Contracts, Collaboration and Copyright

‘Chorus Line’ Returns, as Do Regrets Over Life Stories Signed Away

On a snowy Saturday night in January 1974, after their curtain calls, 19 of Broadway’s best dancers gathered at the Nickolaus Exercise Center on East 23rd Street. They all sat in a circle on the floor. A tape recorder was turned on.

For the next 12 hours they spoke about their lives, telling stories of divorce, child abuse and the plight of the professional dancer. These tales, shaped by the choreographer Michael Bennett, would become the foundation of “A Chorus Line,” one of the most successful musicals of all time.

The dancers who told their stories that night sold them to Mr. Bennett for $1 each. And though Mr. Bennett later arranged for them to receive royalties from the show — at times up to $10,000 a year — they have always questioned whether they have been fairly compensated and acknowledged.

[…] The legality of the arrangements is not an issue. “At one point, when we were young and stupid, we kind of signed our lives away, and they exploited that,” said Wayne Cilento, who played the role of Mike in the original production. But reflecting the feelings of some of the other dancers, he added, “We were the authors of the show, and we should have been paid accordingly.”

The question of authorship on any collaboration can be tricky. There is no doubt that the dancers provided most of the stories, and in some cases large chunks of their words show up verbatim in the show. There is also no doubt that it was primarily Mr. Bennett who took 20 hours of interviews and had the vision to shape them into a groundbreaking musical.

“There never would have been ‘A Chorus Line’ without Michael,” said Kelly Bishop, who told her story in the character of Sheila, “but there never would have been ‘A Chorus Line’ without us, either.”