Five, Six, Seven, Eight!

Img 0825The Des Moines Playhouse presents the iconic theatre musical A Chorus Line beginning September 8. Groundbreaking when it first premiered, it tells the stories of the aspiring performers hoping to become part of a Broadway show. People who aren't involved in the theatre world have no idea how truly hard it is to become part of such an endeavor. And the road to the local production has its own challenges.

When Playhouse Artistic Director John Viars introduced the season last February, he noted that A Chorus Line was going to be an especially tricky show to cast, as it has very specific requirements for character, type, and ethnicity. It also requires essentially 26 triple-threat performers, each able to act, sing, and dance. Viars hoped aloud that the Playhouse would be able to get the people they needed to create a successful show, and wheels were set in motion.


Taking on that challenge is Megan Helmers. While she has directed and choreographed a number of shows in the area (including gaining two nominations this year for the local Cloris Awards), this is the first time she's actually headed up a production at the Playhouse, let alone one as big as A Chorus Line. And she realized she needed to get an early start.


Workshop Work


"We held two pre-audition workshops the first two weekends of June," said Helmers. "These were free to attend, and they were each three hours long. We decided to run these workshops for a number of reasons. One key goal was to get people in the door who were perhaps experienced dancers, but may not have experience at the Playhouse before - A Chorus Line requires a pretty skilled group of people and we wanted to cast a wide net."


"Of course, the workshops were also an important part of our strategy to reach out to the wider community, in order to ensure we had a diverse group of actors & dancers to choose from at our auditions. There are four ethnically-specific roles in A Chorus Line, and I had the full support of the Playhouse in doing whatever we could to cast those roles as they were intended to be played."


Img 0823Helmers knew that her potential cast all had to be stars, even if their characters in the show are just hoping to be good enough for the chorus. Pretty much every person on the stage has a moment where they have to carry the show, and every potential performer needed to know upfront exactly what they were going to have to do, and how much work it would be.


"I spent the first half of each workshop teaching the combination I would be using at auditions," Helmers continues. "We held an informal Q&A session so attendees could ask questions about requirements of the show, what it's like to work at the Playhouse, what our schedule would be, or any other questions they may have."


"I also used this time to talk about A Chorus Line, the roles we were looking to fill, and my expectations for the audition process (which was, in and of itself, a bit unusual - we held a dance call first, and did singing/acting auditions with a smaller group after making the initial dance cut.) To finish up with the workshops, I taught sections of the original Michael Bennett choreography for two of the numbers."


One Singular Sensation 


This brought up a rather unique point in our conversation about A Chorus Line, and its status as a milestone in musical theatre history. The original choreography by Michael Bennett is so well known and identified with the show, the question becomes how to present the piece without simply repeating what's already been done before. 


Img 823Helmers responds, "Being asked to choreograph such an iconic show can be a little daunting. Everyone expects to see certain things in a production of A Chorus Line, so there's a fine balance to be struck. Typically, my choreographic approach is to do a lot of research and find a movement style that I think tells the story best, and then I like to take that and add whatever unique talents and skills my cast members bring to the table in order to make them as successful as possible.  In this production, I've tried to honor Michael Bennett's original work and style while still creating movement that is unique to the show."


"An example is 'At the Ballet.' We've tried to strip back the number to what is at [Bennett's] core - Maggie, Sheila, and Bebe talking about how they were first drawn to dance in order to find a place of magic and escape - and I've come up with something pretty unique to illustrate those memories which I think audiences are really going to enjoy."


A Few Basic Impossible Steps


So Helmers knew early on what she wanted to do with the show. It was now just a question of whether the area talent pool in Des Moines was deep enough, and how many people could she reach that would be right for those challenges ahead. So she was definitely crossing her fingers going into auditions. After all, no one could get away with being a mediocre dancer in A Chorus Line....


"This is my first time directing/choreographing for the Playhouse, so I didn't know whether I'd have a lot of people show up to audition for me."


She was pleasantly surprised.


Img 821"Before we started, I would have been thrilled to have 15 people show up at each workshop. The first week we had 19, and the second week we had 36! We had audition sign-up sheets available at the workshops, and many of those workshop attendees did end up auditioning - we had a total of 52 at auditions, and I credit those pre-audition workshops with helping us to get the word out and to generate buzz about our show. They were immensely valuable."


"I was truly so thrilled with the group we had audition for this show - we could have cast some of the roles many times over. Most of all, I'm really proud that we were able to cast all the ethnically specific roles as they were written and intended to be played. I'm absolutely convinced this is one of the most talented, dedicated casts I've ever worked with, and I think people are going to be blown away by what they can do on that stage."


So, Helmers sorted through the possibilities presented at those auditions, and roles were filled. The Playhouse announced their cast, and rehearsals began. And those multi-talented performers got to start exploring the world of A Chorus Line.


But there's still a long road ahead to opening night....


Next week, the Gentle Guide will present an article interviewing some of that cast, and a few more comments from director Megan Helmers, as they continue towards their premiere on September 8th. Tickets for A Chorus Line are available at the Des Moines Playhouse or through their website. And if you're any kind of musical theatre fan at all, make sure you come back to the Guide to read all about it, and then go see the fantastic efforts of Helmers and her cast and crew as they present A Chorus Line

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A Chorus Line Des Moines Playhouse Megan Helmers John Viars