Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Along For Every Little Step

Every Little Step explores the incredible journey of "A Chorus Line", from ambitious idea to international phenomenon. Through 15 years of continuous performances from the 70’s to 90’s and a revival beginning last year, "A Chorus Line" has touched generations around the world with stories so poignant, they could only have come from truth. The film compares and contrasts the original musical with the current revival. It investigates the societies in which they’ve debuted, and why the themes are so timeless and universal.

A film about dancers auditioning for a play about dancers auditioning for a play. The 2006 Broadway revival of "A Chorus Line" is the frame for this observant documentary. Hopefuls literally line up around the block to try out for the producers, many of whom have poignant memories of the original show and its creator, dancer/choreographer/director Michael Bennett. The setup has much in common with "American Idol's" recipe of hope and heartbreak. What puts this film on a higher level is the fact that the actors singing "Please, God, I need this job!" really do need the job. We follow the winnowing process from the first massive cattle call to the semifinalist elimination rounds, and there are heart-wrenching passages when veteran hoofers tilt their chins up and announce they know their day will come. They want the recognition we all want, and the film persuades you that almost every one of them deserves it. "A Chorus Line" was more than just a backstage musical, and Every Little Step, a terrific documentary by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, is more than just a film about the 2006 revival of the show, which enjoyed a healthy Broadway run. The film is as much about the creation of the original show back in 1975 and the genius of the late Michael Bennett, who masterminded it, as it is about the newer version.  One night in January 1974, Bennett assembled 18 of his fellow Broadway gypsies in a Manhattan exercise room and encouraged them, with the help of a jug or two of wine, to tell their personal stories about why they were dancers. The recorded revelations about their upbringings, family lives, sources of inspiration and sexuality became the basis of A Chorus Line. As we learn in Every Little Step, quite a few of these gypsies' statements were lifted directly by lyricist Ed Kleban for his and Hamlisch's songs. The exuberant documentary Every Little Step revisits the genesis of the landmark show about the creation and delivery of a Broadway musical. It intercuts footage from the original production with the saga of about 3,000 dancers who auditioned for 19 spots in the 2006 revival. A Chorus Line then went through a workshop-development process with the cast. The film states this was the first time the workshop approach was used for a musical. Original co-choreographer Bob Avian, who directed the Broadway revival and is prominently featured in Every Little Step, proves to be a font of information about the show's history, casting, and Bennett. It's a mirrored labyrinth, this chronicle of dancers auditioning for roles in a musical about dancers auditioning for roles in a musical. While the unassuming film from James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo pays tribute to the late Michael Bennett, the show's original director, his is only one in the resonant chorus of voices and dancers sharing the hopes, fears, and moves that moved millions. There are electrifying performances from chorus liners past (Donna McKechnie, who originated the part of Cassie) and present (Jason Tam). Just as galvanic are reminiscences from composer Marvin Hamlisch, dancer Baayork Lee (Connie in the original cast), and, especially, choreographer-turned-director Bob Avian, who sets the film's emotional tone of bottomless empathy and enthusiasm. No glitz or highly edited voice-overs gussy up the portrayal of artists who brim with passion and are willing to do anything to pursue their dream. (The elimination process takes a year, and one performer is down to her last unemployment check by the time the final casting decisions are made.) The production itself mirrors the need to dance and the sacrifice it demands, and the film's directors excel at weaving in comments from the show's originator, Michael Bennett, who died in 1987. Each performer has a rich story, and the personalities pop as they go before the casting panel, in particular one dancer who brings the panel (and the audience, for that matter) to tears.

The revival's casting process offers a bit of American Idol-esque suspense as we follow several hopefuls (including Broadway veteran Charlotte D'Amboise) through the arduous auditions, callbacks and more callbacks that lasted over eight months in all. Whether talking about the original production's cast, the film version's cast, the Broadway revival's cast, or the cast of any production mounted anywhere in the world, these words from Every Little Step's press notes hold true: Their lives are interwoven with one of the world's greatest musicals, their hopes and dreams hanging in the balance. The documentary begins by surveying the lines of hundreds of performers who are waiting to audition for the revival. The first elimination comes when performers are screened for type and dancing technique. We see the joy resulting from a call back, and the anguish caused by elimination. Then, while following those who are still in the running, we learn about private lives and circumstances, see how two or three performers tackle one role, and come to understand the overwhelming need these artists have to find a platform for their talents. This is their story, and the story of the phenomenon known as "A Chorus Line." While I was watching Every Little Step, I was having a terrific time. I got caught up in the aspirations, dreams and disappointments of the dancers as they tried to secure a role in the musical. And I sat intrigued, listening to stories about the original production by those who had been there. You wind up rooting for specific performers, and very curious to know who will eventually be selected for which role and wind up on stage and in costume in "A Chorus Line". Every Little Step is an all access pass to the intimate behind-the-scenes process of casting and rehearsing a beloved Broadway musical. If you’re a fan of "A Chorus Line", you’ll love this movie. If you’re not familiar with the musical, you will be an instant fan. This one will be an instant classic and is a definite must-see. This gets a 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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