Those who love Broadway musicals have always said that A Chorus Line — which debuted on stage in 1975 and has been an ongoing, vital part of our culture ever since — is more than just a great show.
They've called it the greatest backstage musical ever for the way it investigates, illuminates and honors the lives of dancers. Based on actual interviews, A Chorus Line is about the lives of 17 dancers trying out for parts in a new musical.
More than just great entertainment, more than an early exercise in post-modern meta-arts, it appeals to fans as truth. That in no small part is why it won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, unusual for a musical.
I never quite got the watershed dimensions of the original production, as I had only seen Richard Attenborough’s dull 1985 film adaptation and only really recalled Michael Douglas’ stentorian delivery as Zach, the Broadway director casting a musical.
Now, thanks to the superb, inspiring and light-on-its-feet documentary Every Little Step from Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern, I do. More, I not only understand the sense of mission that led choreographer/director Michael Bennett to first create A Chorus Line, but also why it has endured.
Every Little Step is a bit modest in its advertised intentions. It purports to be simply a chronicling of the casting for a 2006 revival of A Chorus Line. It’s really an ode to A Chorus Line’s greatness, as well as a praiseful treatise on the drive and determination of young dancers/actors everywhere.
I emphasize “young” because, while not all the principal characters in A Chorus Line are meant to be young, those auditioning for the 2006 revival are young relative to A Chorus Line’s history. (Charlotte D’Amboise, who received a Tony for the key, difficult role of the veteran dancer Cassie in the revival, had hit 40 around the time of auditions.) But they all had grown up with this musical’s legacy as an inspiration. So among other things, Every Little Step is about the way Broadway renews itself while establishing tradition.
In that regard, this film is as rousing in its studiously observant way as the great Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business” number from Annie Get Your Gun.
The producers of the 2006 revival started with an open audition and slowly whittled away the candidates through rounds of tryouts. Some already are reasonably established, others are impatient for their chance but all are living A Chorus Line’s famous opening number, “I Hope I Get It,” every day of their lives.
The filmmakers had access to the panel members judging the dancers, including Bob Avian — Bennett’s co-choreographer on the original production — and the compact dance instructor Baayork Lee, the model for 4-foot- 10-inch Connie in A Chorus Line. For them, this new audition is more than work as usual. It’s a torch passed to a new generation as time passes by.
Lee is feisty about it, quick to see or not see herself in the new Connie candidates. Avian, a gentler presence, can’t help but get emotional when watching a strong candidate, Jason Tam, perform the character Paul’s riveting monologue about his homosexuality. (Tam got the job.)
The filmmakers also had access to the dancer/actors beyond the audition space, deftly following before and after tryouts and as they learn that they did — or did not — get the job. Because there are so many, these amount to brief glimpses. But they are edited and integrated into Every Little Step’s fabric so well they serve as a kind of chorus line for the film itself.
Every Little Step also serves as a history of A Chorus Line. Donna McKechnie, whose career is closely linked with both Bennett and the original A Chorus Line (she won a Tony as Cassie, a part modeled on her own life), is interviewed about her recollections, as is Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote the music for the great score (lyrics were by Edward Kleban).
There is archival footage featuring Bennett, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1987, explaining the show. There is even a clip of him dancing with amazing athletic prowess on the old 1960s-era Rock music variety show Hullabaloo.
Most moving of all are the snippets from the audio-taped discussion groups Bennett held with dancers in order to create and shape A Chorus Line. Visually, we see only a reel-to-reel tape player in operation, but as we hear their stories and listen as Bennett says there might be a story in this, we are watching history being made.
And it continues to be made today with each new A Chorus Line performance. Grade: A
Opens June 19. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.