The way John DeBoer sees it, "A Chorus Line" is a musical about the life and labor of everyday working people, even if the characters on stage are professional actors and dancers.
The way the play "connects the stories to everyday life allows everybody to see their own passion for work, their own passion of purpose, on stage," he said.
DeBoer, a faculty member in the University of Montana School of Theatre and Dance, is directing "Chorus," which begins the school's season.
The musical, by Nicholas Dante, Marvin Hamlisch, James Kirkwood Jr. and Edward Kleban, won both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1976.
It features a cast of about 26, most of whom play professional dancers and actors auditioning for a part.
They're interrogated by a director/choreographer, played by DeBoer, who's fallen in with the movement toward realism in acting that took hold in the 1970s.
He uses a "reflection process," in which the potential cast members draw on stories from their lives as professionals, who move from show to show in an itinerant fashion.
DeBoer said "A Chorus Line" marked a significant shift on Broadway.
At the time of its debut, upward of 50 musicals a year were produced. "Chorus" was the first to make a blockbuster run as long as it did, a startling 10 years. That success paved the way for bigger, glossier productions like "Les Miserables" and "Cats" instead of the old system of more shows.
Choreographer Michael Bennett held a workshop in the early 1970s with professional dancers and recorded them telling stories about their lives.
"All of the stories actually came from true stories of the lives of dancers who participated in the workshop. Some made it all the way to the production," DeBoer said.
Show business being show business, they had sold their stories, which fueled a massively profitable musical, for $1 each plus some royalties after "Chorus" became a hit.
The UM production, with a cast of students from the theater and dance programs in addition to a physics major and some other wild cards, hews faithfully to the original production.
"It's really hard to do much to 'Chorus Line,' " he said. They tried a few small flourishes, but abandoned them as rehearsals went on.
"It's such a well-constructed piece of drama and well-constructed piece of music that for the most part, we're just doing it the way they told us," he said.
That naturally includes many big dance numbers. "Chorus" is a joint production of the theater and dance programs.
The choreographers are dance faculty members Nicole Bradley Browning and Heidi Jones Eggert, who "had a blast" collaborating, Eggert said.
DeBoer said the songs "deconstruct musical theater and deconstruct the Broadway style of dance so that the audience can get into the process of how actors and dancers learn choreography."
Eggert concurred, saying: "We see that in the very opening number, which is one of the bigger production numbers. The entire cast is on stage and they're learning the dance material they're auditioning for."
She said it captures the vulnerability of the audition process, as some dancers are cut.
As the audience learns the characters' back stories, Eggert said it gives a view into "the passions that these performers have for their craft. It's their life. It's inseparable."
Personally, a favorite number of hers is "Montage," which comes at the end of the first act. "It's a collage of many different stories, meshed into one," she said.
"Choreographically, it was fun research and a great collaboration" between her and Browning, she said. They worked the students' interpretations of the character into the dance.
The score does as well: The final number is written in a "clashy jazz style," with harmony and disharmony, he said.
For the final number, all the cast members return to the stage, after which the house lights come on. This dance-heavy musical ends with a big song, but no curtain call.