NEW YORK — "God did not put me on this Earth to be a member of the chorus," says Gregg Burge, one member of the film version of "A Chorus Line" who has known little of the struggle associated with being a Broadway gypsy.
Burge, who also served as assistant choreographer to Jeffrey Hornaday on the film, has been steadily employed as a performer for 17 years, since age 10. At 27, he's already been featured in numerous television specials and in three Broadway musicals, including "Sophisticated Ladies," the 1981 show that brought him wide attention in New York. He is now appearing in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Song and Dance," as a street urchin who does one of the things Burge does best--tap dance.
Burge says he now has offers pending for two new Broadway musicals, as well as two non-musical film roles. And his performance as Richie in "A Chorus Line," in a new number written for the film--and for Burge--has inspired a rock video and negotiations with PolyGram for a solo album.
"I have never been in the chorus, I have never had bad reviews, I've never even been unemployed, but I have known rejection, which is really what the show and the movie is about," Burge said the other day in his dressing room at the Royale Theatre.
He said he also knows many performers, like those depicted in "A Chorus Line," who have not been as fortunate as he, especially during the recent hard times for the musical theater. However, Burge, who's as gregarious, expressive and ingratiating in person as he is on screen and on stage, maintains an extremely positive outlook--one he says has been fostered by religious faith.
"It can be frustrating and frightening," he says of the life of a song-and-dance performer. "And you need to love it to go on. But you've also got to be versatile and flexible and be prepared to come up with alternative game plans, because there are always obstacles put in our way. That's what this business is about. That's what life is about. That's what this film is about. You may not always get the part, but you keep trying."
By way of example, Burge cited his own career alternatives, including a dance studio bearing his name that he opened in his hometown on Long Island and that he plans to build into a franchise operation, "like Arthur Murray's. When I'm not working, or taking my own classes, I'll be teaching, and waiting for the next (job) opportunity," he said. "Everybody can't own a studio, but anyone can teach at one. At least, you should do something related to the business or your talents."
Burge also created a nightclub act that he performs in the little time he has had between stage and screen roles. "I set goals I want to reach, and when I reach them, I move onto something else. For me, everything is a career move.
"From age 10, I've wanted to be a song-and-dance man," he said. "But it took six years and a lot of TV commercials before the first opportunity came along"--as an understudy to Hinton Battle in the role of the Scarecrow in the Broadway musical "The Wiz."
"I remember it very clearly," he said, recalling the open audition he attended in response to a newspaper ad. "I felt just like Richie: very green and very out of my league, and a little humiliated by the attitude of those who were auditioning us. They flipped when they saw me dance, but they said I was too young. I was younger than Dorothy (Stephanie Mills)! But I came back to sing, and I got the part."
Burge eventually took over the role of the Scarecrow, and he cited as one of his first major disappointments the fact that Michael Jackson was cast in the role in Sidney Lumet's film version of the musical. Other disappointments followed, including not getting the role for which he auditioned in Alan Parker's film "Fame"--"they told me I was too polished for the part!"--and having his song-and-dance part in "The Cotton Club," Francis Coppola's lavish film, "left on the cutting-room floor."
"A lot of my talented friends get sidetracked by these kinds of disappointments and obstacles--not getting the part, being typecast, or being black," says Burge, who recently auditioned unsuccessfully for a role in the current Broadway musical version of "Singin' in the Rain."
"I anticipated not getting it because it was a very well-known property with no known black character," he says. "But I thought they might take a chance, use their imagination; for instance, cast me in the Donald O'Connor role (in the Gene Kelly film). They could have, but they didn't.
"But then there is always a show like 'Song and Dance,' where color doesn't matter and they can use my talents," he adds, ever positive.
"I feel very fortunate to have gotten an early start in my career. But I have also been totally focused on my career. There have been times when I didn't want to work or study--when I wanted something more of a social life, or to go out for a beer with the guys or go off for a weekend to climb a mountain. But I don't mind the sacrifices I've made because, at the risk of being corny, I did it all for love, and now I am reaping the benefits."