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`A Chorus Line': lots of legs, but not much heart

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A string of young singers and dancers, each one dreaming of stardom, lines up across the front of a Broadway stage. Before them sits a tough-as-nails casting director who wants to peer beneath their talents into their lives, their personalities, maybe their very souls. One by one, as we look on, they bare their dreams, memories, and emotions in words and music. In the end some are chosen for a chance to realize their hopes. And some are not. That's the idea behind ``A Chorus Line.'' Onstage, it's the longest-running musical in Broadway history, with a Pulitzer Prize to its credit. Given such near-legendary success, it isn't surprising that many a filmmaker has pondered ways of translating it to the screen -- including such powerful talents as Mike Nichols and Sidney Lumet, and even Joseph Papp, a member of the original production's creative team.

But along with a financial stumbling block -- the high cost of royalties -- they ran into an artistic problem: how to make the show into a full-fledged movie in its own right, not just a photographed stage play.

The director who finally met this challenge head on, and carried the project all the way to completion, is far from the most likely candidate. Sir Richard Attenborough has built his filmmaking fame on epics like ``A Bridge Too Far'' and his Oscar-winning biography of Gandhi -- big, bulging pictures with hundreds of characters swarming through harsh landscapes in the service of Socially Conscious Cinema.

But song-and-dance movies can be socially conscious, too. Sir Richard knows this as well as anyone else, having started his directorial career in 1969 with ``Oh! What a Lovely War,'' a pacifist musical. So he took an interest in ``A Chorus Line'' when it crossed his path, with its potentially poignant portraits of young people longing for their own place in the world. And anyway, he told me recently, he was hoping for a change-of-pace picture between ``Gandhi'' and his next project, a drama with an an ti-apartheid slant.

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