In Part Two of “Bringing ‘A Chorus Line’ to Olney,” Director/Choreographer Stephen Nachamie takes us on his journey of appearing in and directing and choreographing A Chorus Line.
I began in theatre as an actor who sang and also danced. I always loved the power of dance, and after seeing Donna McKechnie in A Chorus Line at age 13 – I wanted to study! I come from a medical family – so when I wanted to really study – I reached out by teenaged fan letters to those who might be able to help me figure out how to study dance – Dancers from the TV show Fame, and the Broadway production of Dreamgirls guided me. Stephanie Pope (currently in Pippin on Broadway) had also gone to Hunter College High School in NYC – so when I saw her in Bob Fosse’s Big Deal – I wrote to her – and she was so wonderful and generous – and she suggested and showed me the ropes of good training and sent me to the Alvin Ailey School. It was a pretty intense and an exciting way to learn. I was in 10th grade when I began studying and the school was then at the ‘Minskoff Studios’ above the Minskoff Theatre where Sweet Charity played. I actually got to meet Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon!
The dance classrooms had floor-to-ceiling windows beyond the ballet barres – and my classrooms looked out onto Shubert Alley and onto the Marquee of A Chorus Line. ACL was the pinnacle show for Broadway performers – and although I was in Ballet, Jazz, and Tap classes with some of the best teachers (Including some Master Classes with Ann Reinking among others) – I never thought it was a show I would do. I began dance at 14 or 15 – kind of late. I got my first professional job right after I graduated High School – as part of the Tribe in Gateway Playhouse’s Hair – right after Robert Longbottom was directing A Chorus Line there – it was one of the first regional productions right after the show closed on Broadway in 1990. I never thought I would actually be in the show.
A year later there was a Benefit production in NYC – featurning members of the Broadway Cast, Touring Company, Italian, and European Casts. From an open call and several callbacks – I finally landed the role of “Mark” – Kerry Casserly (Michael Bennett’s favorite Broadway Kristine) was staging the show, which we would have three weeks to rehearse. Angelique Ilo (another Broadway Cassie and Judy) would share six performances with Kerry as Cassie – and Italian Stage Star (and now International recording star – buy her recordings on Amazon – she’s quite stellar) Maria Laura-Baccarini would be Cassie for the matinees – playing the role for the first time in English. Another Italian ACL cast member was Barbara Tartaglia – playing Diana in English for the first time. Billy Johnstone of the European Tour was “Paul,” Mark Esposito (of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway) was “Mike” and Nora Brennan (now the casting director responsible for casting all of the Billy Elliots) was Sheila. During our rehearsal period Kelly Bishop (the original Sheila) – came to support – as did Ron Kurowski and Sachi Shimizu (a Bobby and Connie from Broadway and tours who were now married). There were regular drop ins and drop- bys of ACL alumni to show support and love for our company and the piece. The wonderful Mitzi Hamilton (whose life was made into “Val’s” story) was around a lot as well. I was a now 18 year old in awe of all these people I had seen on Broadway in A Chorus Line and other shows – and I was stunned by the amount of work and information it takes to make this show appear so seemless.
There is a lot of choreography and traffic and music that needs to be learned before you can stand on that line and be in the moment. The “One” combination that seems so stylishly simple was very difficult to learn. It is unbelievably specific and needs to be drilled endlessly for precision so the line can fade into anonymity. I danced in line in between Kerry and Angelique (both who I had seen in the show on Broadway) and tried to learn each twist and turn and pose – it was pretty overwhelming. This was also the first professional musical production that I was constantly reminded to bring “me” to – to always find the truth in the moments. As “Mark” the youngest online – being in awe of everyone was pretty truthful. When I got overwhelmed – I was always taken under someone’s wing and they reminded me that it is quite a feat to learn the show.
I would go home and drill the choreography until I fell asleep (in those days I only had the Original Cast Cassette to pull me through. Every night the ovation from a New York audience (that still was missing the Broadway show) nearly knocked us over when we turned downstage and performed the jazz combination “Away from the Mirror.” Closing night was full of celebrities and theatre people – but most important – Stephanie Pope who had started me training just a few years before was there to see me! I was so thrilled! All of this was a great welcoming in the show and the “family.” This experience also set the bar very high for every show I was to perform in or direct after.
In 1993, I had already played Mark, Mike, and helped set a regional production of the show – a choreographer/director that I was assisting named Lois Englund – had toured and been “Val” in the Broadway Production of ACL. Mid summer she was offered a job to direct a National Bus and Truck tour of the show – and asked me to be her associate director and dance captain. We began to cast the show quickly and find an energetic and talented cast. Amy Spanger (of Broadway’s Kiss Me Kate, Wedding Singer, and Chicago) was “Cassie” – Denis Jones (soon to choreograph Broadway’s Honeymoon in Vega) was “Mike” – Melissa Giattino (of Broadway’s 42nd Street) was Diana – Matt Johnson – was Zach – it was a really wonderful cast.
