[17 December 2009]
Though perennially popular with both audiences and critics – running away with nine Tony Awards in 1976, and running seemingly forever on Broadway – A Chorus Line is so singularly insular, so concerned with the specificity of its own gestation and the nature of what it means to be a theatrical performer, that its boffo success comes across as some sort of miracle at times. Given the rather chaotic origin and development of the show – famously birthed from a taping by choreographer Michael Bennett of a late night rap session among amateur New York dancers, whose life-story conversations form the basis of the show’s story and songs, and then built from the ground up, organically, in a workshop setting – it must have come across as no small miracle to the original cast and crew as well.
The reminiscences of members of the original A Chorus Line cast and crew form the frame for the main event of Every Little Step, an open casting call for the 2006 revival of the musical – a call which yielded over 3,000 (!) hopefuls, all auditioning for 19 roles. It’s a clever gimmick, the interweaving of A Chorus Line ‘s own birth with the birth (and death, for the most part) of the hopes and dreams of aspiring young dancers, just one of several clever cards that is hidden up the sleeve of this gleeful (ha!) and exuberant documentary.
Of all musicals, A Chorus Line most resists the Hollywood treatment. It is so concerned with its own “theater”-ness; so wrapped up in the centrality of what making it on Broadway means; so across the board meta, that just the notion of turning it into a film misses the entire point (the mid-‘80s movie version famously flopped). Every Little Step sidesteps this problem by beating A Chorus Line at its own game, doing an end around by taking the “meta” up to another level. The solution—a documentary about aspiring young dancers auditioning for a musical that is about auditioning for a musical – is either too clever for its own good, too cute, or entirely apropos. Every Little Step mostly falls in the latter category.
By focusing on the stories – the hopes and dreams, and trials and hard luck – of several young aspirants, the film parallels the musical itself. It locks in to the universality that actually lies hidden at the show’s core, the key that explains the wider appeal of A Chorus Line. It’s essentially a story of misfits, of the dream of finding that one place to fit in and make it – except that every other misfit is now somehow competing with you to get in to the same place, and there are only so many seats on the bus.
The personal stories of the original cast – the awkward girl looking to transform herself into a swan; the young gay man coming to terms with his sexuality and coming out to his parents – have become paradigmatic, common tropes and obvious archetypes, but they are rooted deeply in individual experience. The degree to which someone auditioning succeeds or fails depends on the extent to which he or she can both lose him/herself in the role, and also find him/herself in it – and for this to make a compelling documentary, one we feel invested in, we need to know as much as possible about the person auditioning. The occasional problem with Every Little Step is that we don’t every really learn too much about each dancer. It’s a case of the film spreading itself too thin with its already short running time, and never winning us completely over to invest ourselves in one particular dancer over another.
It’s not damning – the film is still highly enjoyable, and the brisk pacing and minimal attention reinforces both the brutality of the casting process and the need to knock it out of the park the first time, and every time, since there’s no time for a do-over. And there’s something reassuring and refreshing about the indomitable optimism and tenacity of the dancers, who must be made of sterner stuff in order to endure the constant rejection and Darwinian ruthlessness of the audition process - show after show, year and year - and stick with it, hoping for that one break, that one chance, that one crack at the big time. It’s the one singular sensation they all crave – that we all do, in chasing after what we have invested our soul in – that makes A Chorus Line the favorite that it is.
Every Little Step high kicks on to DVD with a handful of decent extras. The centerpiece is a 45-minute collection of deleted scenes. About half of these are selections from the original late night rap session (with different old footage of the original cast playing along with what are basically audio tracks) recorded by Michael Bennett, whose presence that night was actually sort of serendipitous (this revealed in another extra – Bennett just happened to invite himself to the party, rather than convening it himself, which adds another layer to the already chaotic origin story of the play).
Separately from the deleted scenes, there are a handful of interviews with original cast and crew, who reminisce about those heady days of the ‘70s and the challenges of restaging the play (mostly revolving around the specificity of casting). An enjoyable but not indispensable commentary track rounds out the platter.