J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Chorus Line Story: Every Little Step

Even those who have never seen the Broadway musical A Chorus Line are likely to be familiar with many of the show’s songs, including “What I Did for Love” and “One (Singular Sensation).” It has penetrated the popular consciousness to a degree few subsequent musicals could ever dream of replicating. Clearly, something just clicked for the show, but the story of how the elements came together, both for the original 1975 production and the acclaimed 2006 Broadway revival, prove surprisingly compelling in James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo’s new documentary, Every Little Step (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Appropriately, Step starts by going back to the source: the original reel-to-reel tapes of late night conversations creator Michael Bennett recorded with his fellow dancers that provided original seed of inspiration for Chorus. It would take years for the show to go from Bennett’s vague idea to its record-breaking Broadway run, essentially creating the workshop production model along the way. Step simultaneously chronicles the casting process for the 2006 revival, conceived largely as a tribute to the late Bennett, by the surviving creative team from the original production.

Stern and Del Deo talk to just about everyone connected to both productions, scoring some great behind-the-scenes information from the likes of composer Marvin Hamlisch and the original featured star, Donna McKechnie. However, in the age of reality television, the emotional punch of the 2006 casting scenes is frankly shocking. It certainly helps that most of the auditioning dancers are reasonably interesting people, largely auditioning out of pure love for the show, unlike the average vapid American Idol contestant.

The audience will find themselves rooting for some dancers, like Yuka Takara, who finds herself in the unenviable position of auditioning for the role of Connie, originally created by Baayork Lee, the current production’s choreographer and an advisor during the casting process. In fact, the directors strike documentary gold, capturing maybe the most successful audition performance ever from Jason Tam, to judge by the reaction of Bob Avian, the 2006 director and Bennett’s longtime creative collaborator.

The original Chorus Line was a smashing success, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. However, the only disappointment in the show’s history was Sir Richard Attenborough’s lackluster film adaptation, which bombed at the box office. Step is a far worthier film representation of the beloved show.

The acid test for a film like Step is whether it holds up for someone who does not passionately love the Broadway show. As such a heretic, I argue it absolutely does. Step perfectly captures the affection for the show shared by so many in the theater world, finding insight in unexpected places. It is a thoroughly satisfying film that should even engage viewers unfamiliar with Bennett’s original musical. It opens tomorrow in New York at the Angelika.

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