The Muny’s influence is woven in legacy of ‘A Chorus Line’

Watch The Muny cast of 'A Chorus Line' practice the song 'Sing!'

Watch The Muny cast of 'A Chorus Line' practice the song 'Sing!' for the performances July 29 through August 4.
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Watch The Muny cast of 'A Chorus Line' practice the song 'Sing!' for the performances July 29 through August 4.

Renee Baughman, of St. Louis, really couldn’t sing. But she could dance. Oh, how she could dance. And that combination has forever linked her to Broadway history.

In the landmark 1975 musical, “A Chorus Line,” she was the inspiration for and originated the role of Kristine Urich – a vocally challenged, sweet and scatterbrained young dancer.

She was one of eight original cast members who took part in the taped rap sessions that led to the musical’s creation.

Her talent, along with her poise, warmth and sunny personality, has enabled her to shine on stage and television. Her impressive resume includes shows at the Muny, “Applause” with Lauren Bacall on Broadway, Mary Tyler Moore’s short-lived variety TV series and specials, and dancing on The Oscars telecast.

“I am a lucky girl. I was lucky to be invited to the rap sessions. I was in the right place at the right time. It’s just dumb luck,” she said modestly.

She originated the role, first in workshop, then at the Public Theater downtown, and ultimately moved to the Shubert Theatre on Broadway.

Unlike the character, she wasn’t married then. But everything else is all her. Even the ditzy aspect. When asked if she was scatterbrained back then, she responded: “A little bit,” smiling.

“I loved the part. I was happy about it and the show. It was all about the dance.”

The musical is centered on 17 dancers at an audition, vying for eight spots. On a bare stage, they tell the director-choreographer Zach about events that shaped their lives and why they decided to be dancers. Their hopes and dreams are relatable. We see what it takes to be “on the line.”

The show was dedicated to “anyone who has ever danced in a chorus or marched in step – anywhere.”

Forty-two years ago, it became a singular sensation – an unprecedented commercial and critical hit. In 1976, it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and nine Tony Awards, out of 12 nominations, a record until this century, when it was tied by “The Book of Mormon” and surpassed by “The Producers” with 12 and “Hamilton” with 11.

The show ran from July 25, 1975 to April 28, 1990, for 6,137 performances. At the 3,389th performance on Sept. 29, 1983, it topped “Grease” to become the longest running musical of all-time. Baughman was among the 330 cast veterans participated in the “One” finale to celebrate the milestone.

The record stood until “Cats” broke the record in 1997. It is now the sixth longest running show in Broadway history, having been eclipsed by “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Chicago,” “The Lion King” and “Les Miserables” too.

Renee Baughman
Renee Baughman, center, and fellow cast members at the 40th anniversary celebration of “A Chorus Line” at The Public Theatre in New York City. Provided

A revival in 2006 ran for 759 performances and received two Tony nominations. Muny casting director Megan Larche Dominick worked on the revival and is featured in the documentary “Every Little Step,” which chronicles those auditions (3,000 people!).

The beloved musical is playing at The Muny for the seventh time, running seven performances from July 29 through Aug. 4.

“This is a dream cast for this landmark musical,” Muny Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson said. “With Denis Jones at the helm, this cast promises to give the show incredible vitality, style and heart.”

The show first appeared at The Muny in 1981, at the height of its popularity, then was staged again in 1982, 1985,1989, 1997, and 2002.

On Saturday, Renee attended the show and the after-party, meeting the cast for a full-circle moment. Director Denis Jones earned his Actors Equity card playing the character Mike (“I Can Do That”) in a national tour.

The road to a “A Chorus Line” begins at the Muny, not just for Baughman, but for others who were an integral part of the show’s origins. The connections to performers in the Dance Ensembles during 1960s Forest Park summers are remarkable, not unlike a Six Degrees of Separation theory.

Fourteen of the 19 dancers asked to the first rap session, taped from midnight to dawn, had danced at the Muny. When the show eventually made it off-Broadway, 13 of the 26 “gypsies” in the cast had been Muny dancers.

Living in New York City in 1974, Renee was asked by fellow Muny dancer Nicholas Dante to come to the session organized by Muny alums Michon Peacock and Tony Stevens, who was born Anthony Pusateri and from Herculaneum, Mo.

“Nicholas Dante dragged me there,” she said. They became close friends during their Muny summers and once in NYC, worked together on “Applause,” returning with it during its week at the Muny in 1971.

Initially, Stevens wanted to organize a group of dancers who would take more control over their work. Director-choreographer Michael Bennett took over the sessions, and those tapes would be the show’s foundation.

Bennett, winner of Tony Awards for “Follies” and “Seesaw” at that time, would go on to win five more, and earn 18 nominations total before his untimely death at age 44 of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1987. He had choreographed “West Side Story” at the Muny in 1967.

“He was interested in our lives. We told him about our feelings,” she said.

The anecdotes became part of the script, which Dante, along with James Kirkwood Jr., wrote, winning Tony Awards.

“The book was like four hours at first. It kept being worked on,” she said.

Dante, born Conrado Morales, inspired the character Paul San Marco, a gay Puerto Rican. Dante returned to the Muny in 1985 in the role. He died in 1991 at age 49, of AIDS-related complications

Stevens left “A Chorus Line” in its infancy to join the company of “Chicago” as Bob Fosse’s assistant choreographer. Peacock left for that show too. But Dante kept the character Richie’s birthplace as Herculaneum, Mo.

Stevens would become a renowned choreographer. You may be familiar with his biggest hit, the “Be A Pepper” commercials for Dr. Pepper. Baughman later appeared with his troupe on TV shows and specials. He died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 63 in 2011.

Baughman stayed with the project. Bennett was in her corner. Even though she couldn’t sing, what worked in her favor, she said, was that she could cry when they shared their stories.

However, composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Ed Kleban were skeptical, she said, because she couldn’t carry a tune. Bennett recommended they keep her, and if she didn’t work out after the workshop, they would cut her.

“I loved Michael Bennett. He was a genius,” she said. “Marvin Hamlisch was a wonderful man. So talented.”

She won them all over, and Hamlisch-Kleban’s very first song they wrote was “Sing!” for her. Dante played her a taped copy over the phone.

She was flabbergasted. She recalled thinking “How do I do a number when I can’t even sing?’

But the song perfectly fit her part. It’s a comical fast-paced number that chronicles her lack of vocal prowess, nervously talk-sung as an animated duet with her husband, fellow dancer Al DeLuca (Don Percassi).

During the lengthy creation process, a few of the dancers joined Stevens and Peacock in “Chicago.” That seemed like a sure thing, while “A Chorus Line” might not be, seemed more experimental, she said.

I am a lucky girl. I was lucky to be invited to the rap sessions. I was in the right place at the right time. It’s just dumb luck.

Renee Baughman, of St. Louis, who was in the original cast of ‘A Chorus Line’

“’Chicago’ was supposed to be the big hit of the year,” Baughman said. “It had Bob Fosse, Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon. It was going to be the big show. Nobody knew if ‘A Chorus Line’ was going to appeal to anyone outside the industry.”

She was “squeaking by” with temp work. “I was a chorus girl. I wasn’t an actress. I did the best I could with singing. I was just a dancer,” she said. “I very much needed a real income.”

Finally, producer Joseph Papp, who ran the New York Shakespeare Festival, took on the show, and an off-Broadway opening date of April 15, 1975, was set for The Public Theatre in lower Manhattan. And the rest, as they say, is history.

“We opened a week before ‘Chicago.’ None of us know what was going to happen. People went crazy! It blew everything else out of the water. We were a big fat hit show! I was lucky, lucky, lucky!” she said.

They were the hottest ticket in town. “Celebrities would come and they couldn’t get a ticket. People would sit on the steps and in the aisles,” she said.

She has such fond memories of everyone associated with the show. “They were all special people.”

So, how did a girl who grew up in the Bella Villa neighborhood of South St. Louis become the toast of Broadway?

Like her character, a man who sold dance lessons convinced her parents to sign her up. “That girl could be a star someday!” he told her parents. They bought the lessons and were happy she was happy. Tap, jazz, ballet – she just loved it all.

Starstruck, she wanted to be like Doris Day. But, she discovered she couldn’t sing.

“I didn’t want to grow up to be anything other than a dancer,” she said.

She was nearly 16 when she auditioned at the Muny in 1965, which had separate singing and dancing ensembles back then. She spent three summers in the Dance Ensemble. They would rehearse all day and perform at night.

She did not make the cut following auditions in 1966, the season Ron Field was choreographer, and that stung. But she was right back there at the next audition, working in 1967 and 1968.

She attended Webster University for a year. At age 21, she took the plunge – moved to New York City. Her first gig was in “Lil Abner” at the Paper Mill Playhouse.

In 1976, she went along west when other original cast members helped mount productions in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Then she moved on to TV work.

She was part of Mary Tyler Moore’s short-lived foray into a variety show format, which aired on CBS in 1978. The included Michael Keaton, David Letterman, Swoosie Kurtz and Dick Shawn. Although they taped 11 episodes, only three aired in September and October.

“It wasn’t very good. But she was great. She liked to hang out with the dancers,” she said. “She believed in hiring the best and letting them do their job. But she admitted she should have done more to turn the show around, the writing wasn’t good. She’s so talented. We had a roomful of talented people but the chemistry didn’t happen,” he said.

Baughman retired from dancing, and became more involved in hotel work in New York City, particularly group sales. She enjoyed working at the Essex House across from Central Park.

Johnson_Madison MJ
Madison Johnson plays Kristine in the current Muny production of “A Chorus Line.” James Prifti

“I loved the hotel business. It’s very high energy. It’s a tough job, though, and very competitive,” she said.

She moved back to St. Louis in 1994, and married Dick Wobbe, who worked in radio at Classic 99, the FM classical music station. She continued working in sales, including jobs at The Mayfair Hotel and The Westin.

From time to time, she will hear from “A Chorus Line” alumni. “Now that there is email and Facebook,” she said.

She participated in two reunions with original cast mates – at a Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch at the Paper Mill Playhouse in October 2012 and the 40th anniversary celebration at the Public Theatre in April 2015.

The cast of “Hamilton,” who was performing at The Public then, participated in a tribute after their curtain call. They sang “What I Did for Love” and Lin-Manuel Miranda introduced each original dancer, and asked them to join his cast on stage.

“He’s so humble,” Baughman said about meeting and talking with him.

“They invited us to see the show. My husband and I thought ‘we’re going to see a show about Alexander Hamilton with rap music?’ Oh my God, it’s unbelievable. It’s gripping, it hits you so hard. It keeps your interest through the whole thing – you are never not focused on the show,” she said.

For the Marvin Hamlisch tribute, former cast members participated in part of the “One” finale. They rehearsed the moves beforehand, and Renee can still kick up her heels.

But does she miss it?

She shook her head “No.”

Baughman has a lifetime of unforgettable memories, and knows she has inspired others to pursue those dreams, including the new cast she will meet at the Muny.

And like Miranda, she’s a tad humble about it, too.

“I think our cast was surprised to know we were such inspirations,” she said.

“A Chorus Line”

▪ Where: The Muny

▪ When: July 29 – Aug. 4

▪ Information: www.muny.org

▪ Box Office: 314-361-1900