But now, by special permission of Bennett’s estate, the Arlington, Va., theater has set aside Bennett’s notebooks. In a rehearsal hall above its stages, Jones and Gardiner have prepared a “Chorus Line” destined to look like no other in the musical’s storied history. (Preview performances started Tuesday, and the official opening night is Nov. 5.)
“We got the chance to talk to the estate and share our knowledge of the piece, and to give them the comfort that we are not out to bastardize what Michael did,” said Gardiner, Signature’s longtime associate artistic director. “We wanted to look at it with new eyes and celebrate it in a different way.”
The choreographic visions of such musical theater titans as Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse tend to be fixed in the consciousness of the form’s fans, so much so that any deviation from the norms can feel to purists like heretical departures in the liturgy. Oftentimes the original movement has been inscribed in notation, or recorded on video, or preserved in older dancers’ muscle memory.
Of late, though, a theatrical new guard has been casting aside reverence to put its own aesthetic on the foundational work in shows by the departed masters. Former New York City Ballet star Justin Peck, for example, was recruited to bring a fresh look to the dancing in 2018’s Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” Perhaps even more daringly, a Broadway revival early next year of “West Side Story,” directed by Ivo van Hove, will feature dances by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa DeKeersmaeker; the revered original musical staging was Robbins’s masterwork.
And in Arlington, the revision is happening to the kick-turn combinations that Bennett and his co-choreographer, Bob Avian, created for the original “A Chorus Line,” which ran on Broadway for 15 years and 6,137 performances.
In a show with such a vaunted history and almost sacred dance scheme, a choreographer would be ill-advised not to include references to what’s come before, and the Signature team does pay homage to Bennett’s creation.
“You also have an obligation to satisfy expectations,” said the Broadway-tested Jones, choreographer of the current “Tootsie” as well as a stage version of “Holiday Inn,” filled with Irving Berlin tunes, and the stage version of the film comedy “Honeymoon in Vegas.”
“We‘re not setting this up as something on Mars,” he added.
“A Chorus Line” is the ultimate ensemble musical, a compilation of autobiographical material about the emotional travails and aspirations of Broadway dancers, as they audition for spots in the singing and dancing chorus of a new musical. The songs tell their personal stories, which were taken from interviews with real dancers, some of whom appeared in the original production. The dancing is an expression of the struggles of their youth and the precariousness of their careers.
And so, on a recent weekday in the rehearsal studio, a diverse cadre of actor-dancers in their 20s and 30s was assembled for the — literally — step-by-step process of learning to dance an old show in new configurations.
“Heel, around, heel, toe, cross, together,” instructed associate choreographer John T. Wolfe as the company dove into “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” the show’s kaleidoscopic number about teenage rites of passage. With music director Jon Kalbfleisch at the rehearsal piano, dancers in a variety of familiar get-ups — tights and heeled shoes, sweatpants and sneakers, shorts and T-shirts — watched Wolfe dance the sequence, which ended with him collapsing loosely at the waist, arms dangling like a rag doll.
Remarkably, the two dozen dancers in the room picked up the gist of the routine pretty much flawlessly after seeing it just once. What the heck was this ability? To someone who couldn’t even get himself over the pommel horse in phys ed, this looked like a superpower.
In this room, it’s simply what choreographers expect dancers to be capable of, as they painstakingly construct a scene. “Bit by bit,” as Stephen Sondheim would say. “ . . . Only way to make a work of art.”
Jones paced the room in his stocking feet, studying arm and leg positions, offering tips on emotional context and reminders of the story arc of the song. In this instance, the song tells of the universal tribulations of growing into adulthood, of teenagers’ discovery of sexuality.
“Guys,” Jones said, “this is another one of these chapters where your body is moving involuntarily, i.e., that something is starting to happen and you’re not in control. So pursue the idea that your foot has a mind of its own.”
In three long rows, with understudies, or “swings,” lining up in the back, the actors performed the sequence again. Some studied themselves in the wall-to-wall mirrors; others fixed their gaze on Jones, whose eyes moved from body to body as the dancers executed an arm-swinging gesture imitative of immature gawkiness.
For this section of the music, Jones gave them an interior narration to work with: “It’s really just like ‘I hate the world, everything’s horrible, I’m going to be 14 and I’m miserable.’ ”
“Denis has a language with his ‘children,’ ” said Vincent Kempski, who plays Al, a dancer auditioning alongside his wife, Kristine (Elise Kowalick), who can’t sing. (Which they sing about, in “Sing!”) “We’re all like a giant unit,” he added, as the cast scattered for lunch.
“He doesn’t take on that huge ego in rehearsals,” said Maria Rizzo, the production’s brassy, world-weary Sheila. “And he’s finding new colors in there.”
Jones, 49, began his own musical-theater life as a dancer, having grown up in the Bay Area and moved east to attend New York University. He has been in “A Chorus Line” himself and, to get ready for the challenge of putting his stamp on the show alongside Gardiner, gathered a few dancer friends in New York to begin “to discover” the movement.
“Sometimes, they help me understand what I’m doing,” he said, adding that a step or a movement doesn’t make full sense until he sees someone perform it.
“Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” isn’t sung until about halfway through the intermissionless musical, which builds to the heart-rending climax when Zach (Matthew Risch) makes his final picks and cuts. But it is where Jones began his own choreographic exploration, “because of the amount of freedom in it, to dance that adolescent experience.”
Gardiner said that he and Signature’s artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, had long wanted to produce a revival of “A Chorus Line.” But they weren’t interested in merely resurrecting the choreography of a show that is almost completely danced.
“A lot of it is in the look of the show and my desire to not have actors stand in the same poses,” Gardiner explained of those famous images of each dancer on the “line,” assuming a single characteristic posture. “It’s also just distancing ourselves and making decisions based on the text. And in terms of Denis, it was the free rein to do this and still work with ‘step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch.’ ”
As any self-respecting musical-theater obsessive knows, those are the words Zach shouts again and again in “I Hope I Get It,” the opening number that puts the auditioning dancers through their initial paces.
“I want the group to do something that amplifies the lyric being sung,” Jones explained, and in the rehearsal room, he strove to drive home that point. Over and over, like Zach, he drilled the actor-dancers in the combinations he was putting together before our eyes: Ninety percent of the choreography, he confided, is clear in his head before a rehearsal starts. The rest is improvisation, the alchemy in the moment.
“Yes! That’s the psychological journey!” Jones declared as he prepared to refine the cast’s work. “So now let’s see if we can take the excess flippy-floppiness away from it. You can be suspicious of it: ‘What is happening to my body?’ So let’s just see it slightly tighter.”
The dancers got into position. The rehearsal piano struck up. And a choreographer called out for the umpteenth time, “Six, seven, eight!”
A Chorus Line, music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban, book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante. Directed by Matt Gardiner. Choreography, Denis Jones. $66-$124. Through Jan. 5 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. 703-820-9771. sigtheatre.org.