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A Chorus Line

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, its last moments, and we're swelling with anticipation. All night we've felt for these kids, desperate to be hired into the cookie-cutter chorus line of the show for which they're auditioning. Now, after coming to understand them as individuals, we're about to see them fulfill their ultimate goal: to become a single unit.

And so begins one of the great finales in American musical theater, backed at first by only a piano. Out comes a lone gold-tuxedoed man, dancing across the stage. He takes a bow, then turns and dances with his back to the audience as another man steps from the wings to bow and turn, then another, and on and on. Enter the dancing women, one by one, gold-topped and all leg.

Finally, 19 performers swirl across the stage with meticulously coordinated precision. "One . . . singular sensation," they sing, "ev'ry little step she takes. One . . . thrilling combination, ev'ry move that she makes." The Marvin Hamlisch tune is apt to commandeer your brain for days.

A Chorus Line, whose national-revival tour opens tonight at the Forrest Theatre for a three-week run, ends in a spectacular line of kicking legs, top hats, and shiny gold threads - a rich theatrical flute of sparkling human champagne. Even as the lights fade, the cast continues to kick high, into complete darkness, into the future.

Three blocks east of the Forrest, another bang-up finale unfolds each evening. It's not as iconic as A Chorus Line's, but if there's such a thing as a classic modern finale, Hairspray has one. The Walnut Street Theatre's production, with three weeks to go in its two-month run, ends by erupting in a frenzied dance to a song that summons a future of irreversible change.

"You can't stop the motion of the ocean or the rain from above," the cast declares. "You can try to stop the paradise we're dreaming of. But you cannot stop the rhythm of two hearts in love to stay. 'Cause you can't stop the beat!"

A musical finale can be a majestic punch line, for sure, but the two finales being delivered nightly in Center City are more than just big bah-dum drumbeats to an elaborate two-hour setup - each sends you packing with a strong feeling for the show.

In A Chorus Line, aspiration has become reality, and the goal of subverting one's individuality in the cause of perfect symmetry is its own worthy distinction. In Hairspray, the advent of television, a new youth culture, the burgeoning civil rights movement, and a reassessment of right and wrong and what beautiful means - all are reshaping American culture. And, as the song says, you can't stop the beat.

Though musical finales generally aim for uplift, there's no one-finale-fits-all formula. In fact, A Chorus Line and Hairspray, both dance-themed shows, achieve their ends by wholly different means: A Chorus Line's "One" features no one, while everyone in Hairspray gets a last-word solo in "You Can't Stop the Beat."

"In Hairspray, the finale wraps up every single solitary character. Whether they're pro the themes all evening or anti, they all have a culmination," says its director, Charles Abbott, who has staged hundreds of musicals, many at the Walnut. "The show is about change on a number of levels. Liking yourself, being true to yourself, knowing your self-worth, all those things are going on in the show and the finale - plus the idea that you can dream big and achieve."

Originally, every featured character in A Chorus Line was to have a solo verse in the last number, an idea its creative guru, the late Michael Bennett, (luckily) never got around to realizing with his team before opening night. In fact, the show, which shattered musical conventions when it opened at New York's Public Theatre in 1975 before moving to Broadway, had no ending at all until the last minute.

"We were in rehearsal for a year and never got around to the finale," says Bob Avian, who won one of A Chorus Line's nine Tonys as co-choreographer. He directed the Broadway revival that closed in August after nearly two years, as well as the touring production now at the Forrest.

"We hadn't put it together until three days before the dress rehearsal," he recalls. "But we knew sections of it because we were pulling them from different shows we'd done. We start with the bows, then the strut we did in such and such a show . . . then pull back in the circle, because we did it in a show before. It was one of those things that just comes together."

Both A Chorus Line and Hairspray send you home with a smile and a sense of life's promise. But the notion that a musical must end on an upbeat note has long since been overturned. A few examples: South Pacific, now in its first Broadway revival, concludes with an intimate reunion scene, not a happy-face production number; in Fiddler on the Roof, the mournful leave-taking chorus, "Anatevka," dwindles to a single violin; and West Side Story - to be revived on Broadway this season - calls for handkerchiefs to accompany its famous wistful, repeated two-note ending.

Sometimes, a finale is little more than a summary, delivered through reprises of songs. A Chorus Line's "One" is an oddball reprise, sung earlier in the show, but only as a device for the auditioning hoofers to display their teamwork skills; it's only full blown when it becomes the finale.

Two other productions now playing locally end with traditional reprise finales: The Music Man, at New Candlelight Theatre in Ardentown, Del., brings back "76 Trombones," to tie up the plot with a neat musical ribbon. And Media Theatre's Oliver! concludes with three reprised songs, sung with hope for the boys who've spent the length of the show in squalor.

In the end, what matters is that you are left with some feeling of closure - and some feeling, period. Says Hairspray's Abbott: "The writers have created it but you're re-creating it, so you hope you've gone through A and B and C in order to get to the point that everyone understands what's happening.

"And you're making sure you finish the story you set out to tell so that the audience has an emotional response. You are looking to move people humorously, dramatically, intensely, sadly" - a lot of possibilities, he agrees - "but you're looking to move them."

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http:// go.philly.com/howardshapiro.