about how Chorus Line was not meant to be perfectly sung and that if he wanted it to be sung like that, he would have changed it and written it differently. Now I hear a lot of people sing these monologues so perfectly, and they're really meant to be spoken somewhat.
DH: Oh, another thing I wanted to mention is that the "What I Did for Love" that we're using is Marvin's version. There are struggles about which version to use, and different ones have been used in New York and on the tours, and Marvin never really won that fight, but this is his "What I Did for Love" and it's beautiful.
JD: Can you tell me a little bit about the different versions of the song?
DH: The original wasn't as sentimental. It wasn't as long. It didn't have as many "oohs" and "aahs." It was more like an anthem. This version is longer. The character of Diana sings the whole thing first before anyone else comes in. It's a lot more sentimental and has a lot more tempo sway, and that's what Marvin always wanted.
JD: So what can audiences expect if they come see the show?
DH: They can expect a genuine sense of this show from 1975, and it isn't everyone's cup of tea. We understand that, but they can expect the truth about what 1975 was like on Broadway.
JD: Great. Well thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. It was a lot of fun, and I wish both of you and the Chorus Line cast a great success.
DH: Thank you, Jeff.
RV: Thanks, Jeff.
A Chorus Line plays the Georgetown Palace Theatre in Georgetown, TX Thurs 9/6 – Sat 9/8 at 7:30pm and Sun, 9/9 at 2pm. Tickets are $24 for adults, $10 for children (12 or younger), $22 for seniors (55 and older), and $14 for students (13-22) or Active Duty Military.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.georgetownpalace.com.
To read BWW's review of this production, click here.