The show opens in the middle of an audition for an upcoming Broadway production. The formidable director Zach and his assistant choreographer Larry put the dancers through their paces. Every dancer is desperate for work ("I Hope I Get It"). After the next round of cuts, 17 dancers remain. Zach tells them he is looking for a strong dancing chorus of four boys and four girls. He wants to learn more about them, and asks the dancers to introduce themselves. With reluctance, the dancers reveal their pasts. The stories generally progress chronologically from early life experiences through adulthood to the end of a career.
The first candidate, Mike, explains that he is the youngest of 12 children. He recalls his first experience with dance, watching his sister's dance class when he was a pre-schooler ("I Can Do That"). Mike took her place one day when she refused to go to class—and he stayed. Bobby tries to hide the unhappiness of his childhood by making jokes. As he speaks, the other dancers have misgivings about this strange audition process and debate what they should reveal to Zach ("And..."), but since they all need the job, the session continues.
Zach is angered when he feels that the streetwise Sheila is not taking the audition seriously. Opening up, she reveals that her mother married at a young age and her father neither loved nor cared for them. When she was six, she realized that ballet provided relief from her unhappy family life, as did Bebe and Maggie ("At the Ballet"). The scatter-brained Kristine is tone-deaf, and her lament that she could never sing is interrupted by her husband Al finishing her phrases in tune ("Sing").
Mark, the youngest of the dancers, relates his first experiences with pictures of the female anatomy and his first wet dream, while the other dancers share memories of adolescence ("Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love"). The 4'10" Connie laments the problems of being short, and Diana Morales recollects her horrible high school acting class ("Nothing"). Don remembers his first job at a nightclub and Judy reflects on her problematic childhood while some of the auditionees talk about their opinion of their parents ("Mother"). Then, Greg speaks about his discovery of his homosexuality and Richie recounts how he nearly became a kindergarten teacher ("Gimme the Ball"). Finally, the newly buxom Val explains that talent alone doesn't count for everything with casting directors, and silicone and plastic surgery can really help ("Dance: Ten; Looks: Three").
The dancers go downstairs to learn a song for the next section of the audition, but Cassie stays onstage to talk to Zach. She is a veteran dancer who has had some notable successes as a soloist. They have a history together: Zach had cast her in a featured part previously, and they had lived together for several years. Zach tells Cassie that she is too good for the chorus and shouldn't be at this audition. But she hasn't been able to find solo work and is willing to "come home" to the chorus where she can at least express her passion for dance ("The Music and the Mirror"). Zach sends her downstairs to learn the dance combination.
Zach calls Paul on stage, and he emotionally relives his childhood and high school experience, his early career in a drag act, coming to terms with his manhood and his homosexuality, and his parents' ultimate reaction to finding out about his lifestyle. Paul breaks down and is comforted by Zach. Cassie and Zach's complex relationship resurfaces during a run-through of the number created to showcase an unnamed star ("One"). Zach confronts Cassie, feeling that she is "dancing down," and they rehash what went wrong in their relationship and her career. Zach points to the machine-like dancing of the rest of the cast—the other dancers who have all blended together, and who will probably never be recognized individually—and mockingly asks if this is what she wants. Cassie defiantly defends the dancers: "I’d be proud to be one of them. They’re wonderful....They’re all special. I’d be happy to be dancing in that line. Yes, I would...."
During a tap sequence, Paul falls and injures his knee that recently underwent surgery. After Paul is carried off to the hospital, all at the audition stand in disbelief, realizing that their careers can also end in an instant. Zach asks the remaining dancers what they will do when they can no longer dance. Led by Diana, they reply that whatever happens, they will be free of regret ("What I Did For Love"). The final eight dancers are selected: Mike, Cassie, Bobby, Judy, Richie, Val, Mark, and Diana.
