With gold top hats, a plethora of touching personal stories and an iconic song that I haven’t been able to shift since the show’s revival was announced, A Chorus Line is back in London after a 35 year break and wowing crowds at the London Palladium.
The tale of performers auditioning for a role in a show’s ensemble, which was famously adapted for the silver screen in the movie starring Michael Douglas and directed by Richard Attenborough, is being revived by the production’s original co-choreographer Bob Avian and one of its original stars Baayork Lee.
As press night approaches, we met up with a quartet of the production’s leading stars – former EastEnder John Partridge, Olivier Award nominees Scarlett Strallen and Leigh Zimmerman, and West End regular Victoria Hamilton-Barritt – to find out more about the show, performing at the Palladium and the production’s brutal boot camp.
How do you feel about performing at the historic London Palladium?
Strallen: I love it. I feel like it’s a second home because I spent three years here in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I think it’s a magical place, it’s so warm. Although it’s big it feels intimate because of the shape. It sort of embraces you.
Zimmerman: The Palladium’s amazing. The front of house and all the backstage people are so wonderful, so kind, so hardworking. Our orchestra, the whole team, everybody here has been top notch. You walk through these halls and you see all these posters of people who’ve played here, it’s staggering. My husband [musician and actor Domenick Allen] played here 25 years ago. I’m in his dressing room. There is such history. My husband’s grandparents played here. We have a real love of this theatre because we have a personal family history in show business and variety.
Hamilton-Barritt: That’s a big deal in itself, isn’t it? The Palladium is the most famous theatre in the United Kingdom. To be performing here in such a big iconic show is a dream come true.
Partridge: It’s got an energy all of its own and when you couple that with an iconic show like A Chorus Line it’s an explosive combination. It doesn’t get any better than that. This auditorium is designed amazingly. It’s vast but the audience is just so close to you. There is such an intimacy.
Tell me about your character?
Strallen: My character is Cassie. She has worked her way up, gone out to Los Angeles to try and be a straight actress, but hasn’t been able to get any work, so she’s come back to New York, to this massive open audition full of kids straight out of school. She’s very mature, very experienced, but she’s realised she just needs to work. She needs it for her spirit. It’s about a second chance, which is really moving and a good challenge as an actress.
Zimmerman: My character, Sheila, is a pretty seasoned professional. I feel that I can now play her, because that’s me now. I feel a real connection to the material and the people and an excitement about showing the world what we go through to do our work and what we sacrifice.
Hamilton-Barritt: Diana’s a Puerto Rican feisty gal. She has her feet firmly on the ground. She’s very down to earth and she has that love for dance, just like the rest of her peers. She’s in that audition and she’s giving it the best she possibly can. But she’s very much a realistic personality on that stage. She’s a tomboy. I do find a lot of myself within this role, but I find a lot of myself within other roles in the show as well.
Partridge: Zach, the Director, is top dog. My word is law. It’s my audition, it’s my show. He’s manipulative, he’s charismatic, he’s hard when he needs to be but he does have a sensitive side, he does show vulnerability. I spend an hour on stage and an hour off stage. For an hour I’m at the back of the auditorium with the audience, which I can tell you is quite an effort because audiences are unpredictable and they do very strange things in the dark. It does take a tremendous amount of concentration and focus to not be distracted by the audience, because it’s brutal. It really is.
The rehearsals have been referred to as ‘boot camp’. How were they?
Strallen: It was army. It was several hundred sit-ups, press-ups, stretching. But being on the stage with just a leotard and incredibly bright lights, mostly down lit so every lump and bump shows, we’re all incredibly grateful that we had that drummed into us.
Zimmerman: I think if you talked to anybody who experiences a boot camp situation, you’re better for it when you come out. But it has to toughen you because you’re not that hard when you go in. You’re not that in shape, you’re not that mentally disciplined, you think you can do it but it’s not at all what you thought you were going to be doing.
