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A CHORUS LINE Special: 'My Inner Cassie'

As the excitement and anticipation began for the arrival of the new production of A CHORUS LINE, I got to thinking about the extraordinary history of this unique musical. 

Also, as began doing book reports recently, I got to revisit The Longest Line, On the Line and Donna McKechnie's new book Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life. In addition I tracked down an old VHS copy of the Richard Attenborough film of A CHORUS LINE...which Broadway's "gypsy population" was up in arms over, when it first came out.

In The Longest LinePeter von Mayrhauser is quoted as saying "everyone wanted to be Cassie." This then got me to thinking, "Where are all those Cassies who danced across the stage of the Shubert Theater, during this legendary run of a now legendary musical about to return in a new revival?"

A CHORUS LINE does have the distinction of being the first and longest running AMERICAN Broadway musical (because the musicals achieving longer runs than A CHORUS LINE - Cats, Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera - are all of British origin).

So...after a couple of sleepless nights...I knew that I had to find those Cassies. The journey led me to some unexpected surprises and often times moved me to tears. For this reason, it is with great pride that we are able to share this piece with all of you. 

There were 9 Cassies during the entire Broadway run. I went after all of them and must acknowledge and thank, not only the extraordinary women who participated, but also original cast member and A CHORUS LINE expert - Thommie Walsh. I will be forever grateful. 

The assignment: ONE SIMPLE QUESTION - "What Do You Remember Most About Playing Cassie?"

Donna McKechnie

"What a challange for me. I have so many special moments that I never tired of experiencing. There was always the moment when I heard Zach say 'Cassie, stay on stage.' I would feel my stomach rise, with my emotions as I walked forward, anticipating the journey that I was going to take along with each new audience.

Another one.

There was always a powerful feeling of pride I got, realizing how grateful I was to have a life in the theatre. It resonated with me especially when I held that note on the word, 'dance,' looking up to the balcony, taking it all in with the gesture of my right arm, just before I started to dance.

Another one, and perhaps my favorite.

During 'The Music and the Mirror,' out of the 'Swan Lake' section, as we called it, that beautiful trumpet solo began and  I picked up the momentum into the circle step. As I turned into the layouts covering the entire expanse of the stage, I would feel the wind against my face. It felt like I was flying, and the music soared, lifting me higher and higher.

Yes, I think that has to be my favorite."
Ann Reinking

"What I remember best is that beautiful rehearsal outfit that is so classic, such a beautiful shade of red, Cassie red.

But more than anything, I remember the mirrors on stage.

Having the mirrors on stage in certain moments, was so dramatic, as in the Cassie number, 'All I ever need is the music, the mirror and a chance to dance.' When the mirrors swiveled,  I could see the lights and the audience, which was dramatic and moving.  

Having the mirrors there gave the audience insight into the intense commitment of a dancer to the mirror, to constant practice, to getting it right, to progress.  

The mirror is an integral part of a dancer's life.  The mirrors would swivel, usually on a crescendo. It was so graceful, so poetic and it would make my heart flutter. 

It was great."

Pamela Sousa

"One cannot play a role like Cassie, as I did for several years, and not be filled with countless memories. When approached to share the 'most' important memory of my time while performing Cassie, my thoughts always returned to the very first time I stepped into the role. You see, at that time, I was still an understudy preparing to go out on tour with the London company when they returned to the States. I had learned the role privately from Clive Clerk, the New York dance captain, but had not been given a complete understudy rehearsal. With a changing of Cassies between the companies, somehow the New York company was minus a Cassie on Monday evening. I was the only one in New York who knew the role, so they said. 'You're on!!'

The memory that will never leave me happened in the first dance break during the vocal. When I turned around and ran upstage and discovered myself in the turning mirrors, with all of the lights, and the enormous audience sitting behind me, it completely took my breath away. 

It's the moment that Michael Bennett always wanted and the one that I would, night after night, try to recall and keep as spontaneous as was possible."

Cheryl Clark

"I did over 3,000 performances of the role of 'Cassie'.  Two situations come to mind as very memorable. The first incident, humorous- the second, poignant.