"One" (reprise/finale) begins with an individual bow for each of the 19 characters, their hodgepodge rehearsal clothes replaced by identical spangled gold costumes. As each dancer joins the group, it is suddenly difficult to distinguish one from the other: ironically, each character who was an individual to the audience seems now to be an anonymous member of a neverending ensemble."I Hope I Get It" – Company
"I Can Do That" – Mike
"And..." – Bobby, Richie, Val, and Judy
"At the Ballet" – Sheila, Bebe, and Maggie
"Sing!" – Kristine, Al, and Company
"Montage Part 1: Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" – Mark, Connie, and Company
"Montage Part 2: Nothing" – Diana
"Montage Part 3: Mother" – Don, Judy, Val, Diana, Maggie, Cassie, Al, Sheila, Greg, Paul, and Company
"Montage Part 4: Gimme the Ball" – Greg, Richie, and Company
"Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" – Val
"The Music and the Mirror" – Cassie
"One" – Company
"The Tap Combination" – Company
"What I Did for Love" – Diana and Company
"One" (Reprise)/Bows – Company
Issued by Columbia Records (PS33581) containing the following tracks:
Side One"I Hope I Get It" – Company
"I Can Do That" – Mike (Wayne Cilento)
"At the Ballet" – Sheila (Kelly Bishop), Bebe (Nancy Lane), Maggie (Kay Cole)
"Sing!" – Kristine (Renee Baughman), Al (Don Percassi)
"Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" (Montage) – Company
"Nothing" – Diana (Priscilla Lopez)
Side Two"The Music and the Mirror" – Cassie (Donna McKechnie)
"Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" – Val (Pamela Blair)
"One" – Company
"What I Did For Love" – Diana and Company
"One (Reprise)" Finale – Company
Zach, the imperious, successful director running the audition.
Larry, his assistant.
The Auditionees:Don Kerr, a married man who once worked in a strip club.
Maggie Winslow, a sweet woman who grew up in a broken home.
Mike Costa, an aggressive dancer who learned to tap at an early age.
Connie Wong, a petite Chinese-American who seems ageless.
Greg Gardner, a sassy Jewish gay man who divulges his first experience with a woman.
Cassie Ferguson, a once successful solo dancer down on her luck and a former love of Zach's.
Sheila Bryant, a sassy, sexy, aging dancer who tells of her unhappy childhood.
Bobby Mills, Sheila's best friend who jokes about his conservative upbringing in Buffalo, New York.
Bebe Benzenheimer, a young dancer who only feels beautiful when she dances.
Judy Turner, a tall, gawky, and quirky dancer.
Richie Walters, an enthusiastic black man who once planned to be a kindergarten teacher.
Al DeLuca, an Italian-American who takes care of his wife.
Kristine Urich (DeLuca), Al's scatter-brained wife who can't sing.
Val Clark, a foul-mouthed but excellent dancer who couldn't get performing jobs because of her looks until she had plastic surgery.
Mark Anthony, the youngest dancer who recounts the time he told his priest he thought he had gonorrhea.
Paul San Marco, a gay Puerto Rican who dropped out of high school and survived a troubled childhood.
Diana Morales, Paul's friend, another Puerto Rican who was underestimated by her teachers.
Cut dancers:Tricia, who has a brief vocal solo.
Vicki, who never studied ballet.
Lois, who dances like a ballerina.
Roy, who can't get the arms right ("Wrong arms Roy").
Butch, who gives attitude in the audition.
Tom, an all-American jock.
Frank, who looks at his feet when he dances ("headband").
The musical was formed from several taped workshop sessions with Broadway dancers, known as "gypsies," including eight who eventually appeared in the original cast. The sessions were originally hosted by dancers Michon Peacock and Tony Stevens. The first taped session occurred at the Nickolaus Exercise Center January 26, 1974. They hoped that they would form a professional dance company to make workshops for Broadway dancers.
Michael Bennett was invited to join the group primarily as an observer, but quickly took control of the proceedings. Although Bennett’s involvement has been challenged, there has been no question about Kirkwood and Dante’s authorship. In later years, Bennett's claim that A Chorus Line had been his brainchild resulted in not only hard feelings but a number of lawsuits as well. During the workshop sessions, random characters would be chosen at the end for the chorus jobs based on their performance quality, resulting in genuine surprise among the cast. However, several costumers protested this ending mainly due to the stress of having to change random actors in time for the finale, resulting in it being cut in exchange for a more organized ending of the same set of characters winning the slots. Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote A Chorus Line's winning score, recalled how during the first previews, audiences seemed put off by something in the story. This problem was solved when actress Marsha Mason told Bennett that Cassie (Donna McKechnie in the original production) should win the part in the end because she did everything right. Bennett changed it so that Cassie would win the part.
