‘Every Little Step’: Not as singular as you’d hope

April 14, 2009

 

Watching “Every Little Step,” I wondered how different the film would look if it had been made before the scourge of reality-competition shows – like “American Idol” and its smarmy cohort – were a staple of television viewing.

 

Different in the sense of how the directors would have approached the making of this film – and different in the sense of how the film would seem to viewers who haven’t been inured to the clichés of on-camera heartbreak and elation that these shows serve up like clockwork.

 

As it is, “Every Little Step,” a nonfiction film that blends the history of the creation of the landmark musical “A Chorus Line” with the casting of the 2006 Broadway revival, wants to have it both ways. It wants to massage the nostalgia impulse while, at the same time, stirring the viewer with reality-show clichés about competitors facing make-or-break moments in their careers.

 

The result is certainly affecting. But like an overly rich meal of less-than-nutritious foodstuffs, it leaves you feeling slightly abused. Sure, you’re choked up – but you also resent it a little.

 

The film operates on two tracks. One is the present-day audition process for the “Chorus Line” revival (which wound up running for two years), beginning with a massive cattle call. Over the course of months, hopefuls are winnowed to a handful of finalists, who return for repeated auditions for a jury that includes Bob Avian (the revival’s director), John Breglio (the producer), Jay Binder (the casting director) and Baayork Lee (who was recreating the choreography, having been an original cast member).

 

The documentary’s directors, Adam Del Deo and James Stern, focus on several key roles in the show, following the most promising semi-finalists and finalists over literally months of extended auditions (actually, there are months between the various levels of callbacks). They catch them entering and leaving the auditions and are allowed to film the actual auditions.

 

But the hopefuls themselves are never given full portraits – more like thumbnail sketches. No one, for example, talks about the mental strain of waiting months between these try-outs. There’s the quick-and-dirty in-your-face exit interview at the end of each individual’s process, but this is a tired device you can see any week on “So You Think You Can Dance” or “Top Chef.”

 

Yes, it’s moving when a veteran singer-dancer loses a role and maintains her dignity as she tells the camera that she’s sure her moment will come. On the other hand, there’s a certain contrived quality when the camera is on hand as a candidate for a leading role gets the phone call telling her she got the part.

 

As for the historical material, it’s a fascinating blend of old footage, old photographs and the original reel-to-reel recordings that “Chorus Line” creator/director/choreographer Michael Bennett made in one long encounter session that served as the genesis of the project. He gathered a group of veteran dancers late one snowy night in the mid-1970s and, together, they sat around telling stories about how they got into the business. Those personal tales became the basis for the script of “A Chorus Line,” sometimes in verbatim form.

 

But as a New York Times article revealed before the opening of the 2006 revival, few – if any – of those dancers who bared their souls to help Bennett create art were ever compensated for it. There were – and are – hard feelings (and, apparently, legal repercussions) to this day. But you wouldn’t know it from this film.

 

Indeed, the veterans of that first production are barely in evidence. Avian, Lee, Donna McKechnie and Marvin Hamlisch all weigh in with reminiscences. But they’re the only ones on camera out of what was presumably a much larger pool of original participants.

 

Having said that… I will admit that all of these quibbles came to mind after the movie. 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 (I almost wrote “contestants”) as they tried to secure a role in the musical. And I sat rapt, listening to stories about the original production by those who had been there.

 

It was and still is a singular sensation, though not nearly as singular as you’d hope. I just wish it had warranted a stronger, more introspective, less boosterish treatment.

 

 

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