With revivals of classic musicals like Carousel, Kiss Me Kate, and My Fair Lady soon coming to Broadway, there’s lots of buzz about whether or not these productions should be mounted in the first place. Is this really where our worldviews still stand? Is this how we want to portray women? Can they still be relevant without being distracting?
There’s a lot of discussion around “classic” musicals, but there is this glorious pocket that is somehow still so often overlooked – the ’70s. When you start becoming interested in musicals, you usually start one of three ways: you either start with the modern hits (e.g., Hamilton, Wicked), you start way way back with Rodgers & Hammerstein, or you start in the ’80s, with two of the still most popular musicals of all time: Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera. Why don’t most of us discover this creative hotspring of a decade until later?
(Stop reading this blog post and check out Playbill’s ’70s playlist to get acquainted with the decade. The rest of the post read better with the funky opening to Company in your head.)
Somehow we jump from the so-called “golden age” of musicals right to Andrew Lloyd Webber. They’re not considered “classic” musicals, yet the ’70s was an incredible time for creation. Why doesn’t this period get a catchy name? Sure, I’m probably saying this because it was Sondheim’s heyday (six musical premieres between ’71 and ’79, including Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, and A Little Night Music), but the ’70s were also home to The Wiz, Chicago, Annie, Grease, Patti LuPone FINALLY becoming the star she was always born to be, and of course, the one, the only A Chorus Line.
A Chorus Line is so important to musical theatre history I couldn’t exaggerate its significance if I tried. When it opened on Broadway, the New York Times review basically already called it legendary – saying it was a “musical to sing about for years,” and that you’d be telling your grandchildren about it. And indeed, it did not disappoint – it was, at the time, the longest-running show on Broadway, it won nine Tony Awards, and it even won the Pulitzer Prize for drama (only the fifth musical in history to do so, and even now, only nine have won). It was one of the first shows to flip the plot around on theatre dancers and not tell a story with them, but about them. It let the theatre world know that you didn’t need big costumes and sets to tell a real, human, relatable story. It barely has a plot at all, and that’s sort of the genius of it (this seemed to be the trend at the time – Follies, released three years earlier, also about show people, doesn’t really have a plot either).
It’s about dancers, all desperate to get a job. But they’re not begging to break into the business, they’re begging to stay. This is all they’re trained for, and this is their last chance. This is what they live for. It’s do or die.
The two oldest arts companies in Winnipeg, the WSO and Rainbow Stage, are putting on their production of this show in the middle of March. When I saw the cast list, even though only the actors are listed and not the parts they’re playing, I knew immediately that Catherine Wreford had to be Cassie.
Cassie, the heart of this show, is the role that gave Donna McKechnie a Tony Award. McKechnie, who originated the part, came back to Broadway in 1986, after being practically paralyzed by rheumatoid arthritis and was told she’d never walk, much less dance, ever again. (Watch this video of her performing “The Music and the Mirror” in 1986). That story sounds very similiar to Wreford.
Hailing from Winnipeg, Wreford has performed in national tours and on Broadway and has proved herself through and through as a talented performer. But her real story begins in 2013. I’ll let her tell the rest of it:
On June 24th, 2014, exactly a year after my diagnosis of brain cancer I moved home to Winnipeg. I hadn’t danced in 9 years. I had passed and completed my nursing exam right before my diagnosis but could no longer practice. I was given 2-6 years to live. I was still going through treatment at CancerCare so I had a bit of time to figure out what was most important to me. I decided to go back to what I love most – dancing.I’ve been working with Rainbow Stage in the ensemble (and loving it!) but when the WSO and Rainbow said they were going to be doing A Chorus Line I knew the part I wanted. I am Cassie. I was on Broadway and toured all of the US as leading roles. I then moved to California and somehow lost my way. I did, however, find the love of my life and have 2 beautiful children.Last April (after the announcement) I hired a trainer at the gym to get into “dancer shape” for the auditions and danced in my living room as much as my husband would let me!!! Ha!I found out I got the part on Rainbow’s opening night of Mamma Mia. Pretty sure I cried. I’ve been scared to have a role since my diagnosis and all my treatments. When I had an awake craniotomy I had to relearn how to speak and I still say words that are not always correct. The radiation I had on my brain scorched my vocal chords and my voice will never be the same (although I have learned how to get around most issues). The 4 kinds of chemo I took for a year still give me leg cramps and numbness in my hands and my short term memory is pretty much nonexistent. But….I can still DANCE!!!! As Cassie says, “I want to do what I love as much as I can for as long as I can”. That’s me and that’s her and that’s us. We’re dancers.
Why should you care about 43-year-old musicals? Like I mentioned before: they don’t get a lot of love because they’re not old and they’re not young. But mostly, you should pay attention to them because of stories like Catherine’s – A Chorus Line is real and happening right now.