A Chorus Line opened Off Broadway at The Public Theater on April 15, 1975. At the time, the Public did not have enough money to finance the production so it borrowed $1.6 million to produce the show. The show was directed and co-choreographed (with Bob Avian) by Bennett.
Advance word had created such a demand for tickets that the entire run sold out immediately. Producer Joseph Papp moved the production to Broadway, and July 25, 1975, it opened at the Shubert Theatre, where it ran for 6,137 performances until April 28, 1990. The original Broadway cast included:
In addition, Carole Schweid and John Mineo were understudies named "Barbara" and "Jarad", although they only went on covering other roles. Tim Cassidy also was an understudy for "Bobby".
The production was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, winning nine: Best Musical, Best Musical Book, Best Score (Hamlisch and Kleban), Best Director, and Best Choreography, Best Actress (McKechnie), Best Featured Actor (Sammy Williams), Best Featured Actress (Bishop) and Best Lighting Design. The show won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of the few musicals ever to receive this honor, and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play of the season.
In 1976, many of the original cast went on to perform in the Los Angeles production. Open roles were recast and the play was again reviewed as the "New" New York Company which included Ann Reinking, Sandahl Bergman, Christopher Chadman, Justin Ross (who would go on to appear in the film), and Barbara Luna.
When it closed, A Chorus Line was the longest running show in Broadway history until its record was surpassed by Cats in 1997 and Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera in 2002. According to Baayork Lee in Sean Egan’s James Kirkwood biography Ponies & Rainbows, the first of those shows was artificially elevated above A Chorus Line. She said, "I think they had Cats limping in, keeping it open and do you know I think they were giving tickets away just so that it would stay open, so they would break the record." On September 29, 1983, Bennett and 330 A Chorus Line veterans came together to produce a show to celebrate the musical becoming the longest-running show in Broadway history. A Chorus Line generated US$277 million in revenue and had 6.5 million Broadway attendees. Since its inception, the show's many worldwide productions, both professional and amateur, have been a major source of income for The Public Theater.
By 1991, four of the five original creators had died; Bennett, Kirkwood, and Dante from complications of AIDS-related diseases, and Kleban from cancer. Hamlisch died in 2012.
U.S. and international tours were mounted in 1976, including a run in Los Angeles at the Shubert Theatre in Century City.
A London production opened in the West End at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1976. It ran for several years. Jane Summerhays and Geraldine Gardner (aka Trudi van Doorn of the Benny Hill Shows), played Sheila in the London production. The production won the Laurence Olivier Award as Best Musical of the Year 1976, the first year in which the awards were presented. Joan Illingworth was also down to the last two to appear.
In 1980, under the direction of Roy Smith, the Teatro El Nacional of Buenos Aires produced a successful Spanish version of A Chorus Line lasting 10 months (and then only to make way for an already scheduled subsequent production).
In 1984, under the direction of Roy Smith with translation by Nacho Artime y Jaime Azpilicueta, the show was produced at the Tivoli Theater in Barcelona and the Monumental Theatre in Madrid Spain.
In July 1986, A Chorus Line was produced in Italy for the first time. It premiered at the Nervi Festival of Dance in Genoa, followed by a five-week Italian tour. The choreography was adapted for the festival's performing space by Baayork Lee who had played Connie in the original production and subsequently became a close collaborator of Michael Bennett, the original choreographer.
The German language version was again directed by Lee and first opened in 1987 in Vienna, Austria, where it ran successfully for one season followed by the German language CD-release produced by Jimmy Bowien in 1988.
