Every Little Step
|Jessica Lee Goldyn||Val|
|Directed by||James D. Stern, Adam Del Deo|
At midnight on January 26th, 1974, the choreographer Michael Bennett sat down with a room full of theater gypsies, a few jugs of cheap red wine, and a tape recorder, and over the next twelve hours he drew out their stories: what it means to be a dancer, how the impulse first arose, the discovery of one's sexuality, the hopes and dreams, the audition anxieties, the whole deal. "Maybe there's a show in that, somehow," Bennett explains on that tape to the dancers whose stories he is harvesting, "that would be called A Chorus Line."
There was a show culled from those tapes and coaxed into theatrical form by Bennett and his collaborators. It opened in 1975, collected 9 Tony Awards, a Pulitzer, and ran for a record-breaking 6,137 performances before closing in 1990. Another fifteen years after that, it was ready for a revival.
Three thousand hopefuls showed up to audition for seventeen roles. To put some perspective on that, it works out to an acceptance rate of about .0056 percent. The applicant-acceptance rate at Harvard, in comparison, is close to 10 percent.
Directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo have created the movie equivalent of one of those endlessly reflecting mirror images, life imitating art imitating life imitating…. The story of A Chorus Line is exactly the story of this documentary about the casting of its revival. Young, talented singers and dancers fling themselves like moths against the flame of Broadway, driven by a yearning that has seen them through a lifetime of lessons, practice, and punishing physical effort.
“Every actor thinks of that song, 'I Hope I Get It,' every time they go to an audition," says a young woman in the line that stretches down the street and out of sight around the corner. The songs in A Chorus Line were drawn from those midnight tapes and shaped by Bennett, lyricist Ed Kleban, and composer Marvin Hamlisch into anthems of show business. The young hopefuls at this revival casting call have grown up with these songs in their heads and hearts.
The auditioners are put through their paces by a little bundle of energy named Baayork Lee, who played the 4'10" Connie in the original production. A panel anchored by choreographer/director Bob Avian, Bennett's longtime collaborator, observes, evaluates, and selects. The numbers are whittled down. Even many of the performers dismissed at the first session are terrific dancers. The ones who get a callback are sensational. And their chances of making the cast are discouragingly remote. But still they go at it as if their lives depended on it.
"I put all my eggs in this basket," says a pretty blonde. "I think if you have anything to fall back on, you'll fall back."
Interviews with veterans of the original production, like Avian, Lee, and the fabled dancer Donna McKechnie fill out the documentary, along with kinescopes and black-and-white film of Bennett and others (Bennett died of AIDS in 1987 at the age of 44.) There's some wonderful footage of the teenaged Bennett and McKechnie dancing on a '60s TV show. McKechnie recalls Bennett's passion and talent, and talks about how he drew out his fellow dancers in that midnight session.
"Michael would reveal something about himself that nobody, not even me, had ever heard before." Bennett's willingness to expose these intimate anecdotes about himself broke the ice and got the others telling their own sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking personal stories, many of which made it into the finished show.
Composer Hamlisch credits the actress Marsha Mason with a suggestion that turned A Chorus Line's fortunes around. After seeing a preview, she told Bennett that "it was wrong that that girl (Cassie) doesn't get the job." Bennett took the criticism to heart, the ending was changed, Cassie was hired, and as Hamlisch reports, "there were standing ovations from that night on."
For fans of musical theater, of theater in general, and of unstinting effort and dedication, this movie will pack the same kind of emotional punch. We all become casting directors, singling out our favorites. Sometime there's no question; when Jason Tan does the monologue about his parents seeing him in a drag show, even the panel is in tears. Other choices are harder, and not everyone will agree on the outcomes. As the applicants are winnowed down to the finalists, the tension grows, the stakes magnify, the defeats hurt that much more. The last candidates for Cassie and the other principals watch each other nervously, give each other hugs with the hollow assurance that "I'll be happy either way," and wait for the call that will change their lives one way or another.
There are very few walks of life that involve the raw, unprotected caring and willingness to wear one's heart nakedly on one's sleeve that the Broadway gypsies take on themselves as a part of the cost of doing business. "Is it worth it?" muses the great ballet dancer Jacques d'Amboise, whose daughter Charlotte is one of the finalists for this A Chorus Line revival. "It’s the price you pay." Charlotte adds "It's what we do. It takes your guts, it takes your soul. But you're willing to give it."
It's all up there on the screen in this impassioned, exhilarating documentary. They want to dance for you. It's what they did for love.
© Text 2009 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be