The Line
by Philip Dean Walker

Michael sits alone in the front row of the balcony at the empty Shubert Theatre looking down at the line. That thick white line that has hugged the stage for seven years now. The line is what you put yourself on not knowing what will happen to you. It’s a beginning and an ending; the end of one life and the start of another.

He can remember being so worried when A Chorus Line moved to the Shubert from the Public Theater——the place where it all began. It’s such a fragile show; he was afraid that something might get lost in the transfer. That can happen to a new show when it moves to Broadway. He had seen it happen before: things get lost.

The balcony has always been the best view of the finale of the show. Michael will occasionally watch it from up here, in the dark, in the clouds. The nosebleeds. Best seat in the house. He is always so proud from way up here. The golden line of them all at the end of the show, drop-kicking in unison, arms linked, smiles plastered across their faces, the revolving periaktoi revealing a sunburst as the lights go to black on that never-ending chain of struggling dreamers.

When he first envisioned the staging of the final number, he’d had to venture back. There were so many little bits of himself and his life that he wanted to rearrange into something spectacular and beautiful. First, he went back to the time when he started doing choreography as a child, performing at all those weddings when he was so young in a little tuxedo that he was always growing out of. He was earning extra money for his family because his father gambled too much. Later, of course, he would become a millionaire after the meteoric success of A Chorus Line.

But then he had to go back even further. All the way back to watching those old Busby Berkeley movies on a small black-and-white television that sat on top of three yellow phone books on the basement linoleum back in Buffalo. Those huge, wonderful 1930s kaleidoscopic musical numbers of which he could only ever dream of being a part. Shake the kaleidoscope and a new formation would appear. He could imagine the black and white on the television transforming into Technicolor as the chorus line made its way to back down stage. A whole new panoply of shapes made of bodies. The high kicks. The wide smiles visible even on that little screen. Michael always wished he could shake up the world and then arrange the pieces into the order he always wanted.

Michael’s cabbie is dressed as Santa Claus and might be a little drunk from the way he’s slurring his words. Geraldine Hunt is singing “Can’t Fake the Feeling” on the radio.
“You know who I had in this cab last week?” he asks from the front seat.

“I don’t know. Mrs. Claus?” Michael asks.

The cabbie gives him a look in the rear-view mirror like, you fucking wise guy. “No. Ann-Margret. You know who she is, right?” The cabbie is very excited recalling his celebrity fare.

“Oh, yes. Of course, I do!” Michael decides to return his excitement. He answers in a voice that is just a little bit queeny and loud. Ann-Margret, after all, is very exciting. It’s a fact. Michael honestly hasn’t thought about her in several years. He and Bobby Avian actually wanted to cast her as Ruth Etting in a musicalization of the film Love Me or Leave Me, but the show never got off the ground. He might have envisioned her once as “Cassie” in A Chorus Line when the show first opened. She’s really just too famous though. He doesn’t like to have stars playing that role. The show is the star, not any of the performers.

He does a quick bump on the tip of his studio key as they pass Radio City Music Hall.

“Ann-Margret is the best-looking woman I’ve seen in person. She is a bona-fide, goddamn star, I’m tellin’ ya,” the cabbie says.

“Yes, she is. She’s, well, she’s the one.” Michael smirks to himself. One singular sensation. He’s really never been in awe of stars.

Ann-Margret isn’t a Cassie. She’s more like the unseen star at the end of A Chorus Line whom the whole cast is supposed to be dancing around, all time steps and step kicks. Their individuality, so lovingly harnessed during the rest of the show, gets sucked up into this anonymous golden glob receding into the background in service of a leading lady. It’s always been such a devastating ending to him.

Ann-Margret is more of a “Carlotta” in Follies now. Maybe he’ll direct a revival of that show one day. Another bump in the other nostril. He is feeling the comfort of the drip. It’s always like a warm embrace.

The cabbie belches and Michael can definitely smell the whiskey now. People really do drink more during the holidays. He is no exception with the glass of vodka he was nursing and that long white line of coke he Hoovered up before dragging himself out of the Shubert. The holidays have that potent mixture of depression, loneliness, and these endlessly banal parties. Sometimes it’s better to just get really fucked up and let yourself go numb. How else are you supposed to get through all of this?

He’s on his way to a Christmas costume party for the Shakespeare Festival which is being held in the lobby of the Public Theater, site of the original A Chorus Line workshop production and Off-Broadway premiere. The Public is like a church to Michael. And he always feels better at church.

