31 Days of Arkansas Rep: 2006’s A CHORUS LINE

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre put it all on the line — the chorus line when they presented the 1976 Pulitzer Prize winning A CHORUS LINE in 2006. Directed by Cliff Fannin Baker, this was one of the last productions allowed before a Broadway revival.

The musical, set in an audition for an unnamed musical, featured a cast of 25 triple threats.  Bob Gaynor and Kathryn Mowat Murphy played the leading roles of Zach and Cassie. The latter had played the role three times previously, each directed by a member of the original Broadway production of the show.

Others in the cast were Joi Chen, Case Dillard, Allison Stodola, Steven Baker, Darryl Calmese Jr., DJ Chase, Tony Falcon, Matt Gibson, Colleen Hawks, Hollie Howard, Kolina Janneck, Christina LaDuca, Deborah Leamy, Miguel A. Romero, Michael Susko and Melanie Waldron.

Rounding out the cast were Dennis Glasscock, Matthew D. Brooks, Lauren Farrell, Joey Murray, Cameron Wade, Eric T. Mann and Kim Scott.

The creative team included choreographer Lynne Kurdziel Formato (in her second collaboration with Baker at the Rep), Kristy Nicholson (musical director), Mike Nichols (scenery), Yslan Hicks (costumes), M. Jason Pruzin (sound) and Ken White (lighting).

The production played from June 2 through July 2 of 2006.

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An Appreciation of Cliff Fannin Baker

Two times Cliff Baker declined to hire me.

The first was, upon reflection, a “what the hell he thinking even interviewing me I was nowhere qualified for that job?!” situation.

The second time I had three interviews. Met the entire staff. And at the last minute some board members wanted to restructure staffing and go another direction.

I was disappointed. But because it was Cliff, I was not bitter.

I mean, that elfin grin. Those sparkling eyes. You could tell there were fifty-thousand ideas going through his mind at once. He was an encourager and a dreamer.

Cliff Baker willed Arkansas Rep into existence.  He had a merry band of players to join him.  But in the end, it was his vision, his determination, his blood, his sweat, and his tears that made the dream a reality.

The genesis for the Rep predates even the Arkansas Philharmonic Theatre. It goes back to the theatre program of the Arkansas Arts Center during its degree granting days.  Cliff worked with Dugald MacArthur who led the dramatic arts section during most of the four years the school existed.   Cliff was part of Of Prisons and Men, the environmental staging production of a new play which was critical of the Arkansas prison system.  It was aborted due partially to the involvement of actual inmates in the production (to the dismay of some in prison leadership system). Though not publicly stated, there was also some discomfort with the tone and tenor of the play.

Earlier this year, Cliff and I talked about this play.  Sometime over the years, he had lost his papers on it.  But longtime Arts Center trustee Jeane Hamilton had hers and gave them to Cliff.   As the theatre production was cancelled and later the entire degree granting program dropped for budget reasons, Jeane had encouraged Cliff to keep dreaming of theatre for Little Rock.  When Mimi Dortch was helping Cliff launch the Rep, Jeane was excited to join in.  (And it was Jeane who recruited Ruth Shepherd to become involved with the Rep.)

I was fascinated to hear Cliff talk about the visits to the prison, the rehearsal process, and the disappointment for the way it ended.  But fifty years later, it was just one stop on his career providing anecdotes from his youthful baptism into the Little Rock theatrical scene.

As a child, I was taken to a production at Cliff’s Arkansas Philharmonic Theatre in Hillcrest.  I could not tell you what it was, nor do my parents remember.  One of my babysitters was in the play.  I may not remember the play or the plot (I was five or six), but I vividly remember the cramped space. There was an electricity to it.  And it showed that theatre did not have to take place in a large auditorium.

The next year, the Arkansas Rep was born in an abandoned church space adjacent to MacArthur Park.  Operating for the first few years as a true repertory company, the same core cadre acted, sold tickets, built sets, and cleaned the building. What Cliff was creating in Little Rock was rare at the time.  Professional theatre did not exist in cities of its size.