I was in my senior year at NYU/Circle In the Square Theatre school as an acting student – and an Assistant Director for new works at Musical Theatre works. I was one semester ahead at NYU – so took one off to tour – and headed on the road for 9 months with the show. It was pretty intensive – as a lot of the theatres didn’t match up in dimension from one venue to another. We played some huge 3000 seat theatres and then something as tiny as the “Waco Hippodrome” which despite its name is rather tiny. Along the way – I trained replacements for about half of the line and understudies. In Bradenton, FL – we played a tiny theatre as well – and I was called to the stage door after the show “there was a woman there who wanted to meet the person responsible for keeping the show together. “ – it turns out it was Michael Bennett’s mother – and despite the tiny stage she was so touched and impressed by the production and the truth behind it. We played 47 of the 50 states, but I actually didn’t get to do too much sightseeing as I was always rehearsing somebody somewhere. By the end of the tour Noah Racey (now a renowned choreographer in his own right – and star of Broadway’s Never Gonna Dance) – came out to play “Mike” – he ended up scalding his foot making ramen noodles one night and we ended up doing our last show without Mike at all. Every cover was already on!
I began directing on the road – playing “headband boy” and also I was ASM and Dance captain! I covered Larry/Mike/Mark/Paul as first covers and second covered Richie/Al/Don/Greg/ incase of emergency – My brain held a lot of info back then. I played “Mike” for three months and “Paul” for two and also jumped on a lot as Zach’s Assistant Larry. I was asked to play “Paul” or direct several other companies. I had the opportunity of doing the show in 2001 at the famous Cherry County Playhouse in MI – as “Paul” up against TV’s Peter Scolari (Bosom Buddies, Newhart, Girls, among others) – we had a great time talking and working as actors on our show and craft – it was such a joy!
In 2010 – after I had retired from directing A Chorus Line (or so I thought), and from performing – I was directing a new play in NYC called In Passing, and a new musical Faraway Bayou, which featured Tony Winner Nikki M. James, and the wonderful Sharon Wilkins. I was asked to be a part of a benefit for the wonderful Fran Liebergall (Marvin Hamlisch’s assistant all the way through his theatrical career) – ACL Alumni – Murphy Cross, Merete Muenter, and Robert Tunstall were putting together a wonderful celebration in NYC for one night only called Six Degrees of Marvin Hamlisch. It was to salute Mr. Hamlisch’s career and to honor Fran Liebergall. The benefit was to feature Marvin Hamlisch at the piano and reunite many people whose careers Fran had launched and supported. I was juggling a few projects in NYC – and was a bit flustered that all of their rehearsals conflicted with my own rehearsal schedule. I was told by Murphy Cross: “You of all people don’t need to rehearse this choreography – just get here and wear something black!” I wasn’t able to be at any rehearsal – I was quickly briefed by my friends and peers – it was a “family” reunion – I was going to perform in the “Finale” in the Aisles of Symphony Space – then make it onto the stage!
October 4, 2010 was a very special evening opening with Joel Grey – and leading from celebrity to celebrity. It reunited Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein and the original casts of They’re Playing Our Song – as well as the Original Cast Members of A Chorus Line performing a long sequence from the show – played by Marvin Hamlisch and a fabulous band. The Members of the ‘Original Line’ and the original broadway casts formed the line – including Donna McKechnie, Kelly Bishop, Ron Dennis, Priscilla Lopez, Sammy Williams, and Robert LuPone. The casts that had performed the show since the original company were embraced that night as part of the A Chorus Line and Fran Liebergall family.
Sammy performed “Who Am I, Anyway?” Kelly performed ” At the Ballet,” There was a medley from the montage with Ron Dennis singing “Gimme the Ball” and Donna McKechnie told the story of Marvin Hamlisch’s first song for Cassie called “Inside the Music” – and then she performed “The Music and the Mirror!”
The Finale of the ACL section was… “The Finale!” I had left the performing side of the business in 2002, so I hoped I still had it in me – on the “hat backup” music – I ran down the Aisle following the lovely Leigh Webster (Broadway’s ACL, and Cats), and on the downbeat – I turned to face the audience – and I ended up right at the row that Tony Stevens and his partner were sitting in! I came out of dance “retirement” to perform directly for my mentor!!! What an amazing feeling – after we finished the “Rockette” kicks – the entire ensemble of casts and celebrities formed onstage and with Don Pippin (the original conductor) – conducting the orchestra, and Fran Liebergall conducting the singers. I had the singular moment of joining in as Priscilla Lopez (the Original ‘Diana’) sang “What I Did For Love”as Marvin Hamlisch accompanied on piano. It was the pinnacle of my performance career – and a wonderful evening celebrating Mr. Hamlisch and Ms. Liebergall. There was such an incredible celebratory spirit backstage! The ACL alumni also showed up at the party: Tony Stevens – the wonderful Mitzi Hamilton (whom I assisted when I began directing) and Donna Drake (the original ‘Tricia’ in ACL). It is not often you get to perform for – and with – and celebrate those – and with those – who have inspired you!
Every time I have returned to the show – I have learned something new about myself, the business and the piece – there is always something new to say and see. I hope that this production inspires a new generation of performers – but also shows them the work, devotion, and heart they must bring.
A Chorus Line truly is the story of the life of anyone in theatre.
A Chorus Line plays through September 8, 2013 on the Main Stage at Olney Theatre Center— 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online. Running Time is approximately two hours, with no intermission.
“Bringing ‘A Chorus Line’ to Olney” Part One: Auditions, Rehearsals, and ‘Opening Night’ by Stephen Nachamie.
Stephen Nachamie’s website.
Meet the cast of Olney Theatre Center’s A Chorus Line.
Amanda Gunther’s review of A Chorus Line.