One Singular Sensation: The Design Team of the Original A Chorus Line

Nearly a quarter-century after its opening in May of 1975, A Chorus Line continues to fascinate both audiences and people involved in the theatre. On December 11, prior to the EDDY Awards, Steve Terry, executive vice president of Production Arts and president of the lighting division of Production Resource Group, brought together members of the original creative team of that seminal production to reminisce about the show's origins as part of the second annual Lifetime Achievers Panel. Terry himself worked on the sound crew during the show's 15-year run. The following edited transcript represents highlights from this panel.

Steve Terry: Last year, we did the first annual Lifetime Achievers Panel, and we had a very interesting group of people involved in the selling of lighting equipment from the 1950s through today. Earlier this year, Jackie Tien said, 'Now, Steve, what are we going to do for the second annual panel?' I dredged back through my past life to 1976, when I worked on the Broadway production of A Chorus Line. It occurred to me that there are an awful lot of people in 1998 who have not met the people involved in that production, and don't really know what a watershed event it was in the Broadway theatre. So I thought it would be interesting to put some people who were involved in the show together and hear what it was all about.

I'm very pleased to have a bunch of my good friends here tonight who worked on the show, both in the design capacity and in the production capacity. Gershon [Gary] Shevett, the original production electrician on A Chorus Line, has worked on some 200 shows on Broadway during his career, and is happily now in a place where he can take three months off a year.

Gershon Shevett: Four months.

Terry: Sitting next to him is Abe Jacob, the original sound designer for A Chorus Line, and coincidentally, he is absolutely the person who convinced me that I should not be a sound designer.

Abe Jacob: No hard feelings.

Terry: Sitting next to Abe is Tharon Musser, who many, including me, would call the dean of Broadway lighting.

Tharon Musser: You're so kind.

Terry: Sitting next to Tharon is Gordon Pearlman. Gordon is currently the president of Rosco/Entertainment Technology, and was the designer of the original computerized lighting system used on Broadway for A Chorus Line, the LS-8, back in 1975.

Next to Gordon is Otts Munderloh, the show's original sound mixer, who also participated in my decision never to be a sound person, but not before I had mixed both A Chorus Line and one other show for him on Broadway.

And sitting next to me is Baayork Lee, one of the original cast members of A Chorus Line, and the person who has probably directed more A Chorus Line companies in the world than anybody, including Michael Bennett.

We're missing a few people tonight. We have apologies from Robin Wagner, the scenic designer, and Theoni Aldredge, the costume designer. So I have designated Baayork as the official costume/scenic designer, since you have worked on enough productions of this show that you've probably had to do it anyway at some point or another.

Just so we can get a little context for our audience, I'd just like to find out, briefly, what the circumstances were that got you guys involved in this production. Abe, why don't you start.

Jacob: In 1974, Otts and I were both working on another show, which was supposed to be the major musical of that season. It was Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera in the new Kander and Ebb musical Chicago, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. We were in tryouts in Philadelphia when I got a call from Michael Bennett about coming down to the Public Theatre to look at the rehearsals of this little workshop that he was working on. He wanted to know if I could help in doing some minor sound for the show, because they had a problem in that the band was in another room, and how did we deal with that.

So that was my introduction to the show, and for about six weeks, I guess, we were traveling back and forth between Bob Fosse on the one hand and Michael Bennett on the other, and it was a rather interesting experience.

Otts Munderloh: I was mixing Chicago, and one night I turned around, and there were Abe and Michael Bennett. Michael said, 'I want you to come mix the show.' I thought, 'Oh, great, this is the road company'--because I'd already seen it downtown. He said, 'No, no, I want you to come across the street and mix the show.' So it was arranged for me to go across the street.

Shevett: I was out of town with Tharon, doing The Wiz. I was production electrician on that show. One day we're in Detroit, with snow up to our hips. She said, 'There's this little workshop I'm working on, and it's kind of interesting, and we think we might be doing something a little bit adventurous, like doing away with all this old equipment--would you be interested?' I said, 'Absolutely.' Because when you start with something new, you can't be blamed for anything.

Terry: Tharon, how did you get pulled in? You'd done many shows with Michael before, right?

