What It’s Like to Watch the Groundlings’ Most Famous Alumni Stage a Full-Blown Musical in Only 24 Hours

For the benefit of those affected by the actors’ strike, Will Forte, Ana Gasteyer, Michaela Watkins, Kristen Wiig and many others gathered together to put on a version of ‘A Chorus Line’ in a day’s time
What It’s Like to Watch the Groundlings’ Most Famous Alumni Stage a Full-Blown Musical in Only 24 Hours

It was 7:10 p.m., and the audience was getting antsy. Outside the Glorya Kaufman Performing Arts Center, more people kept walking up to the glass doors, vainly trying to get inside, forcing one of the event’s poor volunteers to repeatedly explain, “Sorry, we’re not opening the house yet — we don’t want to ruin the surprise.” The not-knowing was precisely the reason everybody was in such a rush to take their seats. 

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On Thursday, a sold-out crowd was on hand in Los Angeles to witness One Night Only, an event put on by the Groundlings to benefit the Motion Picture & Television Fund, which, according to its website, “has provided a critical safety net to the entertainment community for over 100 years.” The recently resolved writers’ strike and the ongoing actors’ strike have brought attention to the need for fair compensation in those fields, but tonight’s show was to help the MPTF raise money for those also affected by these work stoppages — namely, the grips, costume designers, makeup artists, cinematographers and other so-called below-the-line talent that work on productions. 

The concept for One Night Only was simple: Some of the Groundlings’ most famous alumni, alongside current company players, would put on a musical in the approximately 300-seat venue, one that director Andrew Leeds wouldn’t reveal to his cast until about 48 hours before the event. (They found out which character they’d be playing on Wednesday.) As for the audience, we wouldn’t know what we’d be watching until we got sat down, although we knew the people we were going to see: Will Forte, Ana Gasteyer, Michaela WatkinsKristen Wiig, among many others, all of whom barely had time to prepare for whatever show they were about to put on. 

The mystery performance was scheduled to start at 8 p.m., although Leeds, who’s part of the Groundlings’ main company, came out to introduce the evening a half-hour later, speaking to an intimate audience filled with industry insiders. Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson were there. Susanna Hoffs and Jay Roach. Chris PinePedro PascalRon Perlman. And that’s to say nothing of the less-famous voice actors, comedians, producers and other movers-and-shakers in the room. (The buzz of schmoozy conversations all around me before the show was unmistakable.) “I chose this show for three reasons,” Leeds told the crowd. “I wanted to find a show that was just a great, great show. … I wanted to find something that would completely fucking terrifying these people — which it did, and it terrified me, too. … And then I wanted to do something that felt relevant for what the situation is — this is a show that’s about people who love to do what they do … and I think it applies to everybody in this industry. We’re all here because we love it.” 

I couldn’t have been the only person who immediately knew what we were about to see, and soon the opening strains of Marvin Hamlisch’s score for A Chorus Line burst to life. 

The appeal of the one-night-only conceit is obvious: Let’s throw a lot of insanely talented improvisers into a chaotic situation and see if they sink or swim. As Leeds, who’s done One Night Only occasionally at the Groundlings, put it in the evening’s showbill about the first time he staged such an event, “I think I really just wanted to see my friends shit their pants. And it was one of the most joyous experiences of my life — watching these fearless performances be taken back to that time in their lives when they first stepped onto a stage and didn’t have the confidence they do today.”

But one of the things that made this One Night Only so exuberant is that, by any reasonable metric, this was a pretty terrific version of A Chorus Line, albeit with the built-in restrictions imposed upon the production. Sure, actors muffed their lines. Some of them couldn’t hit the high notes. The choreography was often a shambles. A couple performers had to fight from breaking. But the production didn’t try to spoof or parody A Chorus Line. This wasn’t a gimmicky sendup. And the running joke of the evening wasn’t “Watch us butcher this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic!” — it was “Look how good of a job we did with barely any prep time.” In the process, some of the funniest people on Earth got to show off a range they’ve rarely been afforded in their actual careers. “You’re gonna have the best night of your life,” an usher enthused to me as I walked into the theater. She wasn’t far off.

