About the author: Through a combination of talent and timing, Michael Gruber is making theatrical history as the only actor who appeared in both the original Broadway company of A Chorus Line (including the legendary final performance, no less!) and in the current Broadway revival of the show. In a career spanning almost 20 years, Gruber has amassed a resume that includes yet another record-breaking Broadway show (Cats, in which he played Munkustrap), plus Kiss Me, Kate, Swing, Miss Saigon, My Favorite Year, The Wizard of Oz and the Encores! production of Stairway to Paradise. His regional credits include starring roles in Singin' in the Rain, Easter Parade, White Christmas, Godspell and many more. A former all-American diver who trained for the Olympics, Gruber has also composed three musicals himself. He recently shared memories of his unique experience of appearing in A Chorus Line then…and now.
A Chorus Line was my first Broadway show. I was only 24 years old when I got the role of Mike Costa, the cheerful young dancer who sings "I Can Do That," and I was so stagestruck about being in the show. It's the typical story: I had seen A Chorus Line in Cincinnati when I was a junior in high school and said, 'This is what I want to do.'"
What I remember most vividly about the final Broadway performance on April 28, 1990, is that it was out of control! It was a Saturday, so the matinee that day was really the last time we as a company felt we were doing the show itself. The final performance that night was more about the audience, which included a lot of original cast members and others who loved the show and had come back to say good-bye. I remember the wonderful neon sign that flew in to center stage with the number of performances—6,137—lit up.
For me, the most startling thing was having to stand there after my number for what seemed like a full minute. They just wouldn't stop applauding. I've never experienced anything like that, even when I was in Cats on the night it passed A Chorus Line as the longest-running Broadway show. I realize now that the applause was not really about me; it was about the show itself. It was the end of an era.
I met the original Mike, Wayne Cilento, at the closing night party, which was held at the old Mamma Leone's. He was charming, but the original cast didn't socialize with us much; they were all on one side of the room and we were on the other. It hurt our feelings at the time, but now that I'm over 40, working with kids in their 20s, I understand. They were all friends, and they had their own nostalgic bond.
Since then, I've auditioned for several companies of A Chorus Line, but I'd never done the show again until I was offered the opportunity to replace Michael Paternostro as Gregory Gardner in the Broadway revival. It's been such a fantastic gift to work with Baayork Lee, the original Connie, who was at the epicenter of the creation of the show and has restaged it all over the world. Director Michael Bennett had passed away by the time I joined the cast, but Baayork remembers everything: Anything you want to ask, even after all these years, she can tell you.
I was fascinated to hear about the original Greg, Michel Stuart, who reinvented himself as a cultured, artistic personality. Playing a Jew from the Bronx is far from me, a Midwestern Catholic, but I can understand someone who creates a character from his own life and aspires to taste and sophistication. The fact that Greg is gay should be somewhat of a surprise to the audience; the character has a superiority and a confidence because he's been around. Baayork and Michel were very good friends, so my character's relationship with Connie is strong, and also with Cassie because they're the older dancers. That's why Cassie stands between Sheila and Greg onstage. The audience may not get all that, but knowing the background of the show anchors and orients me.
As I look at the show now, I'm struck by how contemporary it feels. It was ahead of its time back then; that's what made it revolutionary. Michael Bennett embraced the idea of presenting the real-life stories of ordinary people, knowing that audiences would be interested. It's a testament to Nicholas Dante and Ed Kleban, who wrote the book, that A Chorus Line doesn't feel dated. It's timeless because it's so truthful and not based in pop culture. The show is as perfect as it can be, which means that as an actor, I don't need to reinvent the wheel. When you muck about with it, it loses its crispness. My task is to take my ego out of it and serve the show so that its truthfulness comes through. Keep it simple. Keep it real.
I went into the revival last summer with nine other actors, and during rehearsals, we skipped the numbers that didn't involve the replacement cast. So it wasn't until our first performance that I had the great thrill of watching Jeffrey Schecter's brilliant performance of "I Can Do That." Feelings of nostalgia washed over me as the realization of how lucky I was to be standing on that white line again after all these years came vividly into focus. Later, Jeffrey and I shared another "full circle" moment: He remembered seeing a tape of "I Can Do That" on Nightline during a story about the original production just before it closed. "You were in that last company," he said to me. "Did you do a standing back somersault at the end of the number?" When I said yes, he replied, "I saw you on TV when I was 14. And I said to myself, 'I want to do that.'"