Musser: I don't know about many. We had worked together, and he called me, and he wanted me to come up to the apartment and listen to some of this material and see what I thought. Of course, I fell in love with it.

Terry: And in the past you had done shows with Robin and Theoni for Michael.

Musser: We had worked together before. I'd worked a lot with Theoni and some with Robin. Michael just solidified the whole thing. He decided that was his team, and that was that.

Terry: Gordon, you were down at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then all of a sudden, you were sucked into this Broadway show. How did that happen?

Gordon Pearlman: I was about as green as you can get. I was teaching at the University of North Carolina, and had been there for nine years. I worked with Tharon in Greensboro when she was with the National Repertory Company; they had come through and I was their tech director. While I was teaching down there, I started playing around with computers, and designed this control console called the LS-8. I sold it to Electronics Diversified in Portland, OR, and I had just moved my family, two little tiny kids, into a brand-new house out there. A knock comes on the door; it's Paul Bennett, the president of Electronics Diversified. Paul says, 'We sold this lighting control console to this Broadway show, and we can't deliver it, so we're going to have to deliver one of yours.' They'd bought the system, but they had yet to build one.

So, working literally 24 hours a day for two straight days, we built the first one. We put it on an airplane, and put me on this airplane, too, and off I went to New York.

Terry: Baayork, how did you get involved in the show?

Baayork Lee: I was a Broadway baby, starting at five on my first Broadway show. When I was 13, Michael Bennett came to study at my dancing school, so we were teenage friends. Then we danced together in a show called Here's Love. Michael said, 'I want to be a choreographer. So he got all of his friends to dance for him. He'd be in the basement making up combinations and working us to death. When he choreographed his first Broadway show, A Joyful Noise, I was in it. His second Broadway show, Henry, Sweet Henry, I was in as well. Then Promises, Promises, which I stayed in for three years on Broadway.

Then Michael went off. I was dancing in the chorus. Michael came back after he had done [the Stephen Sondheim musical] Follies, and said, 'You are going to be the dance captain and you are going to take care of my shows.' So subsequently I went out with Promises, Promises, and I directed and choreographed that company. We also worked on Seesaw.

At that time, everyone said Broadway was going to die. What was the chorus dancer going to do? Two dancers, Michon Peacock and Tony Stevens, got together and said, 'Let's get our friends together.' They invited Michael. Michael was very smart; he brought a tape recorder, and that was the first taped session. They started out at midnight, and it was just friends, dancers who were in Pippin at the time and friends of friends of friends. The first taped session lasted 24 hours. They danced and they just talked about themselves.

Then he took the tapes to Joseph Papp, who listened to them for a half hour and said, 'I don't know if it's a book or play or what, but I will give you space to experiment.' It wasn't called a workshop; it was called a work in progress.

Then we had to audition for our lives. That was the big thing. After I had taped my life and talked about myself, I saw it in print and I had to read it and audition for my life, and I had to sing for Marvin Hamlisch. And thank God, I got the part.

Terry: Tharon, What convinced you that this was the show where you were going to jump off a cliff and deal with new technology? It not only had technological implications--would this board work--but also political implications--what it meant to put people out of work.

Musser: We had a preset board at the Public, and I knew that there was no way that their assistants could run this show the way we did it down there. So I started looking into other kinds of control, and I got into the LS-8. I just knew that a resistance board wouldn't work. Preset boards were already passe, so there was no point in thinking they were the next step.

Terry: Gary, what about the fear that people would be put out of work, or that this would change the paradigm of how you lit a Broadway show?

Shevett: The limitation on the number of lights that could be used on any show at the time was six boards, double-throws, which could double the capacity because you were one side or the other. The show was also limited to how many people you could use: three men, two boards each, plus all the paraphernalia.

I realized when talking with Tharon that, once producers or designers realized they could have as many lights as they wanted, and only one person was going to operate it, producers would think they were saving lots of money. Of course, they were forgetting how much time it would take to set all this stuff up. So I predicted that people would make a living setting these shows up, and then move on to set up another complex one--which has come to pass. It's the technology that produced the work.

Terry: Tharon, one of your structural alterations to the Shubert Theatre was the followspot. Can you talk about that a little?