My first personal interaction with Cliff was at Arkansas Governor’s School.  They were touring the musical Quilters to campus.  Since I was in Drama at AGS, Cliff and some cast members visited with us.  I don’t remember anything profound he said, but I remember him treating this group of 21 seventeen-year olds with respect.  Later that evening, the light board was not cooperating. So the show actually started with only house lights until the light board started functioning.  Before the show, Cliff gave brief remarks about the show.  He apologized for the technical glitch, but “the show must go on.”  About 15 minutes into it, the theatrical lighting appeared.

Over the years, I saw many shows he directed. Cliff was at home in so many different styles of theatre.

Perhaps one of my favorite Cliff memories was a decade or so back when the Rep produced A Chorus Line. I and some friends were at an event which involved a behind-the-scenes talk about the production.  By this point, Cliff had been retired from the Rep (the first time) for several years but was directing the production.  He and I were sitting at the same table.  A friend of mine who was relatively new to town quite innocently asked, “So what is your connection to the Rep?”  I just about did a Danny Thomas spit take to the drink I was sipping.  Cliff very humbly said, “Well, I have been involved since the first days of it and am now back directing this show.”  He was not upset that someone did not know who he was. He was actually very glad to see many new people continuing to be involved with the Rep.

The Cliff stories keep coming back as I write this. We all have them. He had the ability to make people feel connected, to make you feel you were the most important person in the room.  It was that gift that made him a good director, actor, producer, and fundraiser.

My last conversation with Cliff was on the opening night of Gridiron.  We had chatted earlier in the evening.  Then after the show, I saw he and Guy, right after I had passed Herb Rule.  The three of them played the key male roles in the Rep’s first production: The Threepenny Opera. I teased Cliff that it was time for a revival of that production. He smiled and said, “It was such a fun show to do.” We shook hands and parted ways. I knew he needed to work the room. This was a space filled with people who wanted to support the Rep as it refreshed itself.

When the announcement of the Rep suspending operations was made in April, one of my first thoughts was, quite selfishly, “Damn, I won’t be able to see a Cliff Baker God of Carnage.”  It was the show I had most been anticipating from this season.  As the Rep was working to plan for a new season, I was hopeful that Cliff would be able to mount that production in the new season.  A very dark comedy, it is reminiscent of some of his best work.  Alas, just as the Rep is on the cusp of a new phase, Cliff won’t be there to direct.

But Cliff WILL be there.  He will always be a part of the Rep. It is more than him, but it is very much him.

For the rest of us – those who are left to mourn, to support Guy, to face life after Cliff, I keep thinking of a line from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  In it, he said, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work.” And there is much unfinished work.  The Rep needs to return to regular programming to be sure.  But it is more than that.  We need to all redouble our efforts to exhibit the compassion, the passion, the wit, and the sincerity he showed. To inspire others to be their best whether in the arts or whatever field they choose.

Cliff Fannin Baker was a Pied Piper, and we were all glad to follow along.

Pulitzers Play Little Rock: A CHORUS LINE on the UALR stage

IMG_0274In April 1975 A Chorus Line premiered Off Broadway before transferring to Broadway in July 1975. In 1976, it became only the fifth musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Whereas the composer of the first musical to win the Pulitzer was not honored (apparently because he only wrote music, not actual words), with A Chorus Line’s citation, the Pulitzers recognized not only librettists James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, lyricist Edward Kleban, and composer Marvin Hamlisch, but also Michael Bennett who conceived the project and steered its development.

In October 1985, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock became one of the first non-professional organizations to ever perform  A Chorus Line.  The theatre department was planning on producing Chicago, but dropped that show when rights for A Chorus Line became available.  (Chicago was on Broadway at the same time as A Chorus Line and was often overshadowed by it.)

In preparation for the show, UALR (as it was then known) conducted a dance workshop in August 1985 conducted by alum Kerry Kennedy, who had appeared in the national and international tours of the show.  After the workshop, auditions were held and the rehearsal process started.

Many familiar names in the Little Rock theatre scene from the 1970s to the present were involved in A Chorus Line.  The production was directed by Carolyn Curry, choreographed by Dot Callanen, and music directed by Lori Loree.  Jay Jagim provided the scenic and lighting design, while Joy Breckenridge was costume designer.

