A CHORUS LINE, conceived, choreographed, and directed by Michael Bennett. Book by James Kirkwood and. Nicholas Dante. Music by Marvin Hamlisch. lyrics by Edward Kleban. Setting by Robin Wagner. Costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge. Lighting by Tharon Musser. Music I Direction by Don Pippin and Tom Hancock. At the Shubert Theater through May 13.

THE GREAT AMERICAN BACKSTAGE MUSICAL Book by Bill Solly and Donald Ward. Music and lyrics by Bill Solly. Directed by Herb Mandell. Musical direction by Roger Grodsky. Choreography by Agnes Strecker. Set by Ron Placzek. Costumes by Tina Bindman. lighting by Jude Erwin. With Jeanette Worthen, Paul Jackel, Deborah Cummings, Rick Sosny, Edward Jacobs, and Linda Cameron. At the Boston Comedy Playhouse Thursdays through Saturdays through June 2.

Musicals about musicals have certain advantages. Just in terms of dramatic credibility, it's far more likely that a play's characters would suddenly burst into song-and-dance if they're Broadway chorines -- like A Chorus Line's lineup -- or struggling vaudevilleans -- like the people in The Great American Backstage Musical -- than if they're cotton farmers or presidential candidates: Who can dispute that it's easier for a composer to be tuneful on the subject of show-biz romance than to write melodies about farm subsidies or political conventions? Besides, the glamorous lives - real or imagined - of theater people are as much a part of musical-comedy mythology as singing ghosts and happy endings. And the ability to bring that mythology out on stage lends the backstage musical the instant here-and-now unity good theater needs. All of which just goes to explain why A Chorus Line and The Great American Backstage Musical have no trouble being the best musicals Boston’s seen in some time.

A Chorus Line you know - it's in its second sold-out visit to the Shubert in 15 months. You probably haven't heard of The Great American Backstage Musical, playing at the 80-seat Boston Comedy Playhouse (former home of the Boston Shakespeare Co.), though it has a modestly distinguished history. It is the creation of Canadian team Bill Solly and Donald Ward, whose other works include the off-Broadway hit Boy Meets Boy (corny title notwithstanding, an excellent, funny Rodgers-and-Hart-like show). TGABM opened in Los Angeles, did well, and was subsequently produced in San Francisco and London; but it was not seen on the East Coast until director Herb Mandell selected it for his Boston Comedy Playhouse's debut production.

Set in the early' 40s, TGABM unravels a typical, all-purpose plot peopled with characters based on movie musical stars of the' 30s. Johnny Brash is the Dick Powell-like songwriter who owns a grungy Greenwich Village bar, where he puts on "The Pocket Revue" to showcase his "sophisticated" -- and largely unnoticed -- material. His cohorts include Kelly Moran, who doubles as sweetheart Ruby Keeler to Johnny's Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers to Harry-the-hoofer's Fred Astaire. Then there are the sidekicks, happy-go-lucky Banjo (shades of Donald O'Connor) and Sylvia, the tough-talkin' tootsie a la Joan Blondell. (Which character you associate with which type all depends, of course, on which old movies you've seen.)

Harry, it seems, is in love with Kelly, but she's so smitten with Johnny that she won't have him - not even when he reveals that his real name is Harrison Cartwright III and that he stands to inherit five million bucks the day he marries. Kelly will, however, accept Harry's offer to finagle her an audition for the Shuberts - singing one of Johnny's songs. The Shuberts couldn't care less about Johnny's song, but want Kelly for a part in Bluebirds of 1939. Meanwhile, Johnny is fielding more propositions than he can handle from Constance Duquette, an English operetta star who has shown up at "The Pocket Revue" by chance and then spirited Johnny away to offer him a job. . . and more. ("I thought we were going to talk about my songs," says he. "You are your songs," she cries. "Let me sing you !") When Johnny finds out that Kelly won't take the Broadway job out of loyalty to him, however, he decides to sail back to London with Constance rather than let Kelly blow her chance at the big time. Both become stars overnight, but - alas! - they have sacrificed their love for success.