The first—and as of 2016 only—professional Hungarian production of the musical opened its limited run on March 25, 1988 under the title Michael Bennett emlékére (English: In memory of Michael Bennett). It was performed by Ódry Színpad (the company of the Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest) translated into Hungarian by György Gebora, and directed by Imre Kerényi. The character Zach was renamed Michael and played by Kerényi.
The 2006 Broadway revival opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater October 5, 2006, following a run in San Francisco. The revival closed August 17, 2008, after 759 performances and 18 previews. It cost $8 million to finance and recouped its investment in 19 weeks. The production was directed by Bob Avian, with the choreography reconstructed by Baayork Lee, who had played Connie Wong in the original Broadway production. The opening night cast included Paul McGill, Michael Berresse, Charlotte d'Amboise, Mara Davi, James T. Lane, Tony Yazbeck, Heather Parcells, Alisan Porter, Jason Tam, Jessica Lee Goldyn and Chryssie Whitehead. On April 15, 2008, Mario Lopez joined the cast as the replacement for Zach. The production was the subject of the documentary film Every Little Step.
The production received two Tony Award nominations in 2007 for Featured Role (Charlotte d'Amboise) and Revival (Musical). The original contract for A Chorus Line provided for sharing the revenue from the show with the directors and dancers that had attended the original workshop sessions. However, the contract did not specify revenue when the musical was revived in 2006. In February 2008, an agreement was reached with the dancers and Michael Bennett's estate.
A 2008 U.S. touring production opened May 4, 2008, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and toured through June 2009. This production featured Michael Gruber as Zach, Nikki Snelson as Cassie, Emily Fletcher as Sheila, and Gabrielle Ruiz as Diana.
In 2012, the musical toured Australia gaining much critical acclaim. Bayyork Lee directed the production and it gained many nominations including, Helpmann nominations for Best Actress in a Musical for West End star, Anita Louise Combe playing Cassie, Best supporting Actress in a musical, Deborah Krizak and Best supporting Actor in a musical, Euan Doidge and it won best musical. The same production and cast then came to Singapore, playing at the Marina Bay Sands, Sands Theater, May 4 to May 27, 2012.
A Chorus Line returned to Glasgow, Scotland for a short, rare run at Eastwood Park Theatre, from January 29 to February 2, 2013. The production, by Glasgow Music Theatre, included some alterations. An intermission was inserted between "Montage" and "Dance Ten, Looks Three" and the solo of the final ballad, "What I Did For Love" was sung by the character Bebe (played by Katie Hart). The production preceded the show's West End revival and featured Colin Johnston as Zach, Bridget Louise McCavanagh as Cassie, Emma Fraser as Sheila, Kirsty Grant as Val and Kelly Johnston as Diana. The production was directed by Marcus Littlejohn, with musical direction by Barrie McKillop and choreography by Marion Baird.
The show returned to London for a revival in February 2013 West End at the London Palladium, running through August of that year. It was directed by original choreographer, Bob Avian, with John Partridge, Scarlett Strallen, and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt starring. James T. Lane is reprising his Broadway role and Leigh Zimmerman won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical for her portrayal of Sheila in this production. Producers announced June 9, 2013, that the London revival cast would record a new cast album featuring never-before-heard songs which were written for the show but never made the final cut.
Reports surfaced in June 2016 that a second Broadway revival is planned for 2025, in honor of the show's 50th anniversary.
An unsuccessful film adaptation was released in 1985, starring Michael Douglas as Zach. As Kelly Bishop, the original Sheila, later noted, "it was appalling when director Richard Attenborough went on a talk show and said 'this is a story about kids trying to break into show business.' I almost tossed my TV out the window; I mean what an idiot! It's about veteran dancers looking for one last job before it's too late for them to dance anymore. No wonder the film sucked!"
In 1976, "One" and "What I Did For Love" were performed by the cast of "The Brady Bunch Variety Hour."
In 1988, the 60th Academy Awards featured a variation of "I Hope I Get It" at the beginning of the ceremony.
In 1990, original cast members Baayork Lee and Thommie Walsh collaborated with Robert Viagas on the book On the Line: The Creation of A Chorus Line, which chronicles the musical's origins and evolution and includes interviews with the entire original cast.