The cast was led by Tom Crone as Zach, the director of the show within the show, and Janet Ford as Cassie.  Other performers included Lee Borchert, Sara Cole, Missy Cook, Greg Donaldson, Jo Bocage Few, Dennis Glasscock, Leslie Hall (who joined the cast two weeks before opening), John Hartman, William R Holloway, Shawn Lynnette Jackson, Traci Presley, Joey Stocks, Allison Streepey, Joe Terry, Kevin Trippe, and Scarlet White.

Rounding out the company were Paula A. Barr, Kelly Bascue, Melanie Cameron, Caran Curry, Leigh Anne Embrey, James Finch, Tijuana McKnight, Leah McSpadden, Rick Riley, Karissa Rushing, and Curtis B. Tate.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama being given. To pay tribute to 100 years of the Pulitzer for Drama, each day this month a different Little Rock production of a Pulitzer Prize winning play will be highlighted.  Many of these titles have been produced numerous times.  This look will veer from high school to national tours in an attempt to give a glimpse into Little Rock’s breadth and depth of theatrical history.

Tony Awards Week – Tony Titles at Arkansas Rep

ark repNext year the Arkansas Repertory Theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary season.  Since its first season, the Rep has often programmed plays and musicals which have been recognized with the Tony for Best Play or Best Musical of the season.

Many other Rep productions have been titles which have also won Tony Awards in some Broadway production.  But this list only looks at those which won or were nominated for the Tony for Best Play and Best Musical.

The first Rep production was The Threepenny Opera.  While it did not win the Tony for Best Musical, it goes on this list because it received a Special Tony in 1956 for its production.  The original production in the 1930s ran for just a few performances. So this production was not eligible for the Best Musical award. But it was so outstanding, it received a Special Tony.

That 1976-77 season also included a Best Play winner – The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, which took home the silver medallion for Best Play in 1966.

Rep SalesmanOther Tony Best Play winners produced by the Rep have been:

(Tony Year; Title; Rep season)

  • 1949 – Death of a Salesman – 2012-13
  • 1955 – The Diary of Anne Frank – 1977-78; 1981-82
  • 1960 – The Miracle Worker – 2004-05
  • 1963 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – 1978-79
  • 1965 – The Subject Was Roses – 1981-82
  • 1973 – That Championship Season – 1984-85
  • 1979 – The Elephant Man – 2008-09
  • 1981 – Amadeus – 1995-96
  • 1984 – The Real Thing – 1986-87
  • 1985 – Biloxi Blues – 1987-88
  • 1986 – I’m Not Rappaport – 1989-90
  • 1987 – Fences – 2006-07
  • 1990 – The Grapes of Wrath – 2000-01
  • 1991 – Lost in Yonkers – 1994-95 (featuring future Tony winner Will Trice in the cast)
  • 1993 – Angels in America: Millennium Approaches – 1995-96; 1996-97
  • 1994 – Angels in America: Perestroika – 1996-97
  • 1997 – The Last Night of Ballyhoo – 1998-99
  • 1998 – Art – 2001-02
  • 2001 – Proof – 2002-03 (written by LR Hall graduate David Auburn)
  • 2005 – Doubt – 2007-08
  • 2008 – August: Osage County – 2014-15
  • 2010 – Red – 2013-14
  • 2012 – Clybourne Park – 2013-14

 

Next season the Rep will produce Peter and the Starcatcher which was nominated for Best Play in 2012.  Other Best Play nominees produced by the Rep include: Barefoot in the Park; Broadway Bound; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Crimes of the Heart; Frost/Nixon; The Gin Game; Glengarry Glen Ross; Having Our Say; Home; Lend Me a Tenor; A Lesson from Aloes; ‘Night, Mother; The Night of the Iguana; Noises Off; The Piano Lesson; The Rainmaker; A Raisin in the Sun; The Retreat from Moscow; Talley’s Folly; The 39 Steps; and A Walk in the Woods.

The Rep also produced House of Blue Leaves six years before it was nominated for Best Play at the Tonys. In addition, it produced All My Sons which received a Special Tony for playwright Arthur Miller at the first ceremony and is sometimes erroneously listed as being the Best Play of 1947. There was none that year.