Musser: That was important. You had to have a followspot where it wouldn't fall off before it hit the back wall. That was the big thing. The Shuberts were great. When we were going to move the show, they said from the beginning, 'You can have anything you want.' Once the board came in, I said, 'I want the followspot space.'

Terry: There were four followspots on the bridge. Now, mind you, the bridge had absolutely no protection. It was probably 45' or 50' in the air, three guys sitting up there, with four followspots. Because when there was a burnout, you dove for the spare followspot. And there were frequent burnouts because the lamps were being overdriven.

With that followspot bridge, coupled with three of the most talented followspot operators in the theatre, you created what we would do now with moving lights--magical followspot pickups coming out of nowhere, where people's heads appeared out of total blackness.

Musser: Drove the operators crazy.

Terry: Was that a long training process, getting that look, or did it happen naturally?

Musser: Part of it. But the guys loved the show, and they really were about making it work.

Terry: I think that energy was pervasive. I sensed that it went down to every member of the crew. By the way, we have apologies from Alyce Gilbert, the wardrobe supervisor. She's working on The Blue Room and wasn't able to be here tonight.

Jacob: And she was with the show the entire time.

Terry: Yes, indeed. In that same room.

Lee: And she was so organized! I mean, she had the stockings, and she had the ladies every day working on the beading. It still continues, because when I do the foreign companies, I have Alyce organize the color charts; she tells them exactly how she washed the clothes.

Musser: I often wonder how Theoni would design that if she were doing it today. You look at how the kids come to rehearsal today and the kind of clothes they wear to rehearsal, garbage bags cut off and all of that.

Lee: Michael tried to update the costumes in Vegas after two or three years, and it just didn't work, and he went back to the bell bottoms. So now A Chorus Line is a period piece, and all the costumes are bell bottoms, from the 70s.

Terry: Let's talk about the collaborative process a little. We often hear about that inevitable tussle between the scenic designer, the lighting designer, the sound designer who wants to put the speakers right in the sightline. Did any of that go on in this show?

Jacob: We only had one minor discussion, and that was in London, about the cluster position compared to the followspot position. But according to the laws of physics, sound has to be in a certain place to do the certain position...

Musser: As do lights!

[Laughter, applause]

Jacob: The laws of physics go out the window when Tharon is lighting the show. We made adjustments rather quickly.

Musser: I remember Abe came and said, 'I'm going back to the hotel and I'm going to stay there until that's moved.' I said, 'You'd better book it for a long time.'

Pearlman: In any collaboration, the sooner people are brought together on any project, that's always the way to eliminate problems when you walk into the theatre.

Musser: The secret really is early, early involvement, especially with a script, if that's part of it. Because everybody talks about it, and nobody knows what it is. It's a very intangible thing. That was the wonderful thing about Michael. It was that marvelous instinct.

Munderloh: I have two collaboration stories. One is, when Kelly Bishop, playing Sheila, came downstage in 'At the Ballet,' she was in between two foot mics. She had the weakest voice of the three, and Abe said they were trying to get Michael to do something about it. So I had a confab with Michael and begged him, 'Isn't there any way you can move Sheila to be right on the foot mic?' He hemmed and hawed, but he did, in fact, move Sheila to foot mic number two, and no one ever knew that when she was strolling she was actually getting to the mic--but that's what she was doing.

And the other is Michael saying to Tharon, 'This person's not in the light!' and Tharon would say, 'Move the person!' Then Michael would go up onstage and say, 'Where is the light coming from, Tharon?' And she would say, 'The left!' And he'd move the person and say, 'Is that all right, Tharon?' And she'd say, 'Yes.'

Musser: That's correct.

[Laughter, applause]

Munderloh: But it is correct. Michael was willing to listen to those around him. He was willing to take the best of people. It wasn't ever like a power struggle: 'No, no, it has to be my way.' He was willing to take whatever anyone said and make it the show, so that the show shone better than any one person.

Musser: Also, he could visualize, which few very directors can do. You'd explain something to him and he knew what you were saying and what it meant. He was a genius at collaboration.

Terry: Tharon, you said that the computer freed up the design team to have as many lights as they wanted, yet here was this amazing design done with very, very little equipment. That's what makes it such an amazing work.