What helps, of course, is that A Chorus Line is, as Leeds said, a great musical. Even if you’ve never seen it on stage or on the big screen, you probably know several of its songs simply by existing in the culture. Its plot couldn’t be more compelling or straightforward: a group of Broadway hopefuls audition for a musical, many of them telling us their backstory. And while the material is inherently dramatic, the book is often quite funny, giving this cast plenty of opportunities to show off their natural comic timing.

Still, running about two-and-a-half hours, this A Chorus Line was a sizable undertaking. After the show, Leeds admitted that some in the company weren’t that familiar with the musical. And while the new Glorya Kaufman Performing Arts Center is a beautiful space with great sightlines, the stage is only so big for such a large cast that’s often dancing and moving around. (The seven-piece band, as well as the conductor, were backstage.) Factor in costume changes and other last-minute logistics — about an hour before the show started, I spotted Tim Bagley applying his makeup in the lobby bathroom mirror — and it’s understandable why Leeds didn’t want the audience in the theater too early. They needed every possible second available to them.

Not that the audience was going to nitpick the details. As soon as A Chorus Line began, demanding director Zach (Jim Rash) putting the dancers through their paces, the crowd greeted the cast like conquering heroes. Live in L.A. for a spell and go to enough shows starring your actor friends’ buddies and you’ll notice this phenomenon: Industry folks cheer differently, more passionately, for their pals, offering their support from the crowd. It was a similar vibe Thursday night, creating a palpable connection between performers and audience. The people around me weren’t just applauding the actors — they were rooting them on. They’re all part of the same community, all sharing in the experience.

For an outsider, that vibe might seem obnoxiously chummy — akin to when a stand-up is just doing jokes to impress his comic buddies in the back of the room — but this A Chorus Line captured what’s best about a great night at the Groundlings, where the performers’ eagerness and commitment to putting on a good show feels inclusive and inviting. That’s especially important when you’re playing struggling dancers so desperate for a job that they’ll do anything to impress Zach. No matter how famous the cast members were — friend-of-the-Groundlings Kristen Bell was also one of the night’s big names — they never acted superior to their characters. Partly, that might have been because the One Night Only format inevitably instills a deep amount of uncertainty — it probably wasn’t hard for the cast to embody these dancers’ anxiety as they tried to remember their lines and steps. But although mistakes were unavoidable, nobody relished in their screwups. Instead, everybody was determined to deliver a great evening, to not be the ensemble’s weak link. Especially if you’re a star, you don’t want to eat it on stage in front of your peers.

Not surprisingly, then, that worry rarely materialized. Forte did a great “I Can Do That,” his solid but unspectacular dancing and singing only adding to his character Mike’s vulnerability at being the first person that Zach calls on to talk about himself. Watkins brought her chameleonic talents to Diana, who became a dancer after finding acting pretentious, offering one of the show’s early highlights with her rendition of “Nothing.” Playing a Puerto Rican character without overdoing the accent, Watkins exuded the same total-pro unfussiness she always conveys, which is why she’s perpetually underrated as a comedian. 

That sentiment dominated the night as one actor after another got their moment in the spotlight, blindsiding us with their virtuosity. Bagley broke hearts delivering Paul’s emotional monologue about being gay and performing drag as a young man, which put him in conflict with his conservative parents. A Chorus Line is mostly high-energy singing and dancing, an ideal crowd-pleaser, but that extended story Paul tells intentionally stops the momentum cold — it’s an acknowledgement that, back in the mid-1970s when the show was created, life as a LGBTIQA+ individual was even more fraught than it is today. On a night filled with laughs — often because of the musical itself, sometimes because a cast member had flubbed some dialogue, having to improvise their way out of a mistake — Bagley stayed true to Paul’s difficult tale, letting the character’s slow opening-up take as long as necessary, building to a gut-punch of an ending. We’ve all seen Bagley in plenty of films and TV shows, but I can’t recall him ever being as affecting as he was on this night. 

