A euphoric evening of celebration for Broadway's longest-running show
New York — The oversize tickets were silver. The moment was golden. The mood was movingly euphoric.
And no one who was present at the Shubert Theatre on the night of Sept. 29, 1983, is ever likely to forget that electric occasion. It was the night on which ''A Chorus Line'' played for the 3,389th time, to become the longest-running production in Broadway history. The pioneering musical surpassed ''Grease,'' the then reigning champion.
Thus ''A Chorus Line'' added to the laurels which already included a Pulitzer Prize, a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, and nine Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards.
With all of its sentimental, show-business associations, the gala of Sept. 29 was one of the thrills of this playgoer's lifetime. The evening began with celebratory refreshments and continued with a Shubert Alley ceremony. But few of the some 1,500 members of the black-tie audience could have been prepared for the performance that followed.
It was a performance that not only broke a record. It stirred the spirit and elated the heart. ''A Chorus Line'' was dedicated (in director-choreographer Michael Bennett's words) ''to anyone who has ever danced in a chorus or marched in step . . . anywhere.'' But on the night of Sept. 29, the show was dedicated in the most practical terms to the dancers who, in the first place, inspired the project and, in the second place, have performed it all over this continent and in other parts of the world. The night's cast of 332 included the company present and companies past: Broadway, national, and international.
As the glorious evening progressed, one troupe was succeeded by another. This ingenious device drew the spectator into the largest possible community of dancers. The shared, intimate feeling that has always distinguished ''A Chorus Line'' was deepened, broadened, and intensified.
Mr. Bennett also extended in other ways the human boundaries of the central event - an audition, with interviews, for a Broadway show. A performer from one company would be joined by two or three from other companies. After soloing in the spectacular ''The Music and the Mirror,'' Donna McKechnie (the original Cassie) was joined by an ensemble of Cassies. Players from overseas companies answered the question, ''What are you going to do when you can't dance?'' in a polyglot of languages, a sort of mini-United Nations - only more harmonious!
One of the most striking occasions of the evening occurred when Chikae Ishikawa, the Maggie of the Tokyo company, sang the moving song, ''Nothing,'' in Japanese. Commanding the stage with her strong vocalism and inner stillness, Miss Ishikawa received one of the many ovations that exploded as the celebration worked its irresistible magic. Another such moment occurred when Priscilla Lopez (the original Broadway Diana) sang ''What I Did for Love.'' Cheers broke out spontaneously as one number followed another. And the cheers were interrupted by more cheers.
Mr. Bennett's crowning directorial stroke occurred with the final reprise of ''One,'' Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban's tantalizing theme song. While one group of gold-clad dancers strutted the stage and saluted the audience with golden top hats, other contingents advanced down the aisles in all parts of the house - from second balcony to orchestra. At this point, the affectionate embrace of ''A Chorus Line'' became overflowingly complete. The final choruses were performed onstage by all 332 dancers. The audience also rose to the occasion.
An onstage lovefest followed, in the course of which Mr. Bennett expressed affection and gratitude for producer Joseph Papp, who provided a workshop home for the show's development and at whose Public/Newman Theatre ''A Chorus Line'' premiered. Mr. Bennett then brought on many of the major collaborators on such a Broadway musical, most of whom are never seen by the audience: designers, musicians, orchestrators, production staff, wardrobe mistress, even his agent. All shared in the continuing roar of the crowd.
Among the company of 332 taking part in the evening's triumph were dancers from Japan, West Germany, Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Australia. The underpinnings of the Shubert stage had to be reinforced to support the weight of all those hopeful ''auditioners.'' Such items helped to boost the cost of the event, which was three months in the planning, to about $500,000.
Seeing ''A Chorus Line'' for the third time, I was more than ever impressed with the way its multiple story vignettes have been integrated into a total mosaic. The dramatization by James Kirkwood and Nicolas Dante is as fluid as the dance itself. While each dancer's history is specifically treated, individual self-expression becomes joyously invested in the group expression of the chorus line. The transitions occur so smoothly and often subtly that one forgets just how they have taken place. Key lines articulate recurrent motifs: ''I need this job. . . . Gimme the ball. . . . I can do that. . . . Give me someone to dance with, give me a place to fit in. . . . All I ever needed was the music. . . .'' Such passages convey the goals and motivations of a dancer's life - a life of hoped-for selection and painful rejection. The resonant Marvin Hamlisch score adds the musical element that combines to make ''A Chorus Line'' so poignant and appealing. This is a show with heart and humanity.
Happily, the 3,389th performance has been recorded for posterity. It was videotaped for the archives of the Theatre on Film and Tape project of the New York Public Library's Performing Arts Research Center at Lincoln Center. There it will be permanently available for viewing by theater students and researchers.
The 3,389th performance was by no means a finale for ''A Chorus Line.'' The total now exceeds 3,400 and it continues rising at the customary rate of eight performances a week. And by all signs, the production's future will extend indefinitely.
A final historical note: Broadway's five longest-running productions are ''A Chorus Line'' (3,389-plus), ''Grease'' (3,388), ''Fiddler on the Roof'' (3,242), ''Life With Father'' (3,224), and ''Tobacco Road'' (3,182).