Amy Campbell has been keen to helm a production of A Chorus Line for the past four years.
“People always ask you, as a creative, ‘What’s your dream show?’ And I never really had an answer to that,” Campbell tells Theatre People. “But when I truly thought about it, I [realised] I would love to have a go at A Chorus Line.”
Last year, when she was working as movement director on Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s critically acclaimed production of Once, Campbell was asked the question, and shared her interest in the 1975 classic. She then pitched the show to them.
“I’ve never pitched a show before, so it was a new experience for me,” says Campbell.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2020, and A Chorus Line is poised to be one of the highlights of Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s latest season, directed and choreographed by Campbell. It begins performances at the Eternity Playhouse on 13 March and features brand new choreography by Campbell.
“This is a dream project for me,” she says. “I’ve been training my whole career to do this project, I think. I’ve lived the story; I feel like I’ve known all those characters throughout my career as a performer.”
Campbell is highly respected in the Sydney theatre community, but she’s best known for her choreographic credits. As well as Once, her most recent work includes Blue Saint Productions’ In The Heights (for which she won a Sydney Theatre Award for Best Choreography of a Musical), Funny Girl The Musical for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and The Production Company’s staging of Oklahoma. She was also resident choreographer of the Australian premiere production of The Bodyguard.
On top of her work as a choreographer, Campbell has performed in many largescale productions, including the Australian tour of Dirty Dancing, Fame The Musical, Saturday Night Fever, King Kong Live on Stage, and as principal dancer in Opera Australia’s Carmen. She’s also performed with a slew of international stars, including Kylie Minogue, Flo Rida, Redfoo and Sam Sparro.
A Chorus Line, however, is Campbell’s professional directorial debut.
“What a lot of people don’t know is that I actually would assistant direct nearly every show I would choreograph,” she says. “Directing for the first time feels really right. I feel like every director I’ve worked with has said, ‘You should direct’. But I’m only interested in telling stories that I feel like I know, and at this point in my career, I feel like I know A Chorus Line.”
But there’s still much to get used to in stepping into the director’s chair.
“It’s twice the amount of work, it’s twice the amount of preparation, it’s twice the amount of decisions,” says Campbell. “But it’s a real test of my knowledge and my intuition, and I’m totally going to make mistakes, absolutely, and I’ve taken that pressure off myself for it to be perfect. I [said to myself], ‘This is your first time, do it the best you can, and see what everybody thinks, good or bad’.
“I feel like I’ve got a really great support team around me, a bunch of collaborators I can ask a lot of questions to.”
Discussion turns to the show itself and Campbell talks about what it is she believes drew audiences into A Chorus Line.
“It’s about what dancers go through to book a job and it gives you insight into our industry, but more than that, it’s that real human story of putting yourself out there, success and failure, dealing with power imbalances, work imbalances, life imbalances, loss of love, heartbreak,” she says. “So, yes, it’s a dancer’s and performer’s story but, essentially, they’re going through everything every normal person goes through, and I think it was that combination of human storytelling with some amazing talent that people really connected to, because whether they were a dancer or not, they could identify with these different points of view. And there’s 19 different points of view on stage, so everybody had something that they could connect to.”
Campbell is tasked with bringing A Chorus Line to the stage in Sydney for 21st century audiences. What will that involve?
“I’m not updating the time period,” she says. “I feel like I’m bringing A Chorus Line into 2020 with fresh creative eyes, as opposed to adding iPads and mobile phones and that sort of thing. I feel like I’m coming at it with 2020 storytelling, and the freedom that we have in 2020 to break the rules and tell musical theatre stories in so many different ways that don’t have to just be all the typical formulas. So, that’s how I’m going to approach this project, is with my imagination, with everything I’ve learned in the last 30 years.
“I don’t have ambitions of trying to break the mould, because I think the piece is wonderful, the music is incredible, and the text is really good … I want to shake the dust off it … But essentially, it’s just updating the way that it’s told, so that the audiences feel like they’re hearing it for the first time. And, obviously, they’ve never seen this choreography, so they’re seeing that for the first time. That’s how I feel like I can best use my skills in 2020 to breathe new life into the piece.”
Of course, the choreography is a vital aspect of A Chorus Line. So, what does Campbell have in store?
“I find the original choreography iconic and beautiful and amazing, and I’m not going to touch it,” she says. “I’m going to create this with my skillset and my influences and pay tribute to it, in terms of its athleticism and inventiveness … It will be as technical and as difficult as the original … I don’t want to give it all away, but I am definitely respectful of the original but excited to say, ‘What else can we do?’”
Campbell also looks forward to bringing A Chorus Line, normally staged in larger commercial theatres, to the 200-seat home of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company.
“I love the Eternity Playhouse because the audience feel like they’re in the story with you,” Campbell says. “I feel like you don’t have to rely on multi-million-dollar sets. If you can just get the truth of the story right, the audience are right there and they’re going to know really soon if you’re telling the truth or not, because they’re a metre from you. I love the challenge of that space because there’s nowhere to hide, in terms of being a performer.
“It is physically challenging because you can’t rely on all your standard choreographic tricks to fill the space. You have to be really smart, which I think is a good thing. I think reining me in is also probably a really good thing! I love the space because it forces you to be truthful and real, and I think the best musical theatre storytelling is that.”
There were literally hundreds of submissions from performers vying to be part of this production, and Campbell spent nearly two months on the casting process.
“It was really important to me to open up these stories to anybody,” she says. “I wasn’t fussed really about age or about experience, I just wanted to feel like I was meeting these characters for the first time and I believed what they were saying.
“All the roles were open, I didn’t pre-cast anything because the show is about auditioning, so I thought it was really authentic to the story that we auditioned for the show and watched people in that forum and not have any ideas of what it had to be or had to look like or had to sound like.”
Campbell says she is lucky that so many people want to be a part of the production.
“We had submissions from everywhere, all across the country, and I probably could have cast this show a couple of times over, if I’m truly honest. It was really tough to lock in that final number, because it can go so many ways when you’re so open to what it can be. But the cast that I have is extraordinary.”
Campbell also talks about having the chance to introduce a new generation of theatregoers to a show that has been loved by audiences across the globe for 45 years.
“If I can give that first time theatre experience to somebody that … takes them somewhere, whether they want to do this professionally or even if it just stimulates their imagination, then I feel like I will have done my job correctly … I believe they will be inspired and in awe of this show because of the nature of it, it’s truthful storytelling, and I want people to say, ‘I identify with that story’, but also, ‘look, I can do this too’. I really want people to come away with the drive and motivation to really keep pushing.”
Rehearsal images: Robert Catto
Amy Campbell’s new production of A Chorus Line opens at Darlinghurst Theatre Company on 13 March 2020.
Tickets are now on sale at www.darlinghursttheatre.com/whats-on/a-chorus-line or by calling (02) 8356 9987