I hope you're counting the musical-comedy cliches in this story, because I lost track. And there are more to come: Constance and Harry were once lovers and have a mock-hostile reunion; when war breaks out, Johnny and Banjo join the Army to entertain the troops; Constance tells Kelly there was nothing between herself and Johnny and that he really loves her; Kelly visits wounded Johnny at an Army field hospital; they all get back to New York and, no doubt, live happily ever after. Solly and Ward skillfully - not to mention tunefully - make the inevitability of these cliches part of the fun.

The trick of the show is its triple-level reality. In one sense, it is a traditional book-musical (similar to Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend) about show people whose songs also reflect their lives. ('No news is bad news,” croon the spiteful ex-lovers, “and bad news is good news of you.”) But all the musical numbers are presented as part of “The Pocket Revue.” This is made explicit at the very beginning – when a song starts, the furniture flies out, the spotlight flicks on, and we’re onstage at Johnny's Bar. Standing at Johnny's wartime bedside, Kelly peers across the footlights and says. “Soldier. do you know 'Cheerio'?" "Yes, ma'am," replies the offstage pianist, and they go right into the song. The revue's diversity recalls Ben Bagley's off-Broadway "Shoestring Revues" in the '50s; there are madcap novelty tunes ("I Got the What? (The Bug)"), Cole Porter-ish list songs ("Crumbs in My Bed," "I Could Fall in Love") and lush ballads ("Star of the Show"). Embracing both the peripatetic story of these six characters and Johnny Brash's stationary "Pocket Revue" is Solly and Ward's The Great American Backstage Musical, which comments on all the proceedings in songs like "(Nobody Listens to the) Opening Number": "They're checking out the hair/They’re checking out the clothes/They're checking out the nationality of each and every nose.” This play-within-a- play-within-a-play structure is clever and quite simple (probably simpler to watch than to describe), and I don't think it's ever been done like this before.

At the Boston Comedy Playhouse, TGABM is not as well-performed as one could hope. Some technical raggedness is acceptable, even required - both the show and the show-within-the-show are intended as low-budget ventures. But Edward Jacobs and Linda Cameron are not commanding enough in the leading roles of Johnny Brash and Constance Duquette; both are a little too young, a little too nervous and therefore too busy; Cameron has particular trouble making her thin, wobbly soprano carry over the four-piece orchestra (twin pianos, reeds and percussion). After a slow start, Deborah Cummings's Kelly and Paul Jackel's Harry get better (appropriately) when they're on Broadway and in uniform, respectively. The smallest parts are, ironically, the most well-played. Rick Sosny is clearly a very talented dancer and comic, though he gets left out a lot as Banjo; and, to borrow a line from A Chorus Line, Jeanette Worthen gives Sylvia just the right style - very '30s. Worthen is instantly lovable, partly because she gets the best lines. "As soon as he heard I was working in Greenwich Village, he invited me back to his hotel room," she complains of a slimy, 300- pound producer. "I told him to go pick on somebody his own size - like the Andrews Sisters." However, she's also an astonishing singer; after sitting out most of the second act, she returns with a rendition of the torch song "I'll Wait for Joe" four times more thrilling than the current Cassie's version of "The Music and the Mirror," A Chorus Line's custom-made -show-stopper.

TGABM is scheduled for a lengthy run, during which, perhaps, the individual kinks will be ironed out. The ensemble work is already swell. In a space that exacts great directorial resourcefulness, Herb Mandell succeeds in keeping his staging carefully scaled, so that the slightest expansion becomes spectacular; this is essential when turning a crummy dressing room inside out for the hilarious Busby Berkeley-style production number that closes act one, "When the Money Comes In.”

