December 9, 1985 12:01 AM EST

A CHORUS LINE

Directed by Richard Attenborough

Screenplay by Arnold Schulman

Who can read a mogul’s mind? Somebody saw this most theatrical of Broadway musicals–one that exists uniquely on a stage, with no sets and only one glitzy production number–and decided it could make a hit movie without what is known in Hollywood as a radical rethink. Somebody figured that the sad, frayed lives of show-biz gypsies (always described, never shown) would strike a responsive chord in today’s party-time teens. Somebody counted the Oscars and box-office grosses of Gandhi and determined that a British director in his 60s would be just the man to bring this musical Manhattan psychodrama to the screen. Somebody chose to film the dance sequences with a cinematic scythe that cuts everybody off at the knee. Somebody ought to be sacked.

A Chorus Line, which continues to wow ’em on Broadway a decade after it opened, is hardly a perfect musical. The songs are functional, not indelible. The dialogue wallows in the least engaging of performer emotions, narcissism and self-pity. The plot asks you to believe that performers in a musical are selected on a kind of psychiatrist’s casting couch, spilling their secret sordid pasts to the director. Yet the thing worked onstage as a puissant metaphor for shab-elegant show biz, where exhibitionism and humiliation dance in precise sync, where each passion must be displayed nakedly and clothed in artifice, where a dedicated pro’s highest hope is to tap and smile invisibly behind the star. Each dancer’s bio may have been trite: a child finding refuge and transcendence in dancing school (At the Ballet), a mouse whose charms are augmented by cosmetic surgery (Dance 10, Looks 3), a teenager whose parents find him dressed as a drag princess. But touched by the minimalist magic of Director Michael Bennett, they found life in the viewer’s mind.

The film, though, lies dormant in its own decency. Richard Attenborough’s movies are like the best-behaved guests at a Swiss embassy reception; they never offend, never impress. So he will not force the narrative into revealing new corners, or visualize a number with anything as raw and tasteless as imagination. But discretion can take A Chorus Line only so far. Onstage the characters were small, vulnerable creatures on a big, bare stage; onscreen they must trumpet each plea or plaint in close-up. In such a film the inspired effervescence of a dance like Charles McGowan’s I Can Do That must be aborted in midflight to concentrate on all the suffering wimpery of the plot. Zach (Michael Douglas), the genius director, must brood in heroic silhouette. Cassie (Alyson Reed), Zach’s former love, must mope and cower before getting to sing a strong What I Did for Love. Pretty soon this film has all the zing of The Iceman Cometh as performed by the Fame gang. Once upon a time–for one day only, Sept. 29, 1983–there was a perfect production of A Chorus Line. To celebrate its new eminence as Broadway’s longest-running show, Bennett assembled some 330 Chorus Line veterans, radically rethought every number and provided a legendary theatrical event. Alas, only a few thousand people saw that show; millions will be able to see this hand-me-down version. Robert Frost said that poetry is what’s lost in translation. All A Chorus Line lost here was its soul. Hey, kids, put the show back onstage.

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