Because I was quite young when Michael Bennett cast me as 'Cassie', taking me from the Original production of 'Chicago', he asked that I would open his first international production being  the Australian Company so I could be groomed.  He personally came down to Sydney for weeks and workshopped us (my Zach, Scott Pearson, also an American), had hours of incredible rehearsal with Michael- our scenes together in particular.  Many months later, Scott and I during a performance one evening, began the intense second scene when Zach is raising his voice and commanding Cassie to 'bring your leg down, stop popping your head', etc.  The tension in the scene escalates with Cassie doing her best to blend in with the other dancers.  All of a sudden, an  Aussie man in the audience, stood up and shouted, 'Who the bloody _____ bleep does Zach think he is, talking to Cassie that way!', and he stormed up  the aisle. We learned later that he headed straight for the bar of our Her Majesty's Theatre

! Never a dull moment down in the bush, and I did the show there 10 months!

Now, upon returning to America, I became a Broadway Cassie. Having been like a daughter to both Fosse and Bennett, both geniuses, my years of training in  voice, acting and dance, became even more polished with both of those great men as mentors.  Michael would always say, to combat the company's stage fright, or any apprehension- 'Play the play'.  Bob Fosse was so great at 'truth', saying,  "less is more" and 'never play for the jokes'. And always assume the audience is seeing this body of work for the first time.

It is no joke in a technical sense, that dancers performing 8 shows a week, sometime feel like their feet are going to fall off come that final performance on a matinee 2 show day!  Cassie is one of the most difficult sequence roles in Broadway history for a female (very physically demanding).  Also acting wise, and vocally.  I had hemorrhaged a vocal chord first doing the role in Australia, so I studied hard and really broke down the Cassie sequence.  First, you sing the song supporting like a singer, then that fabulous first breakaway dance section happens, and you let it rip, supporting like a dancer.  You face the audience again, very thrilling, singing and holding that "chance to dance" note forever until it goes into the orchestral and the major dance section happen.  Applause, applause, applause, afterwards to give the Cassie only seconds to find the breath to support the rest of a very intense scene with Zach.  Having trained with one of the greatest singers with the Met, Felix Knight, he instilled such great technique for my Cassie, and would always stress to his students regarding performing, 'when the bell rings, you don't get into the ring and start doing pushups.'  All of us Cassies' trained since we were little girls,  so when your feet feel like they can't hold you up, you draw from your technique (I compare it to golf, because you can't observe yourself in the swing), you must abandon yourself in the technique, same with voice.  Cassie is so difficult because of all 3 elements.

One Saturday night, the eighth show of the week, I felt concern that not even my technique would carry me through the Cassie section.  It boiled down to a very spiritual solution.  I thought, Dear God, please help me get through this and do a good job.  I reflected on my in-laws at the time. Both, at age 16, had been taken from Poland and the Ukraine and forced into Nazi work farms, remaining there for 2 years.  They did not have the opportunity to train and love dance, music, etc. like myself at that formative age.  I dedicated my performance that evening at the Shubert to the visualization that their physical stuggle was far greater than what I was facing before 1,750 audience members, and I let God carry me through that sequence with utter spiritual abandon.

Not only did I get a standing ovation that evening, but Sir Richard Attenborough was out in the audience (none of us knew), and afterwards,  the stage door man announced that I had visitors coming back to my dressing room.   I opened the door, and there was Sir Richard!  I exclaimed my surprise, and with his beautiful, open face, he kissed my face European style, on both cheeks and said, 'you're brilliant, and we will be seeing you soon'.  You see, he was casting the film at that time.  With Sir Richard, I had respected his work so much because he was so genuine.  Alyson got the role and I did about 5 weeks of work on the picture.  We couldn't related to the script because the Cassie in the film is not related to the Donna/Michael Bennett Cassie.  It  wasn't the Cassie that we all know love.

When I give clinics and see young people coming up in the business, we work on the fundamentals as a triple threat; dance, voice and acting.  But like that Saturday night, there is a beautiful spiritual aspect of performing when God does carry you, and the ultimate beauty for me, on top of dedicating my performance to those with great challenges, was dancing to the fantastic orchestra down in the pit, carrying me as well with their excellence in playing 'The Music and the Mirror'."

Wanda Richert

"The most special memory that I have of playing Cassie is one I hold very near and dear to my heart. It didn't happen during a performance. It is the memory of a special exchange I had with Michael Bennett at a note session with him after the show in San Francisco. It was 1979, long before my Broadway run as Cassie. I was one of the cast of the 1st National Touring Company. I had just turned twenty-one years old. I had joined the show in Los Angeles as a Sheila / Maggie cover when I was nineteen, and was immediately asked, by Baayork Lee, to learn the 'Cassie Dance' for Mr. Bennett. I was absolutely thrilled! I had set my sights on that role from the first time I saw the show at the Shubert Theater, with my mom, when I was sixteen. From the top of the show, we both said, 'The girl in the red dress...that's the part for you!' I held that dream in my vision. 