Keeping the evening rolling along was Rash, who as Zach literally directed the proceedings, asking questions of these different dancers, Rash periodically assisting if an actor couldn’t remember their line, trying his best to make the screwup seem organic. (As it so happened, he was positioned in the audience nearby me, which only added to the sense that we were all working together to will this A Chorus Line into existence.) And although it was only natural for your eye to be drawn to the most famous performers, or your personal favorites, nobody pulled focus — appropriate for a show in which everyone auditioning for the chorus line is equal in their desire to be selected. Even when One Night Only’s highlight moment occurred, featuring arguably the night’s biggest star, it felt merely one piece of a very entertaining whole. 

That said, it’s going to be hard to forget how terrific Wiig was as Cassie, the once-breakout star who left Broadway behind for Hollywood, only to come crawling back after being chewed up and spat out. She’d been a dance soloist in New York, but now she just wants a modest part in the chorus line, much to the shock of Zach, with whom she’d once had a stormy romantic relationship. Cassie’s signature moment in A Chorus Line is “The Music and the Mirror,” a plaintive song-and-dance number about the pure joy of being able to perform for someone, to be valued for your art. It’s a song about loving what you do and wanting an outlet in which to do it.

On paper, Cassie is the sort of character that Wiig wickedly skewered on Saturday Night Live: a has-been holding onto her dreams, a deluded prima donna who doesn’t realize her moment has passed. (I’m thinking specifically of Mindy Elise Grayson, her ruthlessly mean take on an aging, high-maintenance 1960s Broadway actress.) But Wiig didn’t mock Cassie, instead honoring the character’s desire to be seen. I think a lot of performers can appreciate Cassie’s plight — especially in the middle of a long strike — and fittingly Wiig sang “The Music and the Mirror” without a trace of irony. In a certain light, Cassie’s lyrics might seem pathetic because of their neediness — “Give me somebody to dance for / Give me somebody to show / Let me wake up in the morning to find / I have somewhere exciting to go” — but Wiig played it touchingly straight. 

And then, during the song’s extended instrumental section, she danced in front of a series of wall-length mirrors at the back of the stage, incorporating moves she’s done before for laughs alongside steps that were graceful, poised and confident. I’ve been a fan of Wiig’s for a long time, aware from The Skeleton Twins that she’s adept at drama as well, but I’ve never seen her do anything like this. Sexy and funny, but always accomplished and in control, Wiig suggested what was deeply sad about Cassie’s neediness but, also, what was inspiring. Wiig’s movements were delightful, but they weren’t satiric — she let Cassie be ridiculous because, deep down, maybe all actors are ridiculous in their unhealthy craving of the spotlight. As an actress, Wigg had never blurred the line so deftly between herself and a role. She wasn’t creating a safe distance from which to judge Cassie — she was Cassie — and the occasional uncertainty in her seemingly improvised movements only underlined the fragility of putting yourself out there for an audience, wanting their applause while fearing their scorn. 

A Chorus Line is about people laying themselves bare in the name of what they love to do, and that’s what tonight’s show was all about, too. No one expressed that better, or more astonishingly, than Wiig in that moment.

One Night Only inevitably had its so-so moments, but the company’s let’s-put-on-a-show energy was contagious. So was the laughter — watching stars trying their best, and not always getting there, is a heartwarming, amusing sight. If they’d had more time to rehearse — if they went on to do more shows — of course it would have been tighter and more polished. But I walked away from the evening unconvinced that it would have been better. The good cheer that everybody from Nat Faxon to Michelle Noh to Jim Cashman to Julian Gant to Andrew Friedman to Stephenie Courtney to Jordan Black brought to the night — focused but also loose-limbed, up for anything — underlined what was also great about One Night Only’s conceit. Tonight would only happen once, and nobody who wasn’t there will ever understand what a treat it was. (This was the kind of crowd that doesn’t whip out their cellphones to record videos.) Nobody but the 300 or so of us who saw Wiig dance will know that it happened. 

When the show ended, Ted Danson was the first person to leap to his feet to applaud. The rest of the crowd soon followed suit. We were all in it together. At the start of the night, a clearly exhausted Leeds confided, “This was a stupid, stupid thing to do.” 

Turns out, it was just what was needed.

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