Hamilton-Barritt: Baayork’s boot camp is absolutely crazy. On the first day of rehearsals we experienced the warm-up that she’s famous for. It’s a full hour of death. Sit-ups, press-ups, loads of cardio. But it’s surprising how quickly it kicks in for your stamina. A week in, you’ve got it down. Then you have one day off and you come in on the Monday morning and it feels like “Kill me”. Thank goodness she has a lot of love to give us. She’s very caring in that sense. She’s very forgiving when it looks like we’re in pain and we look hopeless.
Partridge: This type of choreography is not taught any more. Musicals aren’t made like this anymore. So we have had to condition our bodies to be able to do it and to be able to maintain it. Building up specific muscle groups in order to be able to cope with that choreography. That was painful. There’s no two ways about it. I haven’t performed on stage since 2007 and it certainly wasn’t anything like this. Leigh and I were laughing because she’s 44 and I’m 43. It’s a challenge for the young kids, but for us sometimes it feels like climbing Mount Everest. The brilliant thing about it is most of the time you go into January and February feeling a little bit fat and sluggish because you’ve been through Christmas. We’ve come through that ripped. It feels amazing even though we are tired.
Do you have any memorable auditions?
Strallen: My one for Mary Poppins was one of those fight or flight moments. You have 50 people in the auditorium and you’re on the stage where the show’s going to happen. I remember walking all the way down the long aisle, past all these people, thinking “I’ve got to just give it to them.” But this one as well, I turned up and there were 30 girls there, all desperate for the job and you just had to fight for it. I suppose they wanted to see the hunger that you have. You need that for this show.
Zimmerman: One of my best memories is my audition for Mel Brooks for The Producers, as Ulla. I thought “If I can make Mel Brooks laugh, I might get the gig.” Ulla is Swedish, so I learned a Swedish nursery rhyme, but I did the punch line from one of Mel’s jokes in Young Frankenstein, “What an enormous schwanzstucker.” He loved it. He stood up and clapped.
There have been plenty where just in general they’ve tried to be intimidating rather than nurturing. Actors go into the room really emotionally exposed. The best directors and the best producers are there to make you feel comfortable. The ones that try to intimidate you and show you that they’re more powerful in that setting, they’re bad. There’ve been plenty of those.
Hamilton-Barritt: I’ve done a lot of horrendous auditions in my life, I know that much, but I’ve done a lot of lucky auditions as well. I guess you never know. I had an awful audition where I did a bit of the choreography and I tried to show off by kicking my leg way past my head and I just slammed on the floor. Then I’m the girl that fell over in the audition. You get remembered, but not in the best possible light.
Partridge: You can’t be 30 years in this business and not have had bad auditions. The majority of auditions for actors are bad, because the majority of the time you’re told no. The yeses you can probably count on two hands, whereas the nos are repeated. It’s not about being the best dancer or the best singer or the best looking or the best actress, because it’s somebody else’s perception of what the best is or what is right. All you can do it turn up and be the best that you can be on that given time.
What can audiences expect from the show?
Strallen: You’re surprised, you’re moved, you laugh a lot, but you definitely go on an enormous journey with every single character on that stage. You really care by the end and you’re utterly gripped. It is, in some senses, life or death. These people desperately need the work, so at the end the audience are on the edge of their seats waiting to find out who gets it and who doesn’t.
Zimmerman: It’s a fly on the wall perspective of what dancers and artists go through, but more in general I think because the story requires that these characters share something personal about themselves, anybody can identify with that. I think people can expect to laugh, they can expect to cry, they can expect to be amazed by the agility out on stage and then the craft of [original creator] Michael Bennett and his world of storytelling, because that is unique and you’re not going to see this very often any more.
Partridge: It’s something that will never be done again in this way. It’s taken 35 years to come back. It’s not going to come back again this way with Bob and Baayork, these legendary figures from the show’s history. This show is all about details. It looks very naturalistic and thrown away, but everything here is choreographed down to the last possible move, as natural as some of it looks…