Michael came out to LA about three weeks after I joined the company. He proceeded to fire four of the seven actors who were hired at the same time that I was. WOW! The rumors were true. He was someone to fear. It was time for me to dance for him and it was definitely the most nervous I had been in my life! God sang and danced for me that afternoon. Half way through the number, Michael stopped me and said, 'Thank you darling, that's all I need to see.' He then asked me to read for Val, Judy and Christine. He left, we had our day off,and I returned to the theater the next day to be told that Michael wanted me on the line as soon as there was an opening. I was made the first cover to Cassie, Sheila, Val, Judy and Christine, which ultimately, led to me permanently replacing Cheryl Clark as Cassie when she left the show in Chicago, my home town. A year into my run, Michael came up to Boston to check on the cast and hold a brush-up rehearsal. I had never been to an acting class, nor had I studied vocally. Michael became my acting teacher and my vocal coach. He honored my talent in such a special way. I learned so very much, as an actress, from him. Rehearsals with him were exciting and priceless. From that point in time on, I found a new exhilaration in the role that I never tired of.

The night I'm recalling was one of those rare times when you rewind those two hours gone by and say, 'That was the best performance I've ever given.' Michael was in the house with Bob Avian. We were re-opening the Golden Gate Theater. After the performance, the cast was called to the stage for notes. Michael saved me for last, and this is what he said. 'I have been watching Wanda since she was just nineteen. Darling, you are an actress. You can act your ass off! I applaud you. I would like the entire company to applaud Wanda.' I was speechless. What an honor. That was my Tony! I will be be forever grateful to the late, great Mr. Bennett. He was my mentor and I will miss working with and for him. There will never be another Michael. There will never be another female role in the Musical Theater that compares to Cassie. There was just no better high than dancing on the Shubert stage, in that red dress, seeing and feeling those mirrors flying in around me. My true 'Inner Cassie' was in the sensuality of dancing to the saxophone playing during the slow section. She is my forever favorite role. Even though Peggy Sawyer was Wanda Richert...Wanda Richert, in her heart, will always be Cassie."

Angelique Ilo

"I have many wild memories but I have tried to go with what flashed to mind first.

'Cassie, stay on stage please.'  All the dancers, your friends, your cohorts, your support team, your theatre family LEAVE YOU!!!   It is set up, staged, planned as a supremely vulnerable moment and it works on ALL levels.  The fear and panic screams through your psyche and manifests itself within your body, evidenced by your legs which are now involuntarily shaking and your mouth, now a desert.  But, common theatre sense screams back, GET A GRIP ON YOURSELF!  and you proceed to walk, chin up, down stage center.

My next flash that next comes to'm setting up for the pirouette section....down the line.....I have one count of eight to take my last breaths and pray.....please dear God, the creative Gods, anyone who'll listen,  please give me an ounce more breath,  more steam, more strength and attack to nail this section.  Because at this point, I needed a stretcher.

As I mentioned before, I am currently in The Wedding Singer.  I am the dance captain and swing....having tons of fun but infinitely less challenging than my Cassie days.

Oceans of love to the cast of the revival."
Laurie Gamache

"I have a pretty long history with the show and it is so hard to separate out one thing for you. I grew up in A CHORUS LINE. I left my parents' home to join the National Tour and by the time the show closed, I was almost as old as Cassie. The one moment that stands out in my mind is the day they put my picture up outside the theater. I was hanging out in my dressing room between shows and somebody came and told me that it was there. I went out and stood there looking at myself for a really long time. Me, in that costume, had been a picture in my head for a while. To see it up in front of the building was something I can't describe. It was me, I was Cassie. It was unbelievable. But, there was a picture to prove it.

While I was standing there 2 girls came up and asked me to take their picture standing in front of my picture. So, I did. Then I grabbed a stranger and asked him to take a picture of all of us standing there. We all posed. They sort of looked at me like I was a crazy New Yorker, and I said 'that's me, they just put my picture up!' And I jumped up and down a few times and went back inside. They were dumbfounded and it was really fun.

Six months later one of my best friends called from the midwest. She was stagemanaging a show at a college and one of the girls in the chorus brought in pictures of her high school trip to New York and told everyone that story. Small world, isn't it?

