Tim Draxl has been a fan of A Chorus Line since childhood. In fact, when he used to watch the film, he would dance out all the parts.
“It is one of those pieces that, as a kid, stuck with me – the music, the storytelling, the fact that it’s literally about an audition process,” Draxl tells Theatre People. “I think it set something up in my adolescent brain to prepare me, in some way, for that life.”
Draxl has been cast in the lead role in Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s highly anticipated production of the classic musical, which opens on 13 March at the Eternity Playhouse.
Dubbed “one of the greatest musicals ever to hit Broadway”, A Chorus Line opened in New York in 1975. When it closed 15 years later, it was the longest running show in Broadway history, having played a staggering 6,137 performances. It won 10 Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize and an assortment of other accolades.
With a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban, A Chorus Line captures a day in the lives of a group of dancers, competing for a highly coveted spot in the chorus of a new Broadway musical. The 2020 production, directed by Sydney Theatre Award-winner Amy Campbell, will be the first professional staging of A Chorus Line in Australia to feature entirely new choreography.
Draxl shares what he thinks it is about the legendary show that sees it remain popular half a century after its first outing.
“I think [it’s] because, at the heart of it, it’s a story about humanity,” he says. “It’s a commentary on our industry, but also on human frailty, compassion, desires versus reality … At the core of it, it has an incredible amount of heart and hope, and I think that’s what transcends time.”
Draxl plays Zach, the director auditioning performers for his show. Performing alongside him, Angelique Cassimatis plays Zach’s ex-girlfriend, Cassie, a character eager to join the other hopefuls and get her break.
The role of Zach is largely modelled on A Chorus Line’s creator, Michael Bennett, and was portrayed by Michael Douglas in the 1985 film adaptation.
“The show is based on real people and each character … it’s almost word-for-word taken from interviews that Michael conducted back in the 70s,” Draxl says. “I never really knew that until quite recently, and it’s fascinating to watch it back and have that in mind … It’s something that has been dramatised for so long and turned into a stage musical which is very theatrical, and you accept that theatricality as the reality of the world of that show. And then when you look back at it and you realise that it’s actually real people, you [think], ‘No, it’s not actually that theatrical, it’s actually literally like that.”
Draxl notes the show’s non-traditional structure.
“Most musicals have a beginning, a middle and an end to a storyline, and this didn’t really have that. It was just a snapshot of time, of the process of getting a job on Broadway, which is an interesting concept in itself. To be able to write a show about that and have it live and last so long is pretty remarkable. And it’s amazing how excited people get whenever you mention A Chorus Line … You forget how passionate people are about it.”
Asked about the biggest challenge he expects to face in taking on the role of Zach, Draxl says, “The hardest thing is going to be the frustration of not being up there dancing with [the cast]. There are moments where we’re trying to work little pieces into the show where I can move with them as a kind of more hands-on director.
“I think the great thing about doing it in this space, with the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, is that you have that freedom to explore. It’s not your usual overseas production that comes to Sydney … [where] there are very specific guidelines and rules, which are incredibly frustrating as a performer when you have that hanging over you, because it takes a lot of the creativity out of it for you and the spontaneity of performance, which is what [live theatre] is about.”
Draxl says what excites him about Campbell’s vision for A Chorus Line is that the dance isn’t the most important aspect of the new production.
“It’s going to be, [as] it always is, a huge part of it, but her aim is to have that secondary to the actual storytelling and the humanity of the piece and the heart of what it is to go through that as a performer every day,” he says. “And it’s not just performers that go through that every day – that longing for acceptance, to be included, to be validated. It’s a human thing that we all deal with, day to day.”
Draxl also reflects on the harsh reality of an audition process.
“You walk into an audition room and you have five minutes, ten minutes to prove yourself, and it can come down to what happened to you that day, whether you had a good experience getting to the audition room. And then … [in] the call back … for some reason – and you never know why – it just doesn’t hit the mark again, and you push for it and that makes it even worse. And then you start questioning and the self-doubt comes in, and that gradual decrease of self-value and worth takes over, and you don’t book the job. And then, you’ve got to try to build yourself up again, and that’s a day-to-day thing for performers.
“I think a lot of people forget how much we put ourselves on the line, how much we put our heart and soul out there to be knocked back and rejected. That’s at the heart of this show and that’s really what Amy wants to bring to the forefront.”
But he adds: “Having said that, the dancing is going to be spectacular. I’ve seen Cassie’s dance number and it is unbelievable.”
He’s also excited about the fact that the production features all-new choreography.
“I think people are used to seeing the Broadway choreography, which has been handed down and it’s been very sacred,” he says. “To see it through fresh eyes in the 21st century is going to be pretty exciting for people.”
Draxl has previously worked with Darlinghurst Theatre Company, having played Ed in the acclaimed 2018 season of Torch Song Trilogy. He looks forward to returning to the 200-seat Eternity Playhouse.
“A Chorus Line is usually in a proscenium theatre. To do it in that space, where the audience is right there with you, and playing Zach, who’s going to be able to move in and out of that fourth wall, is going to be a lot of fun,” Draxl says. “I’ve never been able to do that before in a show, so it’ll be very exciting.
“And I think it’ll be thrilling for people to see the dancing that close. I think the audience are going to feel like they’re part of the audition process themselves. They’ll be able to see it [through] the eyes of Zach, in a sense, because they’ll be able to look and scrutinise and, hopefully, see what Zach sees in each performer. And they’ll get flicked with sweat, so it’ll be fun!”
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