My first exposure to A Chorus Line was in junior high. I was the accompanist for the school chorus, and one of the pieces I vividly remember was a medley of songs from the musical. The first time I actually saw the show was in its movie incarnation. I loved the music, and enjoyed the performers, especially Gregg Burge (gone too soon at age 40 in 1998). I couldn’t understand why my theatre friends hated the movie so much.
Like pretty much everyone who only know the show from its songs, I figured “What I Did for Love” was just another pretty love song. That how it felt in our junior high medley. That’s how the movie played it. It wasn’t until I finally saw the stage show that I really understood the song.
The show takes place on a bare stage, and the entire plot is a group of dancers auditioning for a chorus role in a Broadway musical. Sounds simple enough, but it takes us on an amazingly intricate journey through life as seen through the eyes of the dancers and the director/choreographer, Zach. One of the show’s most moving moments is when Paul recounts his painful experiences growing up, and his relationship with his father. (I won’t spoil it for you here; see the show!) It is heartbreaking when not long after his revelatory monologue, Paul is injured and has to withdraw from the audition. The other dancers are shaken up about this, suddenly forced to confront their own fragility and the unforgiving nature of their chosen career. Zach asks them, “If today were the day you had to stop dancing, how would you feel?”
That’s the moment fellow dancer Diana Morales begins to sing “What I Did for Love.” It’s not a he/she love song as I’d always assumed, as it was in the movie.
“Kiss today goodbye
And point me toward tomorrow
We did what we had to do
Won’t forget, can’t regret
What I did for love.”
This goes beyond romantic love, as wonderful as that is. In the context of the show, “What I Did for Love” goes to the very heart of your soul. What in your life do you truly do out of love? What do you love so much that you can never regret it, even if you lose it?
I played in the pit orchestra for this show a couple summers ago, and the experience moved me deeply for a few reasons. First, it brought back all those memories of junior high chorus. Second, as someone who has spent a lot of time working in music and theatre, I can understand the emotions of the dancers giving their all for a shot at Broadway. Lastly, I think of my own life, and of the things and people I have loved and lost.
“Look, my eyes are dry
The gift was ours to borrow
It’s as if we always knew
And I won’t forget what I did for love.”
(A Chorus Line, Music – Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics – Edward Kleban, Book – James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante)