Directors: Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One of the great mysteries of life is the act of creation. Many people consider the creation of life a miracle, and teasing out the artistic muses is a delicate and clandestine act of faith. The muse Terpsichore has gotten a lot of attention lately, with the TV series So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars runaway hits, and La Danse (2010), about the Ballet de l’Opera de Paris by renowned documentarian Frederick Wiseman, the latest in a steady line of nonfiction films focusing on dance. When a revival of the landmark musical A Chorus Line was announced in 2005, directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern seized the chance to discover what strange brew must be mixed to recreate the 1975 “singular sensation.”
A Chorus Line was a truly special musical. The first major production to be developed over months using a workshop format, it told the real backstage story of chorines and chorus boys—not overnight fame when called upon to replace an injured star, but rather constant rejection for everything from their actual talent to their physical attributes, career-threatening injuries, and always an overwhelming love of dancing that kept them in the game when prudence would dictate a change in direction. This approach made the smile and frown of the comedy/tragedy masks real, and audiences responded to the human drama in a way perhaps no one but the man who conceived the idea—dancer/choreographer Michael Bennett—expected.
The film begins with a shot of a reel-to-reel tape recorder and the recording of the conversation that took place between Bennett and a group of Broadway show dancers that formed the basis of the show. Various talking heads, mainly Bennett’s longtime friend and collaborator Bob Avian, explained the process. Bennett encouraged the dancers to open up about their lives and their art by sharing his own story. One Asian dancer (Baayork Lee, who became “Connie” in the musical and was part of the production team of the revival) was hampered by her short stature, while another dancer (“Val”) couldn’t get work until she had her breasts enlarged. One young man (“Paul”) faced the shock of coming out as a homosexual to his parents when they unexpectedly attended his performance at a drag club and saw him dressed as a woman. From these and other stories, James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante fashioned a book for the show, and Oscar-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban were engaged to write the music and lyrics. Bennett provided the choreography; the part of Cassie, a featured dancer in a career drought, was written especially for Bennett’s longtime muse Donna McKechnie.
The eight-month-long audition process begins with an open call that attracts 3,000 hopefuls. Del Deo and Stern telescope this beginning process by showing whole groups of dancers being dismissed after a brief show of their technique. They also focus on one unknown from New Jersey named Jessica Lee Goldyn who says she doesn’t have a fallback plan if dancing doesn’t work out because “if you do, you’ll fall back.” That determination—and rigorous training and preparation—will get her all the way to the finals.
Del Deo and Stern narrow their focus to only about half a dozen of the characters being cast and those in the running to play them. Auditions for Val, the dancer who got breast augmentation, take up an inordinate amount of screen time, perhaps for not-so-noble reasons. We see one dancer after another shaking and squeezing her ta-tas at the panel, and it does get rather grating. For other characters, the directors seem content with producing short vignettes, most amusingly, the casting of Maggie, the character who must reach a crescendo in the song “At the Ballet” that is beyond the reach of most of the hopefuls. Quick cuts through the missed, shouted, and croaked vocalizing, matched with the winces of the casting panel, add humor to a rather humorless process, and we are left with a final shot of a young woman who hits the high note just right. At the end of the film, we see that our assumption that she got the part is correct, but until then, she vanishes from the screen.
After Cassie, the role of Paul is the most important, with Paul’s monologue about growing up gay an emotional centerpiece. The casting panel flips through cards, rejecting numerous candidates for the role until Jason Tan steps in. The panel is reduced to tears by his rendition of the monologue, and after they compose themselves, Avian simply says “Sign him up.”
Of course, not all the tryouts are with unknowns. Phone calls are made to successful Equity members, like Alisan Porter, auditioning for the part her mother played in the first national touring company of A Chorus Line, and Charlotte d’Amboise, daughter of famed dancer Jacques d’Amboise. Lacking any context from the documentarians and based on how many of them greet each other with hugs and kisses, it appears that these A-list dancers comprise the largest share of those in the finals. I’d really like to believe Charlotte d’Amboise when she says she has suffered the kinds of knocks that qualify her to understand the role of Cassie, but when someone’s very talented AND born into the showbiz elite, it’s hard to believe no one would hire her.
And this is the biggest flaw in Every Little Step—Del Deo and Stern barely scratch the surface of the dancers they showcase. When d’Amboise says she has suffered setbacks, the next questions should be “when?” and “what kinds of setbacks?” Instead, the statement is left to stand alone, and the directors fill the screen with an interview with her father. Now, I’m as big an admirer of Jacques d’Amboise as the next dance fan, but what does he have to do with A Chorus Line? He’s not auditioning for the show or choreographing it. He’s not one of the original dancers on whom the story is based. He was, in fact, a very successful ballet and featured show dancer, not a chorus boy. I have to assume that Del Deo and Stern simply think he’s interesting and able to add some star quality to this tale of a musical about nonstars—a sad betrayal of the aims of the show and its creators.
The musical numbers in A Chorus Line are marvelous, but aside from archival footage of McKechnie dancing part of her solo “The Music and the Mirror,” we barely get to see them. The other strength of the musical is its personal stories, but we learn next to nothing about those auditioning or those who finally get hired. Deidra Goodwin, who wins the part of Sheila, says she almost gave up but learned from a psychic that she was meant to keep entertaining people—and that’s all she wrote about Deidra. Her rival for the part, Rachelle Rak (above), gets comparative mountains of screen time, but it is only through offhand comments she makes that we learn that she was in Fosse for more than two years and that she broke up with her boyfriend during the first round of auditions. How was Jason Tan able to move the casting team so much? We get absolutely nothing about him.
Nonetheless, Every Little Step does have some value. The production history as told by those who made it is very interesting. Hamlisch talks about how he had just won two Oscars and how he had to break the news to his agent that he was turning down the lucrative offers in Hollywood to return to New York for a job paying $100 a week. McKechnie and Avian talk a great deal about Bennett’s background, career, and ambitions. The rigors of casting a show are seen in meticulous detail, though the proliferation of talent competitions on television has removed the novelty of this inside look at the judging process. And if you’re a theatre fan or a lover of Hollywood’s backstage musicals, the documentary has its own inherent appeal.
Ultimately, though, I wonder how much any person can get out of a film about the creative process. There have been many, many films that show individuals in the act of creation, but none of them are really able to articulate the process in any satisfactory way. The discussions the casting team have in this film about what they are looking for or what is needed for a particular role sound clichéd or imprecise. What does it mean to be an organic dancer? What exactly is a tough sweetheart supposed to project? How do they know when they’ve got “it”? We can see the result, but the mystery of creation is something no documentary will ever be able to capture.