When I was a boy, probably about eight years old, I first heard the soundtrack to “A Chorus Line” on the tape deck of my mom’s red GMC Jimmy as we drove from our home in central Massachusetts to New London Connecticut, where I would catch the Cross Sound Ferry to Orient Point New York to see my father. This is not the first time I have written about “A Chorus Line” on Barking Shaman, and it is tempting to see this introduction at such a young age as my mother’s way of subtly supporting her already burgeoning gay son.
With the benefit of hindsight however, I suspect she was simply desperate to hear anything that wasn’t another repeat of Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits. “A Chorus Line” was probably the only other tape within easy reach. Remember that back then our music storage mediums only held about an hour of data each, and a child can happily listen to that hour repeatedly, long past the point where an adult might be tempted to steer her cutting-edge (for a woman at least) SUV into a bridge abutment.
I don’t remember when exactly I fell in love with the music from the show, although it was not on that first listen. As a boy in the 80’s I was a bit scandalized and titillated by the classic “Dance Ten, Looks Three,” better known to most people as the “Tits and Ass” song, and it was probably this taste of the forbidden, that brought me back to the cast recording initially.
Ten years old is rather young to be listening to a show about the perils and triumphs of being a struggling Broadway actor. “A Chorus Line” talks frankly about love, heartbreak, struggle, adolescence, failure and even puberty. As a boy, I looked up to the characters whose fictional lives were woven in the air of my room as I quite literally played the soundtrack tape to death and had to replace it for a new copy, a CD this time. As a creative and, although I didn’t quite understand it yet, gay boy growing up in the late 80’s and 90’s, I looked up to them. These were people living their dreams and having a life more fabulous than I could ever dream of. Most of all, to me they were adults when it often felt like I’d be caught in the false dawn between childhood and adulthood forever.
That was more than two decades ago now, and the man I’ve grown into sometimes wonders why I ever wanted dawn to come. At fourteen the song “Adolescence” resonated strongly with me, particularly “To young to take over… To old to ignore. Gee, I’m almost ready… but what for?” At thirty I see the same position in life very differently, an adolescent is old enough to be a sexual being, but young enough to still get away with playing with Legos. Old enough that their opinions carried some weight, but still years away from worrying about car payments or divorce lawyers.
My friends in “A Chorus Line” still sing about their recent emergence from their own adolescence, still marvel that other guys got hard-ons in class, still lust over Robert Goulet and Steve McQueen. Like Capt. Jack Harkness, they are fixed points in time and space. AIDS, Cats, 9-11, all of it remains forever over the horizon for them.
However, I am not a fixed point in the universe. At some point, the characters of “A Chorus Line” went in my mind from being ineffable symbols of adulthood, to being young and naïve. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t make me love them any less, but I know actual dancers and actors now. I know what their lives and careers are like. From my vantage point beyond the horizon I can understand what sort of struggles aren’t reflected in the show, and too easily imagine what good and bad in their lives may have waited for them beyond their last curtain call.
As a child, these were people who seemed to know everything. They were worldly, and lived in the grandest city on Earth. Now I see them as Sisyphean figures hoping to beat the immense odds in the pursuit of a nearly impossible dream.
Good art acts as a mirror for ourselves, and as my life ebbs and changes over the course of its journey the meaning I find in “fixed points” like “A Chorus Line” will change to reflect the changes in my own heart. Just as the boy I was saw a distant vision of freedom and fabulousness, the man I’ve become sees the struggle to maintain my dreams against the odds.
I can’t know what will be reflected back at me when I look into this mirror in another twenty years, but I find it comforting to know that no matter how much the world may shift and my life may change, these constant and unchanging companions from my youth will be there to help me look into my own heart and point me toward tomorrow when time comes.