A Chorus Line is, of course, the great American backstage musical to many people -- including those who give out Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards, and New York Drama Critics Awards. It's no wonder. Michael Bennett's conception of the show - an audition in which 24 dancers compete for eight positions in a Broadway chorus - is simply perfect. The stage is bare except for a white line taped across the floor; the drab back wall reverses to become a wall of studio mirrors. The director takes his place unseen in the balcony, and the leotarded aspirants stand before him - and us - nervous, composed, anxious: it is Judgment Day on Shubert Alley. Goaded to tell something about themselves, they will bare their souls; put through their paces, they will dance their best. But when it's all over -- and we watch every step of the way -- only eight are left to toe that line.

It has always seemed to me that A Chorus Line is really about working, and that this is why it communicates so universally. I suspect that more people think more often about their work than about any other subject; it's a concern that elicits a stronger identification and a more satisfying brand of self-pity than, say, worrying about your love life. And what distinguishes A Chorus Line from other show-biz musicals is that it focuses not on the stars but on the "chorus kids," the freelance" gypsies" whose employment, security and compensation are comparatively minute: You don't have to be an out-of-work dancer to empathize with the struggle to survive in a tight marketplace or the confusion and guilt of being idle ("Give me a job and you instantly get me involved/ Give me a job and the rest of the crap will get solved"). Yet, as one character indicates when asked why she puts up with the constant rejection and humiliation of these auditions, there's an undeniable thrill in being able to describe your occupation as "dancing in a Broadway show." The glamor of doing even a faceless hitch-kick behind a tacky music-hall star tempers the workaday drudgery; and A Chorus Line shrewdly idealizes the Protestant work ethic in a way that a more direct examination -- for example, Working, the musical based on Studs Terkel's documentary - could not. 

A Chorus Line is not a documentary, although it originated in a series of rap sessions director Michael Bennett held with groups of Broadway dancers; having settled on a subject and a structure, Bennett turned over tapes of the sessions to Nicholas Dante and novelist James Kirkwood, whose contribution is less than perfect. The details of the characters' lives, even when stated in encounter-group jargon, mostly ring true -- the lonely childhood, the uncertain sexuality, the inborn exhibitionism, the incessant fretting about age and physical appearance - but when Kirkwood and Dante strain for drama, they often end up with mawkish melodrama. The bickering byplay between egomaniacal director Zach and his former protégée/lover, Cassie, is true bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. And while the tale told by the sensitive Puerto Rican homosexual, Paul, about his career as a teenaged drag performer, is moving and emotionally complex, its placement as the show's dramatic high light reduces it to a simple sob story. Besides, I rather doubt that anyone would spill such a painful story at an audition, and the way Zach bullies him into telling it seems ludicrous - as if he were asking, "Have you suffered enough... to dance?" For all its semblance of backstage verite, A Chorus Line's characterizations are as contrived and sentimental as those filtered through the Hollywood dream machine in The Great American Backstage Musical.

Rooting out imperfections in A Chorus Line or discussing its hidden agendas are, I suppose, indirect methods of stalking the secret of the show's phenomenal success - which is foolish, because that's no secret at all. Though he gets valuable help from the aforementioned authors, Marvin Hamlisch's (unjustly maligned) score, Edward Kleban's witty lyrics, Robin Wagner's sleek set, and Tharon Musser's stark lighting, Michael Bennett is responsible for conceiving a metaphor as pure and simple as that perfect white line the dancers return to again and again, and for putting it onstage with such brilliant theatricality. A Chorus Line aficionados will want to know that, in the current Boston cast, Cassie (Wanda Richert) and Zach (Anthony S. Teague) are sub-par, particularly in the acting department; Morales (Diane Fratantoni) is just all right, while Paul (Stephen Crenshaw) is low-keyed and excellent; and Sheila (Rita O'Connor), Val (Lisa Embs), and Judy (Pamela Ann Wilson) are all especially good. But, as with TGABM, the show's definitely the thing, and it works like a charm.

Boston Phoenix, 1979