Musser: Well, everybody says, 'You can have as many lights as you want,' but I keep saying, 'Yes, but you can't maintain them.' One man can run them, but you can't maintain them. This is the fallacy that we've gotten into.

Shevett: We were quite worried about backup at that time, too. What happens if this doesn't work? There were eight panels, 24 presets with an A-B master, and we put all the 96 controllers there, but there's no one master. So if anything went wrong, it would take four people to run it--four people reading their individual cue books. One night Tharon, myself, Richard Winkler, Dermot Lynch, a few other people were there, and the computer didn't happen. So we rushed into this mode, which we'd never practiced, and we ran the entire show with six people doing hand presets. Tharon, out of her head, directed all six people on all the 96 channels, doubled that with the double-throws, and we did the entire show out of our head.

Musser: We got about 95% [of the cues].

Pearlman: That second board ran the show for the next 13 years. After the show closed, I had stored it in our warehouse. About three weeks later, I got a call from Mrs. Bell, who was the wife of the man who started Digital Electronic Corporation [the company that provided computer parts for the board], and she said, 'I understand you've got this computer that ran Chorus Line.' I said, 'Yes, I do.' She said, 'I think we'd like to have it for the Computer Museum in Boston.' I said, 'You know, it still works.' She said, 'Don't tell me that. I don't want to know it still works, because if it does, I'll have to keep it running.' So Steve and I made a deal with the Computer Museum: he provided them with some dimmers and I provided them with an access control console they could hide underneath the LS-8. You can still see it today; there is this cartoonish rebuild of the booth of the Shubert, and it's not too bad. The most unrealistic thing is that there's a woman running the board! But other than that, it's a pretty good representation of the Chorus Line booth, and it's still part of the permanent exhibit.

Terry: I always got the impression, as somebody who was dumped onto the sound system of Chorus Line, that there were some pretty racy advances on this show. Was there a digital delay on a show before Chorus Line or a reverb chamber in the basement, or anything like that?

Jacob: We had, for the first time, a German reverberation chamber that was built into a large box that was left in the basement, and I think it became the wall of the men's quick-change room downstairs. It was built into the theatre as the show ran, and there was never any way to get in to change it or repair it if it broke, because it was built into a wall, eventually.

There's one element of the sound design at the Shubert that is probably not known. We opened in the summer, and it was relatively warm in the theatre, and the air conditioning was on. When it came time for Paul's monologue, which happens right after 'The Music and the Mirror,' and the audience was quite loud and usually quite responsive. Then Paul would come out and stand midstage, and very quietly go into the explanation of his life--and it was sometimes very difficult to hear over the noise of the air-conditioning system. So during the applause there was a cue from stage management to the engineer to turn off the fan for the air conditioning. Not only did this cut the noise, so you could hear the character, but it also made it a little bit uncomfortable in the house. But Michael said, 'That's what we want them to feel--the same uncomfortableness that Paul is feeling onstage.'

Then, at the applause, when we'd go into the tap number at the end of it, the fans came back on again, and nobody ever knew the difference. But that was sound design. That was the collaboration that made that work. It was one of those things that you could do today by just turning up the microphone, but I don't know if it would have had the same impact. Making the audience a little uncomfortable is sometimes a desirable thing.

Terry: What do you remember most fondly about this show when you think about it today?

Munderloh: I think my most fond memory was the record-breaking performance.

Terry: 3,389.

Munderloh: Where Michael topped himself by having 300 people do the finale with all of the different companies participating. The regular company did the opening, and it went to black and the people came downstage, and it was the original Broadway company. It was unbelievable.

Shevett: During our whole lives, how many of us ever had the opportunity to honestly say, 'We made a difference'? To me, that's the most important thing in my career, that when I did A Chorus Line, it changed things. And that always thrills me when I think about it.

Lee: I find the same thing with every company that I do around the world, whether it's Japan or Stockholm or Vienna. Everyone works so hard everywhere, in whatever language it's in. It's about perfection and doing the best. And that's every single night for every single department. Whether it's the performers, the man in the back turning the mirrors, or whoever is on the spot, you're out there to do the best you can every night.