Saturday, March 17, 2018

Tony Award-Winner ("A Chorus Line") Sammy Williams Passes Away At 69

Very sad to report that Sammy Williams, Tony Award-winner for his groundbreaking performance as gay dancer "Paul San Marco" in the original production of A Chorus Line, has passed away at the age of 69.

In addition to the Tony Award, Williams was honored with the Obie Award and a Special Theatre World Award for his stunning work.

While Michael Bennett's edgy, "internal/external" direction and choreography advanced the art of Broadway story-telling by light years, Williams' monologue chronicling "Paul's" difficult teen years as a young gay man was the definition of pure theatre.

Standing in a spotlight with practically no movement at all, the heart-breaking and painfully authentic journey of "Paul" drew audiences in with just the power of his voice.

The one sly theatrical technique Bennett employed during the segment - a long, slow, almost indiscernible 90-second lighting cue that brought all the stage lights down save for that one spotlight. Paired with Williams' brilliant performance, audiences were powerless to avoid the emotional impact of the scene.

It's no exaggeration to say Sammy's performance in A Chorus Line changed lives.

Audiences gay and straight had rarely seen such a raw, authentic portrayal of a gay man on the Broadway stage before his Tony Award-winning performance. For many gay men it was heart-stopping to see our lives presented without any pulled punches.

Williams' was only 26 when he first played San Marco, and although he had previously performed on Broadway in Applause, Seesaw and The Happy Time, this - amazingly - was his first speaking role.

Longtime fans of the show might be surprised to know that Williams' life story actually appeared in the musical but not in the role of San Marco.

During the now-famous "tape recorded sessions" of dancers, Williams shared that in his childhood, when his sister announced she didn't feel like going to dance class, he told his parents "I can do that!" and so was born the role of "Mike Costa" and the song "I Can Do That!"

Original cast member and dance captain Baayork Lee shared her condolences on Facebook: "My heart is sad this morning as I learned Sammy Williams, original Paul in A Chorus Line, has gone on his journey into the light. Sammy and I spent so much time together between our ACL workshops and sharing our experiences. R.I.P. Fly and soar as you did here."

On a personal note, I spent years touring in the national company of A Chorus Line, for the most part in the role of "Mark" standing next to "Paul." From my first production in 1985 to my last in 2015 (as choreographer), the power of the show never failed move me.

A Chorus Line opened at the Shubert Theater on July 25, 1975, and played 6,137 performances, becoming Broadway’s longest-running production until 1997, when Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats surpassed that number.

Williams returned to the Shubert Theatre on September 29, 1983, for A Chorus Line's record-breaking performance.

Below, watch a portion of Williams leading a "greek chorus" of "Pauls" in his Tony Award-winning monologue at that special event.

From the original Broadway cast recording, Williams offered the audience foreshadowing of what was to come with "Who Am I Anyway?" at the end of the opening number.

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