Pre-opening night buzz for the revival of classic Broadway musical A Chorus Line at the London Palladium has been electric. Critical praise has been lavished on every aspect of the production, which has been brought to the London stage for the first time since the late ‘70s by its original creative team, including choreographers Bob Avian and Baayork Lee.
Marvin Hamlisch’s peerless music underscores A Chorus Line’s very human, X-Factor-prefiguring tale about hopeful young dancers auditioning for spots in a Broadway show. Taking top billing alongside Scarlett Strallen and Leigh Zimmerman is West End musical veteran John Partridge, making a welcome return to the London stage in the role of theatre director Zach after a five year stint playing Christian Clarke in EastEnders.
Handsome, warm, bracingly unpretentious, Partridge met with TheatrePeople.com a few weeks ahead of the show’s Palladium debut. His performance is already picking up raves from punters and crits alike. But, as he told us, he almost didn’t do the show at all.
TheatrePeople.com: A Chorus Line is a touchstone in musical theatre, and the nature of the piece seems to guarantee that it will strike a very loud chord with the people who perform it. Does it do that with you?
JOHN PARTRIDGE: It does in a way. To be honest, when I was first approached about the show my initial reaction was, no, it’s not for me. Because I felt that [theatre life] was a life I’d left behind.
Obviously I feel a great affinity with the show’s subject matter, but it wasn’t necessarily something I felt was right for me now. Also, it’s an extremely physically demanding show. I'm 43 now and I wasn’t really sure I was up to the job.
With my character, Zach, people will think I’m just sat at the back of the auditorium in the dark. But, as it was explained to me, there are five different ways to play Zach, depending on the actor and what his abilities are. I think I’m the sixth. Because they’re putting me in a lot of situations he’s never been in before and he’s doing things he’s never done before.
TP: Such as?
JP: The tap combination’s been changed because I’m a tapper by trade. The combination is now the full version, which hasn’t been seen in any incarnation of the show since the ‘70s. I dance the whole of the opening and also do the demonstration throughout the whole of the opening and I do the whole of the "One" section (one of the show's pivotal songs) and the finale bows as well. So I’m doing quite a lot.
Also, I’m one of those people…I like to remember my dancing as it was! At 43 I wasn’t sure I could do it. I wouldn’t have wanted to take on this role without feeling that I was going to be able to give it my best. I’m probably my own worst critic.
TP: You’re highly experienced in musicals. When you talked earlier about leaving things behind, did you mean musical theatre as a whole?
JP: I think I had left that style of performance behind. Eight shows a week is extremely tough, and I don’t just mean physically. Your life flips the other way around. Your friends are finishing work on Friday at 5 O’clock and you’re thinking, I’ve still got another four shows to do.
It’s a very late-night affair, and I’m at an age now when I like be in front of the TV at 7 O’clock in the evening with my slippers on and maybe a little glass of something in my hand. I don’t necessarily want to be pulling on my legwarmers and a jockstrap and cavorting around. But, as I am being told every day now, I am a gypsy at heart and this is where I feel most relaxed and most at home.
And I’m not so old that I don’t remember what it’s like to be like [A Chorus Line’s young dancer] Mark, and 18 and straight out of school and going to an audition and thinking, I don’t what all the fuss is about – I’m really good.
I also know what it feels like to be in your thirties and thinking, how much longer can I keep doing this for? Before I moved into my TV career, I hit 36 and I couldn’t get arrested. I thought - Is this really what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life? You don’t have financial security, you don’t necessarily own your own home. Life in the West End, in the ensemble or even if you’re playing a part, offers no security. It’s hard. And that’s what this show is about.
Fortunately for me I managed to make a break. Somebody looked at me and said, Yeah, today, it’s you. It’s your turn. So I was fortunate that I had that opportunity, but I can relate to every single one of the characters in A Chorus Line.
TP: This particular production isn’t just another revival. You have the creators of the original Broadway production working with you.
JP: That was one of the other reasons for me wanting to take this project. I hadn’t seen the original show - I’m still too young. All I’d seen was the 1985 movie, which every original creator of the show will tell you they absolutely hate. They despise it. It has nothing to do with [writer] Michael Bennett’s original creation, none of the original team worked on it and it’s not an accurate depiction of their show.
What you’ve got to remember is that for Bob and Bayoork, this is not just a musical – it’s their life story. These characters are based on real-life people. Michael Bennett sat a group of his friends and colleagues down and said, talk about yourselves, talk about your lives. He made 17 hours of those recordings.
So the characters, Val and Connie and Zach and Sheila, they’re all real people. And excerpts from the lines they actually said made it in to the show’s songs. It’s very much a real-life piece.
I don’t think Bob and Bayoork will mind me saying – Bob’s 79, Baayork’s 73 – that they will never be putting this production on, in this way, ever again. It really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be involved in something as iconic as this, with those original creatives. It’s an opportunity that you’d be a fool to turn down.
TP: The show prefigured Fame, Glee and The X-Factor. The producers’ stated motivation for reviving it now is as a tribute to the recently departed Marvin Hamlisch, but it also chimes with the times. How do you think the X-Factor generation will relate to the hopefuls in A Chorus Line?
JP: Well, everybody’s an armchair critic, aren’t they? That’s why we love these shows – or despise them. We might say, oh I hate X-Factor, I never watch it, but then we sit there in front of it and go ‘ugh!’.
People view A Chorus Line in a similar way. I think that in one way it’s quite an 'industry' show that people will come to and say - (assumes lofty tone) 'Well, show me what you won all those awards for then'.
It’s very much of a time. As far as choreography and sensibility, kids in schools now aren’t trained to dance like this anymore. We’re in agony and it’s really intense, but that’s what’s good about it. It feels like we’re bringing something back, but also that we’re paying something forward.
You can liken it to those X-Factor type shows, and it's true that it is a forefather to those sorts of shows. But I’m hoping that when people actually see the show and see the level of athleticism and physicality that goes into it, it will encourage them to go back to and look at that again.
TP: How has working with Scarlett Strallen and Leigh Zimmerman been?
JP: They’re fantastic. Leigh, Scarly, and every single one of the kids in the show.
Leigh and I were laughing the other day – she’s 44, I’m 43 – and saying, why didn’t we do this when we were twenty-three? Why have we waited until we're almost 45!
There are points where Scarly gets to go off into the wings and just die, but Leigh’s got to do absolutely everything. Leigh is sensational – and she’s gonna get you.