He leans back into the cushion of the cab and feels the pulse of the night accentuated by the lights that streak by the window, the heat of the ghost of Ann-Margret emanating from the backseat, the tingling edges of the blow and the booze catapulting him into this nocturnal fritz. It’s just——the thing about Ann-Margret is that she can do anything that’s asked of her on screen and she has that one thing that cannot be taught to actors: Star Quality. And she has an enormous amount of it. Michael is convinced he has it too. People are always seeking his approval on their performances, their costumes, their stage presence, every fucking aspect of themselves. It’s like they need him to validate that they have it, because intuitively they know that he has it.

“I’ll be sure to send Ann-Margret your love,” Michael says, tossing cash up to the front. “I know her, you know.” The cabbie is stunned into silence and Michael flounces out of the cab, laughing.

He shows up to the Public late. The party feels like a dream he should already have had. Isn’t there a French word for that? There should be if there isn’t already. He dropped out of high school (and French class) to go on tour in West Side Story in Paris where all he ever did was speak English so he doesn’t know what the French word is for it. He barely knows enough words in English outside of the common theater lexicon.

How do all the characters from A Chorus Line end up anyway? That’s the theme of the party. In the show, the characters are all perpetually stuck in that one moment in time. A person’s whole life contained in a one-day audition. But where do each of them end up after that when they’re all old and grey? What happens to them? Does anyone know? And, oh God, what will happen to Michael?

The actors show up to the theater like they’ve all just been bussed in from a nursing home. They have on the same costumes they wear in the show——those iconic looks designed by Theoni V. Aldredge——but they have dressed themselves up in grey and white old-people wigs and extreme padding for cellulite. They are lumpy and pushing around empty oxygen tanks. It is surreal almost to the point of absurdity. He momentarily feels like he’s walking through a sick ward. It’s all very Follies actually, a bunch of old showgirls showing up for a reunion in a theater about to be demolished.

When Michael first heard the theme of the party, he was fearful. Why would anyone want to poke fun at these characters by turning them into old people? Cassie’s resolve, Sheila’s steeliness, Val’s versatility, Paul’s vulnerability. Do not fuck with these characters. They don’t belong to him per se. But they are his in a way. They’re all him. And he feels very protective of them. He could always find himself right up and down that line.

“Oh, Michael, you’re finally here!” says Pam who plays the firecracker “Val” in the current Broadway cast. Her famous tits so comically referenced in “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” now look like croquet balls swinging around at the end of two long socks attached to her chest. Her tits are literally being dragged on the floor behind her. Tits & Ass. That used to be the name of the song but when the punchline didn’t get the laughs, Michael quickly realized that the title of the song gave the big joke away so he renamed it. After that, it got the laughs.

“Pam, your tits are all the way down past your fucking ass!” said Michael. Pam picks them both up off the floor and starts twirling them around while clucking a burlesque beat.

“You’d still hire me though, huh?” she says with a kind of Mae West wink.

“Sparkle, Neely, sparkle!” God, he can be such a little fag.

Bob MacDonald shows up as “Zach,” who’s the one running the audition within the show, a character Michael has always flirted with playing on stage himself. It wouldn’t be that much of a stretch if he ever did. Bob uses a walker to heave himself across the threshold.

“Cute, Bob. Very cute,” Michael says, eyeing the walker as it gets caught in some bunched up carpeting. Bob opens his mouth and a set of dentures falls out onto the floor of the lobby. “Okay! Nice touch!”

“So we’re really doing this, I guess, aren’t we?” he asks Irene, a lesbian dresser who is watching the parade of characters that have taken over the Public’s lobby. She hands him a tall glass of vodka.

“Yep, we sure are. Here, drink up, boss,” she says.

“Irene, you’ve known me for a pretty long time, right?”

“Yeah…?”

“What would you say is my worst attribute? Pretend that it’s not me asking.” Irene turns away almost stricken, looking anywhere but at his face.

“Really?” she says finally looking at him directly.

“I’m serious. Just tell me.”

“Michael, you make people cry,” Irene says.

It’s true. Michael has made many people cry throughout the years. His shows just have that effect on people. But he knows that’s not what Irene means. Michael has made individuals cry. On purpose. He used to go into Sammy Williams’s dressing room before a show and say to him, “I hate you, Sammy! You’re too much of a sissy. You’re a little fucking faggot and I just can’t fucking stand you anymore.” Sammy had the pivotal role of “Paul” in the original run of the show. Paul, whose long monologue on the line is the emotional high point of the show. Michael had to keep getting Sammy into that dark, vulnerable place right before a show because Sammy wasn’t really an actor and he wasn’t getting there by himself and that’s just how Michael had to do it sometimes. It was all for the good of the show.

