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Tumbling Towers and Chorus Girls
Richard Dubin

The essence of theater is…



"We are such stuff as dreams are made on."
The Tempest, IV:1
Wm. Shakespeare

Late seventies, twenty-five years ago. Michael Bennett and I had never met. We could’ve, easily, but hadn’t. Omni, a brand new glossy angled for a view of the future brought us together. I was on the Arts beat supporting a theatre habit. He was magazine fodder.

A Chorus Line, a stunning success, was spitting out coin of the realm in glistening heaps. Mainly two heaps. One heap for Joe Papp’s Public Theater, where A Chorus Line was nurtured in workshop and first saw light; and the other heap at the feet of Bennett, the show’s principal impetus and director. With a portion of his heap, Bennett bought a commercial building (somewhere in the teens on the East Side is as close as I can recall) which housed his offices and comfortable rehearsal space.

There was the obligatory freight elevator up, a short burst of Broadway bound Zoot Suit, leaping dancers and pounding piano through a door left ajar, and then a warm greeting from Michael Bennett, dancer, choreographer, director, ‘revolutionary’ artist and warm greeter. We met in his private office.

In search of theatre’s future for the pages of Omni it was only natural, and paradoxical (paradoxical was good for Omni), that we began in the past. Our common past.

Michael, at just eighteen and freshly shuffled off from Buffalo as Michael DiFiglia, landed his first Broadway job in the chorus of Subways Are For Sleeping as Michael Bennett. The chorus boy formerly known as DiFiglia debuted in Subways just after Christmas, 1961. In those days I was a kid trumpet player who, with some regularity, toiled in Broadway pits. Pits are where they keep the musicians. I loved it. Got to play shows like Fiorello, and Gypsy. Great shows: Tom Bosley’s Broadway bow as Mayor LaGuardia and Ethel Merman’s tour de belting force as Baby June’s mom. But the very best thing about Broadway musicals from where I sat (under the stage), was that each of them had a chorus, and each chorus had girls. Chorus girls. As much as I loved the whole Broadway thing, "no people like show people" and all that jazz, what I loved most was the chorus girls. I really loved them.

The chorus girls in Subways were front and center in my lustful mind. The show’s one-sheet, plastered all over the actual subways of New York, featuring a most alluring woman straphanger, clad only in a towel. Her image, her one tug away availability, burned a Jungian hole in my psyche, very hot archetypes danced seductively in my head and led me eventually, with great ardor, perseverance, and a little charm, to Helen (name changed to protect the deliciously not so innocent), a Subways chorine. Not the towel girl but plenty close enough. I recalled Helen to Michael. He, of course, remembered her from the show, and apologized for not remembering me. We enjoyed a few laughs, a quick flick through our scrapbook of friends and shows then turned our attention to the future, my Omni mission.

Having become a savvy media subject over the many Broadway successes that led him from the chorus to A Chorus Line, he cut directly to the chase. "What are we doing, the annual check-up? Will the ‘Fabulous Invalid’ survive?" I assured him we were going beyond the rehash and suggested we look ahead for new hash (so to speak). We wanted to dice up something fresh. What would he like to see the theatre become?

He laughed then launched. "In the future I’d like to see a stage larger than the seating space, and a cast that outnumbers the audience. But I’m crazy."

Armed with a Pulitzer and dancing atop a pile of dough he was entitled to a little craziness, or at the very least insulated against its more serious consequences. I encouraged him to go further. He was easily encouraged.

"In a sense we’ve come to the point where the whole world is becoming theatre. It’s playing off people’s primal stuff...fear, paranoia, death wishes, dreams and terror. That’s what gets our attention"

Now, at a distance of twenty-five years, in the midst of a Broadway full of revivals, English imports and Disney films re-purposed as theatrical extravaganzas, it is easy to dismiss the commercial theatre as mere entertainment. Broadway shows, overwhelmingly, are high priced diversions for special occasion celebrations and tourists. We can safely cordon Broadway off as culturally irrelevant, unless it’s your mother’s birthday or you’re visiting from Kansas. Nothing "primal" about it, except maybe a mask or two in The Lion King.

So? Where is the "primal world theatre" that Bennett saw coming? How about 9/11?

It got our attention. A compelling show, the unexpected, the invisible made visible, planes as missiles. The timing and mise-en-scene were flawless. It was theatre playing out on a world stage spewing fear, paranoia and death wishes.

The events of 9/11 were dramatic, compelling and heartbreaking. They were potent theatre. Not entertainment, but theatre. The drama of 9/11 showed us the primal and scary stuff that usually goes unseen, the stuff, good and bad, that we tend to avoid, the stuff we choose not to see. Showing us what is ordinarily invisible is what theatre, at root, is all about.

Just as A Chorus Line reminded us that the invisible chorus was made of real, feeling, flesh and blood people with lives, struggling for love, meaning and dignity, so did 9/11.

9/11 made the value of human life visceral and visible. Living people, ordinarily invisible, caught in the bustle of business as usual, those lives that were lost in the ruble, and all the lives that were tossed into upheaval and grief, became real and present people. They became us. When we recognize ourselves in others we are in the theatre.

In the shadow of 9/11 we identified with uncertainty and mystery, the daily theatre of life. We knew in our wrenching gut that plots twist and life is fragile. They, those who died, those who killed, those who rescued, those who lived mired in the tear soaked ruins of personal tragedy, could’ve been us. We saw what we habitually choose not to see. The theatre reminds us how to see. When we choose to see deeply, to see with our whole selves, to feel what we see, to see what is ordinarily overlooked, we are in the theatre.

Theatre at it’s most basic and profound level, in it’s primitive forms and through it’s many ages, opens a window on the invisible and shows us ourselves. It’s soul stuff. Theatre encourages us to see ourselves with depth, compassion and imagination.

Going back to the rituals of prehistory, our earliest human theatre, we were shown the invisible through the performance of shamans. And in that theatre we were guided, healed and comforted under a vast sea of starlit uncertainty. Our earliest theatre gave us the faith and the courage to live in a fierce and mysterious universe.

In a sense we’ve come full circle. The theatre is, and has always been becoming, what Michael Bennett sensed it was becoming. It is not a static place. It is the antithesis of static. It is always becoming. It is not even a place in the ordinary sense. It is motion. It is change. It is the unexpected, the wondrous, the invisible exposed.

In the finale of A Chorus Line, the entire chorus, each of whom we have come to know intimately, are on the line in exquisitely matched, glistening lame costumes, topped with high hats. They dance in perfect unison before a backdrop of mirrors in which they and we are reflected together. We know them and they know us. They move together. We move together. We are one.

9/11, like all great theatre, reminds us that we are the show. Each of us is unique in our individuality and at once inseparable from each other in our humanity. Seeing that is the essence of theatre, then, now and forever. All of us, in our daily lives are inseparable individuals, a living theatre. We are one singular sensation, every step that we take.


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