Learn all about the history of 'A Chorus Line' in London and New York

The iconic musical plays at Sadler's Wells this summer in an exciting new production starring Adam Cooper and Carly Mercedes Dyer.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

Again! Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch… Again! God, I hope I get it… Originally devised, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett with a score by Marvin Hamlisch, the 1975 musical A Chorus Line returns to London this summer in a fresh production directed by Nikolai Foster and starring Adam Cooper and Carly Mercedes Dyer.

Cooper plays Zach, the domineering director-choreographer casting the chorus for a new Broadway musical who puts the hopefuls through the wringer – physically and emotionally. Dyer plays Cassie, his former lover who had some success in featured roles on Broadway but is down on her luck following an ill-advised attempt to break into Hollywood. Further casting is to be announced.

Other characters include the tough, outspoken Sheila; witty Diana Morales, who was almost put off performing thanks to a dismissive teacher; plastic surgery enthusiast Val; newlyweds Al and his tone-deaf wife Kristine; and Paul, a gay Puerto Rican dancer who movingly talks about a traumatic childhood. The unforgettable songs include “I Can Do That”, “At the Ballet”, “The Music and the Mirror”, “One”, and “What I Did for Love”.

A Chorus Line was groundbreaking in the way in which it de-glamourised the grind that chorus members go through in order to fulfil their love of dance. None of the characters are seeking stardom; rather, they’re trying to survive from one show to the next.

As a “concept musical” led by themes and ideas rather than plot, it consists of a series of monologues and group numbers, including stories of broken homes, sexual awakenings, and the objectification of the female body. There’s also a notable lack of glitz: the show takes place on a bare stage and the characters wear their rehearsal clothing.

Foster’s staging is the third major production of A Chorus Line to be seen in London in its nearly 50-year history. Here is our guide to A Chorus Line in New York and London.

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A Chorus Line’s origins

A Chorus Line began with a series of interviews with numerous Broadway dancers (“gypsies”), but the project was ultimately taken over by Michael Bennett, a director-choreographer and former performer whose previous credits included choreography and co-direction (with Harold Prince) of Stephen Sondheim’s Company and Follies.

EGOT and Pulitzer Prize-winner Marvin Hamlisch (The Way We Were) wrote the score, his first for Broadway. Lyrics were provided by Ed Kleban, who also worked as a teacher and record producer. The book was penned by James Kirkwood Jr and Nicholas Dante.

Public Theater and Shubert Theatre, Broadway (1975)

A Chorus Line was first staged Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, which at the time was in dire financial straits and had to borrow $1.6 million to fund the show. Fortunately, tickets for the entire run sold out immediately due to word-of-mouth interest.

Producer Joseph Papp arranged for a Broadway transfer only three months after its first preview. Royalties from the show have subsequently been a huge source of income for the Public Theater, where Hamilton also premiered.

Original cast members included Donna McKechnie (Company, State Fair) as Cassie; future Gilmore Girls star Kelly Bishop as Sheila (McKechnie and Bishop both received Tonys for their performances); and choreographer Wayne Cilento (Wicked) as Mike.

A Chorus Line ran for 6,137 performances and was the longest-running Broadway musical of its time until it was overtaken by Cats. The final performance took place on 28 April 1990. The show won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Direction of a Musical. It also won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London (1976)

The original London production of A Chorus Line premiered at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1975. The American cast from the International Tour opened the run before a mostly British cast took over.

Elizabeth Seal (Irma La Douce) was cast as Cassie but withdrew at the last minute and was replaced by her understudy Petra Siniawski. French actor and dancer Jean-Pierre Cassel played Zach. Other cast members who became West End and TV veterans included Diane Langton (Morales), Jeff Shankley (Al), and Stephen Tate (Greg).

Despite concerns that the show would be too American for British audiences(there was also the worry that it would be too New York for US touring audiences), most critics were won over by the show’s originality and the way in which it addressed serious themes while entertaining the audience throughout.

Michael Billington of The Guardian concluded: “One will never again be able to look at any well‐drilled choric lineup without speculating on the individual stories behind the santitized ensemble perfection. You go in expecting a Broadway smash and you come out having met a group of people.”

A couple of minor changes were implemented: for example, a joke about public schools was removed to avoid confusion as British public schools are private fee-paying establishments.

The London production ran for three years and was the first Olivier Award winner for Best New Musical. It also won the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical.

Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, Broadway (2006)

The show received its first Broadway revival in 2006 following a tryout in San Francisco. The production was directed by original co-choreographer Bob Avian, with Bennett’s choreography re-staged by original cast member Baayork Lee (Connie).

The show was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical Revival and Charlotte d’Amboise (Cassie) was nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. It was also the subject of the 2008 documentary film Every Little Step.

London Palladium (2013)

The first West End revival was helmed seven years later in 2013. The cast included Scarlett Strallen (Cassie), John Partridge (Zach), Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (Diana), and Leigh Zimmerman (Sheila). Avian and Lee again helmed the production.

Many reviewers commented on the show’s timeless qualities. In a 4-star review, London Theatre observed: “The singing and dancing is uniformly superb, and the characterisations are authentic and believable… Hamlisch’s score stunningly good, with that kind of underlying emotional quality which has the hairs on the back of your head standing up, and sends tingles speeding down your spine.”

The production was nominated for the Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival, and Zimmerman won Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical.

Sadler’s Wells, London (2024)

It's more than fitting for leading dance venue Sadler's Wells to host Nikolai Foster’s production during the London leg of its UK tour. Foster’s production was first performed at the Leicester Curve, where he serves as artistic director, over Christmas 2021.

In a 4-star review in The Observer, Clare Brennan admired the way in which the “continual focus-switching, from collective to individual experience, from gritty endurance to exuberant celebration, speaks powerfully to our pandemic-troubled times.”

It’s also exciting because this is a new production with choreography by Ellen Kane (Dear England, Legally Blonde, Matilda film) rather than a re-staging of Bennett’s original, which has been the standard/only version for almost half a century. In keeping with current trends, the production features live video projections and inventive camera work.

Adam Cooper and Carly Mercedes Dyer reprise their roles as Zach and Cassie. One of Britain’s most acclaimed dancers and choreographers, former Royal Ballet principal dancer Cooper is perhaps best known for creating the role of the Swan in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake and his musical theatre roles include Singin’ in the Rain (Olivier nomination), On Your Toes, and The Wizard of Oz. Dyer’s credits include The Drifters Girl, Assassins, and Anything Goes (Olivier nomination).

Further casting is to be announced. All they ever needed was the music and the mirror and the chance to dance!

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