“I won it, Michael. I won,” Sammy said to him at the 1976 Tony Awards when Sammy took home the award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for A Chorus Line.

I won it, Sammy. I won it for you,” Michael responded to him. “I made your entire performance come.” Sammy looked at him with a mixture of pity and fear.

“Go find us a joint, Irene. I need something to take the edge off,” Michael says. He’s sort of jumpy and is experiencing that truly awful feeling when the cocaine starts wearing off. Sometimes it feels like the entire decade thus far has just been the manifestation of that exact same feeling. The 1980s: The Decade When the Coke Wore Off.

Irene slinks away in a Blondie t-shirt and army-green parachute pants. Dykes can’t dress for shit, he thinks.

He looks up at the stage, that place where it all began. It’s different from the Shubert. He can almost see the ghosts of the original cast up there rehearsing. Then the pure magic of opening night. Donna doing her solo dance in the red Cassie dress for the first time, almost like she’s doing it just for him. He imagines the long white line drawn at the foot of the stage near the lights. It’s a line he can imagine going on forever. The border of an imaginary country that only he and the cast are allowed to live in. A Never-Never Land for theater gypsies. The Orphans of the Chorus.

Michael loves opening night, but he hates opening night reviews. Well, he loves good opening night reviews but he hates the idea of being “reviewed” at all. Who the hell was anyone to review him? How are they able to fairly assess what has taken him years and years to create from nothing?

He remembers someone telling him that the actress Maureen Stapleton had apparently been appalled by the show. Appalled. That was the actual word she had used. She felt that it was unseemly to show actors begging for work. He doesn’t think she really understood the universal nature of the show. Everyone knows the feeling of putting themselves on the line when they go for a job interview or an audition. Even just asking someone out on a date or going for a trick who you think is way out of your league. Constantly wrestling with the question of will I get it or not. Your identity is your job and if you can’t do your job, you just don’t exist anymore.

He likes Maureen Stapleton. He loved her in Interiors. And he was glad when she finally won the Oscar for Reds this year. But she just didn’t get his show and, knowing her, she was probably blotto during it.

A Chorus Line is not just a musical. It’s not just people begging to do what they do best. It’s the good and the bad and the laughter and the tears and the shit and the piss and the cum. That’s what life is, isn’t it? Life is an only vaguely connected series of scenes and interactions with other “players” (your teacher, the guy at the bodega on the corner, your lovers, your mom). Life is sex and death, baby.

Life on stage can be just as real as life not on stage. Michael knows that better than anyone. It can be realer, even. And as the director, he can control the way life looks, how life is perceived, the emotions the audience will have. And, hey, if you don’t like it, you can get right up out of your plush seat and leave the theater right in the middle of the show. No one will stop you. Or you can just wait until intermission and go out there on the street in front of the theater and have a cigarette with the others and then just casually blend back into the hordes of people walking by on the sidewalk, whisking yourself away from those lives that will keep on burning night after night inside on the stage on the line. The people on the street will never know you have just left a musical right in the middle of it. They will never know that, for a couple of hours, you left the world and entered another one. They will let you back into the real world without knowing you had ever left it.

The line between reality and theater is a hazy one for Michael. Which is probably why he’s doing so many drugs right now.

Ernie Kraft, a young dancer who was promoted from swing to the role of “Bobby” a couple of months ago, arrives to the party sporting a pillow paunch stuck under the now-iconic printed sweater his character wears, a silk scarf tied around his neck like gay Christmas wrapping. Someone has helped him out with a bald cap and a white mustache. Probably Irene.

Ernie missed several performances back-to-back-to-back a couple of weeks ago and Michael has been on the verge of firing him.

“I’m kind of surprised Ernie’s even here,” says Sebastian who works in the lighting booth. He breathes down Michael’s neck from behind. He’s very tall.

“Why?” Michael asks.

“He has it.”

“What do you mean “it”? It-it? The It?” Michael asks.

“The It, Michael. The new It,” answers Sebastian. “He’s an It Boy. GRID or GRAD, the Hot Guy Flu of ‘82. Whatever the fuck they’re calling it today, he has it.”

“Fuck. Fuck.” Michael pulls out a cigarette. “Shit.” Sebastian quickly lights it for him, the flame momentarily lighting up Sebastian’s face. Michael can see Sebastian’s square jaw and the way his eyes are kind yet focused.

