Third Girl from the Left

Third Girl From the Left coverThird Girl from the Left
Christine Barker
Delphinium Books (March 14, 2023), 316 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $23.99

I have long been a lover of theater, and of musical theater in particular, so when I read about Third Girl from the Left, it went straight to the top of my reading list.

Christine Barker grew up a Navy brat, living with her family in a variety of locations around the world as her father was transferred from base to base. He finally gave up the financial security of the Navy for physical stability when he moved the family to Santa Fe, New Mexico and entered the real estate business. Christine had a passion for dancing, but while other arts were well-supported in Santa Fe, dance was not. She therefore took the bus to Albuquerque on Saturdays to get what dance lessons she could.

Participating in a national dance competition gave her visibility to the theater program at UCLA, where she enrolled, as her father insisted she spend two years in college and maintain a B+ average before considering entering the world of professional dance. The moment she finished her second year she headed off to New York City.

In New York she trained in Alvin Ailey’s studio, but it was Michael Bennett who opened the door for her when she didn’t make the cut there. He gave her the opportunity to participate in the national touring company of one of his early shows, which led to her being cast in the London production of Bennett’s then-new show A Chorus Line, which opened in Toronto before heading to London. When an agreement between the actors’ equity groups in New York and London required that the American performers give way to British, she returned to New York. There she got the role of Kristine, the dancer who couldn’t sing, in the Broadway cast of A Chorus Line.

Barker writes in detail about her life in theater, discussing the trials and tribulations of her lifestyle choice. She describes trying to advance her career by taking acting lessons and auditioning for television commercials. She discusses the stress of performing in a Broadway musical. Barker became frustrated when friends and family didn’t understand what she did. Various iterations of “eight shows a week” becomes a mantra in this portion of the book.

The author is candid about her relationships. She had two failed marriages, the second breakup being especially traumatic as she bought a condo loft with her husband in partnership with her brother John, an artist. Husband number two was out of work, didn’t want to look for work, and didn’t want to agree to a divorce, although he finally did. She also discusses the difficulty of professional relationships. I learned that Michael Bennett could be arbitrary and a real jerk, but Barker fully gives him credit for her entry into professional theater.

Barker was in the show in the eighties when interest rates were high (adding to the condo loft mortgage woes) and the Reagan administration refused to acknowledge the reality of the AIDS epidemic. (She does not hide her feelings about Reagan.) Many of the men with who she worked in the theater were gay, one of the few safe places for gay men in the seventies and eighties. Another brother (she had four) named Laughlin, a successful attorney, came out to her as gay, insisting that she not tell the rest of the family. The last portion of the book chronicles Laughlin’s battle with AIDS and his partner’s denial. Barker eventually gave up her role in A Chorus Line and supported herself by doing television ads while she looked after Laughlin until his death. This was the early days of the AIDS epidemic, long before it became the manageable disease that it is today. Laughlin’s partner succumbed soon thereafter. Martin, Bennett’s chief lieutenant with whom Barker had a close relationship, died of AIDS later, as did ultimately Bennett himself.

That final portion of the book is grim in the extreme, but for anyone interested in the realities of life in musical theater, or for anyone interested in the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York, Third Girl from the Left is indispensable reading.

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