 

THEREP_MEMPHIS (no credits)-page-001The 1971 Best Musical Company was part of the Rep’s inaugural season in 1976-77.  Other Tony Best Musicals winners produced by the Rep have been:

(Tony Year; Title; Rep season)

  • 1951 – Guys and Dolls – 1989-90
  • 1952 – The King and I – 2006-07
  • 1956 – Damn Yankees – 1999-2000
  • 1957 – My Fair Lady – 2004-05
  • 1960 – The Sound of Music – 2001-02
  • 1964 – Hello, Dolly! – 2007-08
  • 1967 – Cabaret – 2001-02
  • 1975 – The Wiz – 2011-12
  • 1976 – A Chorus Line – 2005-06
  • 1977 – Annie – 2002-03
  • 1978 – Ain’t Misbehavin’ – 1984-85; 2004-05
  • 1980 – Evita – 1989-90; 2010-11
  • 1986 – The Mystery of Edwin Drood – 1988-89
  • 1987 – Les Miserables – 2008-09; 2013-14
  • 2003 – Hairspray – 2010-11
  • 2004 – Avenue Q – 2012-13
  • 2010 – Memphis – 2014-15 (produced at Rep and on Broadway by LR native Remmel T. Dickinson)

In addition, the Rep has produced staged concert versions of 1958 Best Musical The Music Man and 1973 Best Musical A Little Night Music in collaboration with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.

Next season the Rep will produce The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee which was nominated for Best Musical in 2005.  Other Best Musical nominees produced by the Rep include: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas; Blues in the Night; Chicago; Dreamgirls; Five Guys Named Moe; The Full Monty; Gypsy; Into The Woods; Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; Mary Poppins;  Next to Normal; Oh What A Lovely War; Once On This Island; Peter Pan; Pump Boys and Dinettes; Quilters; Side by Side by Sondheim; Smokey Joe’s Café; Stop the World, I Want To Get Off; Sweet Charity; West Side Story; and The Who’s Tommy.

While downtown for Race & Foodtrucks – Stop by Rep for Costume sale

Rep Costume saleA lot is happening downtown this Saturday. Race for the Cure, Food Truck Festival, and also the Arkansas Rep’s annual costume sale.

This is a chance to pick up a well-made, hand-crafted costume or prop or decoration for prices as low as $2.  You’ve seen it on stage at the Rep, and now you can wear it.

Halloween is around the corner.  Mardi Gras will be here in a few months.  Or maybe you just like escaping the woes of everyday life by throwing on a costume.  The Rep doesn’t question or judge.  Just be sure to stop by.  Among the shows whose clothes will be up for sale are Avenue Q, The Wiz, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, A Chorus Line and White Christmas.  (And since Christmas will be here soon, this is a good chance to pick up things for holiday entertaining!)

All proceeds benefit the Rep’s production office.

So stop by the Rep from 10am to 1pm.  You’ll be in the neighborhood anyway enjoying post-race foodtruck food!

ROCKing the TONYS – Marvin Hamlisch

marvin-hamlisch376x283.ashxRock the TonysMarvin Hamlisch

Little Rock connection: Appeared with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra at Robinson Center Music Hall. One of his appearances was conducting a concert version of the Tony nominated musical They’re Playing Our Song.

Tony Awards connection: Won a Tony Award for composing A Chorus Line.  Also nominated for Sweet Smell of Success.  Appeared as a presenter at the 1982, 1993, 2002 and 2007 Tony ceremonies.

ROCKing the TONYS – Robert Goulet

Rock the TonysGouletRobert Goulet

Little Rock connection: Appeared in Little Rock on several national tours of shows including South Pacific and Camelot.

Tony Awards connection: Won the 1968 Tony Award for his performance in the musical The Happy Time. Appeared at Tony Awards ceremonies in 1961, 1962, 1981, 1982, 1984 and 1996.  In 2005, made his final Tony appearance introducing revival of La Cage aux Folles in which he was appearing.

Another Tony connection is that he is referenced in a song lyric in the Tony winning score of A Chorus Line.