`Chorus Line’ documentary high kicks to glory

Jun 04

Finally caught up with the outstanding documentary Every Little Step about casting the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line.

Though some Chorus Line purists balked at the revival, I was pretty fond of it, mostly because I got to cover its out-of-town tryout at the Curran Theatre here in San Francisco as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series in the early fall of 2006. (I also got to attend the cast album recording session at Skywalker Ranch.)

The best thing about the movie (produced and directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo), though, has nothing to do with the revival and everything to do with the creative process behind the original production. The original interview tapes Michael Bennett made late one night when he gathered a group of dancers (including Donna McKechnie, who would originate the role of Cassie, which was pretty much based on her anyway). Listening to those tapes (happily transcribed on screen, though not always completely accurately) is astonishing because there are lines directly lifted from those conversations that are key moments of dialogue in the show. The movie doesn’t go into the controversy that raged for years about how those people on whom the show is based were (or were not) compensated.

But it’s clear that Bennett was a genius and A Chorus Line exists because of his creative motor and his ability to surround himself with talented people like Edward Kleban (lyricist), Marvin Hamlisch (composer) and book writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante.

There’s great footage from the original 1975 production, especially of the extraordinary McKechnie performing “The Music and the Mirror,” and some fascinating interview footage of Bennett (who gave one of the all-time great Tony acceptance speeches, which is seen at the end of the movie and in the clip below).

The casting process for the revival is pretty interesting as well. Director Bob Avian (who co-choreographed the original production) works alongside casting director Jay Binder and choreographer Baayork Lee (the original Connie) to find just the right people – original but adhering closely to the specific requirements of the characters.

What impressed me about watching the eight-month-long audition process is just how hard performers work and what a grueling process auditioning is (hey, it’s a lot like what you see on stage in A Chorus Line). It’s interesting to see Nikki Snelson come this close to getting the role of Val (“Dance Ten, Looks Three”). She seems really burned by the process and the fact that she didn’t get cast. But then she gets the last laugh (though you wouldn’t know it from the movie): she landed the role of Cassie in the Broadway tour of the revival production (which we saw in San Francisco last summer—read my review here).

We also see Rick Faugno come close to getting cast as Mike (“I Can Do That”), but what the movie doesn’t add is that even though Faugno lost the role to Jeffrey Schecter, he lands the role of Frankie Valli in the Las Vegas production of Jersey Boys.

Another great thing about this movie is that we finally get a celluloid representation of the film that is true to the spirit of the show. The 1985 Richard Attenborough-directed film just doesn’t do it.

By far the film’s most affecting scene is the audition of Jason Tam for the key role of Paul, who delivers a shattering monologue about his parents catching him performing in a seedy Times Square drag theater. If you want to see what a phenomenal audition looks like, check out the way Tam reduces all the Chorus Line veterans behind the table into quivering puddles of tears. Avian and Binder can’t really even speak afterward except to say, “Sign him up.”

Here’s the movie trailer:

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