Michael slept with Sebastian once in the summer of ‘79. He saw him out while cruising The Piers one night. They had been working together for over four years, but it was almost like he was meeting Sebastian for the first time. Sometimes when you see someone with whom you’re already well familiar in a totally different venue, they can seem like a completely different person. Michael used to love that about people. How they could change with just a new angle, a sliver of light shining through a cracked window in a warehouse, while looking up at you from the berth of a confident kneeling position, hands on your fly already zipping it down. And Sebastian is a Beautiful. Blond and masculine and just so very handsome, Michael’s favorite type of man. He tends to put guys like Sebastian on quite a pedestal.

The truth is that Michael thinks he’s pretty ugly. He’s 5’5” and has moles all over his face and a patchy, pubic-looking beard. But he has charisma. And charisma can trump ugly. Michael has been able to bed men who were much more attractive than him. And frequently, too. It’s an old trick of his and it works beautifully. Star Quality.

But Ernie has It. The It. And Ernie is also one of the Beautifuls too. God, everything happens to artists first.

“Ernie, your Bobby got old on me,” Michael says, joining him at the refreshments table near the center of the lobby.

“I always heard that Bobby is supposed to be you in the show. Bobby is from Buffalo just like you are after all,” Ernie says, ladling light pink punch into a clear plastic cup.

“Who told you that?” Michael asks.

“That line about committing suicide in Buffalo. C’mon, that is so you. I love playing you, Michael.”

“Bobby isn’t me and that line comes from Mark Twain. That’s it,” Michael says. He shuffles off to join Irene who is waving a joint in front of her face as an invitation.

It all seems unbearably sad to Michael all of a sudden. This boy who will never grow as old as he’s dressed himself up as for a costume party. Ernie will never have white hair. Fuck it, Ernie won’t even live to see the year 1984. Ernie will probably die before Michael has to change the light bulb in his bedside lamp. Michael starts to imagine who could replace Ernie in the show. One thought naturally follows the other.

“Guess who?” Donna’s hands are over his eyes and he can feel the bulge of a belly knocking him in the back. He turns around to discover Donna wearing a red tailored “Cassie” dress ballooned out to accommodate a huge belly. She’s sporting a frizzy white fright wig.

“Wait, you’re a pregnant octogenarian?” he asks.

“It’s sort of like the Immaculate Conception. Or, what was that story in the Old Testament? That old woman who gets pregnant in her nineties? That’s me. A nonagenarian. The miracle. The one who survives all trauma and tragedy.” Donna is also smoking a cigarette which somehow makes her fake pregnancy seem more authentic to him.

“I kind of like the idea of Cassie getting pregnant later in life. It works, doesn’t it? I mean, Cassie does everything too late.” Michael feels wise. Donna nods in agreement. Since the character of Cassie is based on Donna herself, her nodding feels both true and kind of heartbreaking.

“Oh, Michael.” Donna stares off at the stage through the lobby door where some members of the party are already forming a drunken circle downstage right. “Do you remember how we used to stay up all night drinking after doing a show and then go and sober up in the morning by looking at Pollock’s ‘Autumn Rhythm’ at the Met?” Donna asks.

“Of course, I do, babe,” he answers. Donna walks through the door leading up to the stage.

Once, during a workshop of the show at the Public, the actress Marsha Mason gave Michael some advice about the ending after watching a rehearsal performance. “You can’t tell us we don’t get a second chance,” she said to him after she saw that Cassie didn’t make the final cut and has to leave the chorus line at the end of the show. “Cassie can’t go through that whole catharsis and then not get the part. You just can’t do that, Michael,” she’d said to him. She was very upset about it.

That’s why Cassie gets chosen for the chorus at the end of the show now. Cassie is the audience favorite after all. They’re so invested in her——she just has to be chosen at the end. Marsha was speaking as an actor, of course, and actors always want to be chosen. But what she hit on is one of the things that is so true and so right——everyone wants to believe they can have a second chance if they should ever need one. Michael wishes he could give Ernie a second chance.

“You get over here, Michael Bennett!” says Donna. “We’re all going to do the finale up on the old stage!”◊

 


Philip Dean Walker is a Class of 2000 graduate of Middlebury College (B.A. American Literature). He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from American University in 2013. His first book, At Danceteria and Other Stories was cited by Kirkus Reviews as a “Best Book of 2017,” received a Kirkus Star in their review, and was a semi-finalist for the 2017 Kirkus Prize for Fiction. His collection, Read by Strangers, was again cited by Kirkus Reviews as a “Best Book of 2018” and also received the Kirkus Star in their review. Walker was a general contributor at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference 2016. His books have been taught in college courses from NYU to George Washington University. His fiction and non-fiction has appeared in several magazines, journals, and anthologies. He lives in Washington, D.C., and is currently at work on a new short story collection in which “The Line” will appear.