In 1990, Visa launched a marketing campaign around A Chorus Line as it was touring the United States. The promotions included television commercials featuring the musical and the right to say that tickets for the show could be charged only on Visa cards. Visa paid $500,000 for the promotion.
Also in 1990, much of the original cast reunited to perform selections from the musical as well as talk about it on the talk show Donahue. This performance was given to benefit the final run of the show as it was about to close on Broadway at the time. The highlight of the appearance was an emotionally charged performance of "At The Ballet" as performed by Kelly Bishop, Kay Cole and Nancy Lane which left several of the cast and the studio audience fighting back tears. Another highlight was the comical performance of "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three (Tits and Ass)" as done by Pamela Blair. Renee Baughman was the only original cast member who couldn't attend the show's taping because she had to care for her seriously ill father.
The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror V" closes with a parody of "One," which the Simpsons family sings (with alternate lyrics) after they are turned inside out by a mysterious fog.
Michael Bennett and Ed Kleban are portrayed in the 2001 musical A Class Act, a partly fictionalized account of Kleban's life using some of the lyricist's unpublished songs.
In "What I'll Never Do For Love Again," the 20th episode of the fifth season of Ally McBeal (2002), Elaine Vassal auditions (ultimately in vain) for a Boston production of A Chorus Line, singing "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" and "The Music and the Mirror."
James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo produced and directed a documentary film about the musical called Every Little Step, which includes footage of Michael Bennett and interviews with Marvin Hamlisch, Bob Avian, former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich, and original cast members Donna McKechnie and Baayork Lee. The film includes some of the audiotapes made at the early workshop sessions and shows behind-the-scenes footage of the audition, rehearsals, and performances of both the original 1975 production and the 2006 Broadway revival. Production of the documentary began in 2005 when 3,000 hopefuls arrived on the first day of auditions for the revival. The film made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2008 and was released as Broadway Broadway in Japan the following month. The documentary opened in limited release in the US in April 2009.
In 2009, music from the score was used in the television series Fringe in the episode Brown Betty, and also in the movie Land of the Lost that same year featuring Will Ferrell, Danny McBride, and Anna Friel
The song "What I Did for Love" has been recorded by Aretha Franklin from "Sweet Passion" (1977), Petula Clark, The Three Degrees on their 1977 album Standing Up for Love, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes on "Are a Drag" (1999), Christine Ebersole in a 2009 episode of "The Colbert Report", and most recently by Lea Michele in the first episode of the second season of the hit musical television series Glee. In a later episode in the same season, Jenna Ushkowitz and Harry Shum, Jr. performed "Sing!", although the male and female vocals were switched. The episode "Hell-O" from the show's first season was planned to feature a performance of "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love", although the performance was cut; in a later episode the song can be heard playing in the background. Never officially released, the song was performed by Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff. "At The Ballet" was featured in the show's fourth season and was performed by Chris Colfer, Naya Rivera, Lea Michele and Sarah Jessica Parker.
"Phineas & Ferb": in one part of the live show; Heinz Doofenshmirtz sings part of One
The Scrubs episode My Malpractical Decision features a parody of "One", accompanying an imaginary sequence in which Neena Broderick repeatedly assaults a barrage of unfortunate bystanders in the genitals.
In the House MD Season 6 episode, "The Down Low", James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) starts singing the song in the last few seconds of the episode much to the discomfort of Wilson's best friend, Gregory House (Hugh Laurie).
In August 2013, ACL alumna Melissa R. Randel ("Judy Turner") mounted her original production, The Hat, at The New York International Fringe Festival – FringeNYC. The Hat was inspired by her experience as a young Broadway dancer who learns on the eve of a performance that her father has died. "The curtain rises on her 87th performance of a hit Broadway musical, but no one tells Ruth her father has died. Forevermore, her heart clings to a gold-studded chorus girl’s top hat. LIGHTS UP! 5-6-7-8!" Randel appeared in more than 2,000 performances from 1981 to 1985 at Broadway's Shubert Theatre and on National and International tours, and can be seen as a featured dancer in Richard Attenborough's film, A Chorus Line.