Friend of the podcast Sharrod Williams (CATS, Tuck Everlasting) shares his A Chorus Line journey, including his wonderful experience playing Richie at The Muny this summer.
The musical A Chorus Line has a very special place in my heart. I was first introduced to the show in 2011 as a senior at Montclair State University. I was a dance major and decided that Fall semester I wanted to get my feet wet in Musical Theatre. I auditioned for the show with hopes of simply being a dancer in the background and was cast as the role of Richie. I never saw it coming and actually tried to decline the role. Clay James, the Musical Theatre Dept. Chair at the time, personally sought me out with the support of the Dance Dept. Chair Lori to convince me to do the show. I ironically ended up being my own agent and negotiated to have a double in the role because I was afraid of being overwhelmed with Dance program rehearsals, RA duties, and teaching at a local dance studio on the weekends. In the end, I accepted the role and doing the show completely changed my life. As I always say, I got bit by the Musical Theatre bug. It was the first time I realized I may be meant to do more than just dance.
During the Spring of 2012, I booked professional jobs in both concert dance and theatre that would keep me busy all summer long after graduation. I wasn’t sure exactly where my heart was most but I was along for the ride. I was away working at Park Playhouse in Albany, New York when I found out there was a national tour of A Chorus Line being set by the legendary Baayork Lee heading out in the Fall. I ended up skipping the audition overwhelmed by the idea of driving to NYC and back, potentially being late or missing the show that evening. I was upset at the timing but I prayed every day for a second chance. In September, I headed home to New Jersey and checked playbill.com every day for audition notices. One day my chance finally came and Wojick/Seay Casting put out a breakdown still seeking specific characters for the tour including Richie. I went to the audition, completed both the jazz and ballet rounds, and sang “Gimme the Ball” all in one day. As I got off the train to New Jersey that afternoon, my phone rang and the General Manager said to me, “Congratulations, you are being offered the role of Richie! You must be an incredible performer because never have I had to reach out to a person immediately after an audition with an offer.” I cried as I walked to my car to drive home. It was my first BIG BREAK so to speak.
Baayork Lee passed down the gift of the show and we received the full A Chorus Line experience. She had worked so closely with the original creatives, Michael Bennett and Marvin Hamlisch, that it almost felt like we were working with them as well as her. We learned the show in 2 weeks flat. We started each day with the “Baayork warm up” for about an hour to get into shape. She took time to have one-on-one sessions with each of us to share the background history of our characters. We learned about the tape sessions that started it all, how the dancers sold their stories for very little money, and how the show grew to be a historical phenomenon. I had some of the best times of my career and life on the road with that cast and crew. Baayork Lee’s version of the show was all I knew and I was indeed married to the idea of doing the original choreography.
When I heard the announcement that the MUNY was doing A Chorus Line in its 99th Season, I immediately assumed Baayork Lee would be setting it. The MUNY Casting Director, Megan Larche worked on casting the 2006 Revival with Baayork and the team so it just made sense in my brain. I soon found out it would be an entirely new production being set by Denis Jones. I was nervous and intrigued all at the same time. I didn’t know that you could successfully get the rights to the show without doing the original version in its entirety. I had previously worked at the MUNY in the 2015 season and it is one of my favorite places in every way. So, I reached out to casting and got an audition. I ended up booking the role of Richie Walters amongst an incredible cast of triple threats. I was even more excited because I hadn’t done the role in 4 years, I was a completely different performer, and I had literally aged into the role.
The MUNY takes such pride in maintaining the historical excellence of a show while giving it a layer of outdoor theatre magic. Denis Jones is the real deal. Day 1 of rehearsal, he made it very clear that our goal was to “honor the show using what’s on the page.” Performing at the MUNY is a unlike any other theatre. Mounting a show in about 11 days takes a high level of discipline and willingness to dive into the work with no fear. The familiarity with the show amongst the cast ranged from first timers having never done it to veterans who have done it two or more times previously. This show specifically is built on the stories of real people. Each role has something we all can relate to. The message is always relevant because its based on the true ins and outs of living life as an artist. It’s about being honest and using exactly what’s written. It’s shocking how similar my life is to Richie’s. I went to college undeclared in any major and on scholarship. I also found what I was meant to do later in life. So, in a way, I am sharing a part of my own journey as well. His feature number, “Gimme The Ball” was not over choreographed and Denis told me he wanted to ensure that I could tell the story. Initially, I thought I needed more to do with the notion that everyone will expect high belting and running around downstage. In the end, I am so grateful for Denis and his thought process. Within the 7-show run, I found a new sense of Richie. He became more smooth, big hearted, vibrant, and honest to me. I found that by simply “living on zero” and going the distance I could share him with the audience in a more grounded way. It was such a freeing discovery and one I will take with me throughout the rest of my career.
I am so grateful to be in the A Chorus Line “family.” This show is the gift that keeps on giving. It is a story that will never go out of style. Baayork Lee taught me that “What I Did for Love” is an anthem for all artists. It’s lyrics perfectly embody the truth of how we all feel as performers. We do this because we have to. We fight every single day for the dream and to be successful because we love it. The MUNY is one of the few places that has the production value, integrity, and ambition to take on making a new version of this masterpiece of a show. The run was beyond successful and anything I could have dreamed. Mike, Megan, Denis, Ben, and all departments could not have put together of a better reimagined version of this musical. It was an honor to be an apart of this new piece of history. The show will live on forever and I am excited for whatever is coming next. It’s “what I (do) for love."