`Chorus Line’ documentary high kicks to glory

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:

`Blonde’ begat blonde moments

“Legally Blonde: The Search for Elle Woods,” Episode 2
(photo courtesy of MTV)

Here’s the problem with the second episode of this Broadway-bedazzled reality show: NO SETH RUDETSKY. Our girls, all vying to replace Laura Bell Bundy in Broadway’s Legally Blonde the Musical, concentrated on their thespianic skills this week, so they were under the tutelage of Blonde associate director Marc Bruni and cast member Nikki Snelson, who plays jump-roping Brooke Wyndham.

In typical crap reality fashion, the show was edited within an inch of its life, and the repetition of scenes, especially before and after commercials, made it seem like you were watching a stubborn DVR that jumped backward and forward by itself.

From the beginning of the episode, when the girls enter their lodgings, which have been pinkified in every way, the tone was set. “Ten girls can make a lot of noise,” the voice-over says. And it’s true, they squealed like Ned Beatty in Deliverance at the sight of every piece of pink furniture, and one girl described the place as a “PB Teen dream,” whatever the hell that is.

The theme this week was acting. The girls’ audition involved a scene with Nikki Snelson, and based on the near Shakespearean levels of acting required (the phrase “Delta Nu Nu Nu” got repeated A LOT), nine girls moved on to next week, while one got unmercifully sliced from the roster.

But before that, two of the girls, Bailey and Lindsey, won a special prize (well, Bailey won it, mostly for suppressing her South Carolina accent): coaching time with Snelson. But here’s the “reality” twist: they had the session in the Puma store. Such shameless product placement makes shows like this difficult to watch. And when the girls return to their hotel, they’re both carrying Puma shopping bags. WE GET IT! There are many fine things for girls to buy at the Puma store. Thank you for the commercial within the program just before the commercial. And come on, as if this whole show weren’t a big, giant commercial for Legally Blonde, which could stand an infusion of butts in seats.

So during the real audition in front of the judges, when all 10 girls performed opposite Snelson, the gimmick was that Snelson was asked to purposefully drop a line to see how the girls reacted. Consider, as one contestant did afterward, that many of these girls are going through their first Broadway audition process, which is difficult enough. Then to play little tricks is just mean. It’s better for the cameras and for us nasty schadenfreude-infected viewers, but it’s cold. Some girls handled it. Some didn’t — oh, how they didn’t.

Judge Bernie Telsey (a high-powered casting agent) gets to utter the axe line: “We just don’t see you as the next Elle Woods on Broadway.” And this week — SPOILER ALERT — he axed Cassie O., a 22-year-old Ohio native. That’s what you get when you’re named after an ’80s keyboard.

Like all reality shows when you watch them for more than 15 minutes, I’m getting sucked in and I DON’T WANT TO BE SUCKED IN. I don’t like this, but I like it.

Here’s the MTV site for more Legally Blonde stuff.

One singular sensation one more time

Bay Area audiences were the first to see the most recent revival of A Chorus Line before it headed to New York (where it’s still running at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre).

Now, as the Broadway production moves beyond its 500th performance (celebrated last January), it’s time for the Line to hit the road. The national tour will return to the Curran Theatre July 8 through 27 as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season. This is the same theater that launched the very first A Chorus Line national tour in 1976.

Michael Gruber, who plays Zach on tour, was actually a member of the line during the original A Chorus Line’s record-breaking, nearly 15-year run on Broadway. He was in the final company playing Mike, who sings “I Can Do That.”

Another notable name in the cast is Nikki Snelson, who plays Cassie. Bay Area audiences saw Snelson in TheatreWorks’ world-premiere musical Kept and again in that company’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Snelson originated the role of the accused murderer/exercise guru in Legally Blonde, which had its pre-Broadway tryout at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre.

Tickets go on sale May 4 and will run $25 to $99. Call 415-512-7770 or visit www.shnsf.com or www.ticketmaster.com

Bend and snap to it

OK, so my dreams of Amy Sedaris becoming a Broadway musical star in Legally Blonde have been dashed. But with the official announcement of the full cast, I can hardly be disappointed.

In addition to previously announced Laura Bell Bundy as Elle and Kate Shindle as Vivienne, the cast includes Orfeh as Paulette, Christian Borle (late of Spamalot) as Emmett, Richard H. Blake (late of The Wedding Singer) as Warner, Nikki Snelson as Brooke and — this one is exciting — Tony-winner Michael Rupert (right) as Professor Callahan.

“Going Blonde: The Road to Broadway” is Broadway.com’s ongoing behind-the-scenes peek as Blonde rolls toward its April Broadway opening. Meet the cast in the latest episode here.

Tickets ($35-$90) go on sale to the general public Dec. 3 for the San Francisco run (Jan. 23-Feb. 24). Visit shnsf.com for information.