I have lots of wonderful memories of the show. The first time that I played the role, the day we broke the record, an AIDS benefit after Michael died, closing night... Lots of people share those memories with me, but that one moment, all by myself on the sidewalk, that is my best memory."

Deborah Henry (1952-1996)

"I used to go back and forth, switching from playing Val to Cassie. I understood them both: Valerie externalized things Cassie felt inside and vice versa. It was no problem going from role to role. The problem I had was the transition of my friends. That was the hardest part. Because I was still Debbie, just the color of my custome changed.

But people changed and it was very lonely for a while. They thought because I was Cassie, I was really busy and had plans, when I was just sitting in my hotel room. I'd hear all of the groups of kids going out after the show. No one asked me to go anywhere. "

Deborah Henry's comments are reprinted from 'The Longest Line' - Broadway's Most Singular Sensation by Gary Stevens and Alan George.

Henry died all to soon at the age of 44 on February 5, 1996 of Ovarian Cancer.

Vicki Frederick

"I would mop the stage for Michel Bennett just to be part of the show. Finally there was an audition, the mother of all auditions - and they asked me to read for Cassie. I learned a little of the opening scene and was told to come back and learn the number. There were so many callbacks for the Cassies, with about ten of us learning it. When we were cut down to five, we were asked to perform the vocal and dance individually. I'll never forget Michael teaching us the number, and especially the very last sequence backing up and down the line - the handshake.

His little feet were moving so fast; not even Donna's went that fast. We weren't doing enough of a contraction and Michael would shout, 'Give Me!' as we'd do the whole sequence pulling back on the line. Then we waited and waited. Finally I heard the news that I would be understudying and off I went to rehearsal at City Center. I really didn't have an idea which company I would be in because Michael didn't know yet himself where he was going to put everybody. "

Vicki Frederick's comments are reprinted from 'The Longest Line' - Broadway's Most Singular Sensation by Gary Stevens and Alan George. Multiple attempts to contact Ms. Frederick failed. If anyone knows where she might be or how I might get in touch with her, please email me and we'll happily do a follow-up."

The Big Screen Cassie - Alyson Reed

Multiple attempts were made to contact Alyson Reed, who has spoken very rarely about her experience playing Cassie in the Sir Richard Attenborough directed film version of A CHORUS LINE. In fact, after much online and offline research, I was only able to locate one story in which she speaks about the film. The below excerpts are from the June 21, 1987 San Jose Telegraph, in an interview with Jack Cranford regarding a then-upcoming concert performance.

"'I wanted to quit the business,' Reed recalled. 'I knew we'd get bad reviews, because, for some people, we'd rewritten the Bible. But I wasn't prepared for how vicious they'd be. I was devastated.' She knows, word-for-word, with every comma in place, what Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times about her Cassie, for which Reed's straight, ash-blond hair became frizzy and red. 'He said I couldn't sing, couldn't dance and, above all, that I was charmless. You cannot take away my charm. I live my life on it.'  

In hindsight, far from the emotion of the film's exceptionally long, seven-month production schedule, she acknowledged mixed feelings about the finished product. 'It didn't have the darkness it needed; it was too nice. And when you take a thing that's so intrinsically theatrical, there are tricks you can't pull off on film without looking corny. It lacks a certain passion. But I don't think it's the turkey it was made out to be. I'm very proud of a lot of my work in it.' It was no small irony that to win her first -- and, to date, only -- film role, Reed beat out Ann Reinking, the star of the first show in which Reed danced in a Broadway chorus line, Bob Fosse's 'Dancin'.' Cynthia Rhodes and Leslie Ann Warren were also screen-tested for Cassie, Reed said.  

Although she was regarded as the dark-horse newcomer, Reed was hardly new to the stage version of "A Chorus Line," having played both Cassie and Val (the brassy chorine who sings about enhancing her physical assets) in touring companies, under creator Michael Bennett's direction. Indeed, Reed did screen tests for both roles. Still, it was the film that most taught Reed about tough knocks in a tough business, perhaps because so many had expected the role of Cassie would be its owner's fast-lane ticket to Hollywood stardom. The year that followed was the hardest year of my life. A 5 1/2-year relationship with a man split up. I was on hold for three films, and, after the reviews came out, all three were pulled. It was incredible. I couldn't get arrested. On Broadway, casting directors and directors didn't want to see me for anything. I was absolutely floored."

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