Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Every Little Step: Charm, 10; panache, 10

Every Little Step (2008) • View trailer for Every Little Step
Five stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.3.09
Buy DVD: Every Little Step

Thanks to hyperbole, misuse or overuse, many good words have lost their meaning.

The term billion  to say nothing of trillion  gets thrown about so much these days that nobody has any sense of what it actually represents.

Elsewhere, every pencil-necked newscaster in the country abuses the word decimate. It does not mean what everybody seems to think it means.
When word got out that a fresh production of A Chorus Line would be
mounted on Broadway, enthusiasstic young performers literally came from all
over the world to wait in a line -- that eventually became 3,000 people ong -- on
the first day of auditions. Some were established professionals; others were
first-time amateurs. But all shared a passion for the play and its message.

Elsewhere again, here I am, half a century into (I would like to think) a life well lived, and I finally  finally  understand what it means to be rapt.

It's what I was while watching Every Little Step.

Folks, this is what cinema's sense of wonder is all about.

As the old saying goes, I laughed, I cried, I had a wonderful time. Days later, I can't get moments  lots of moments  out of my head. Don't want to.

Speaking strictly in clinical terms, directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo have delivered the best feature documentary since 2002's Spellbound, which Every Little Step resembles in many respects. Both films introduce and then follow various young hopefuls through a lengthy elimination process, during which our hearts and minds become enmeshed with just about everybody.

The suspense is palpable, our joy and heartbreak mirrored by what is felt by the people we watch on screen.

Just as I wanted each one of the kids in Spellbound  as we met them, one after another  to triumph in that final grueling spelling bee (where only one could win), I wanted at least three or four people to successfully get cast for every key role (each of which, of course, could only go to one person) during the audition process tracked so meticulously in Every Little Step.

Stern and Del Deo's documentary can be described thusly:

It's a movie about a gaggle of Broadway hopefuls trying out for a musical about a gaggle of Broadway hopefuls trying out for a musical.

Sixteen years after the phenomenon known as A Chorus Line was "retired" from Broadway, Michael Bennett's memorable, Pulitzer Prize-winning musical drama was resurrected for a revival that kicked off on Oct. 5, 2006. During the months leading up to that opening, Stern, Del Deo and their camera crews were granted access to the entire audition process.

They tracked individual actor/dancers from the very beginning, starting in their home environments and then segueing to that astonishing morning when 3,000 people lined the street outside the theater, for the first day of auditions.

During impromptu interviews, many of these young talents unconsciously speak the same words, and display the same intensity of emotion  "I really need this job!"  that so captivated Bennett back on Jan. 18, 1974, when he gathered 18 "gypsies" in an empty Manhattan exercise center, encouraged them to frequently painful levels of candor, and taped the entire 12-hour session.

Aside from providing a record of this revival's audition process, Every Little Step also serves as an historical account of the creative genesis that eventually led to A Chorus Line in the first place: the transcribed tapes the prompted the show's book; Bennett's coup in obtaining the musical services of Marvin Hamlisch, fresh from his three Academy Awards for The Sting and The Way We Were; the lengthy workshop sessions  an unprecedented rehearsal technique at the time  during which the show was built and shaped, song by song.

Bennett, sadly, left us on July 2, 1987, although several archival interviews reveal what he thought and did, day by day, as the play came together. Most of the show's remaining creative forces are on hand for fresh reminiscences, none better than a story Hamlisch tells, about how merely changing the title of the song "Dance, 10; Looks 3" saved it from almost certainly being cut from the show.

Then there's the input given by Marsha Mason, present with husband Neil Simon at one of the show's many previews, who had a significant effect on another portion of the play.

These historical anecdotes are intercut with the gradual winnowing process that turns thousands of applicants into hundreds, and then into dozens  with Bob Avian, who co-choreographed the original production, taking the director's chair  now grouped according to the roles they either desire or seem suited to.

Ultimately, this must be whittled down to the 19 people who will make up the show.

Everybody dances up a storm, encouraged by choreographer Baayork Lee, who played Connie ("Four foot, ten!") in the original production, and who remains impressively limber and feisty for a woman in her 60s. If this show were only about dancing, I fear Avian and his colleagues would be nattering about casting to this day.

But it's not, of course; A Chorus Line places equal demands on acting and singing ... and that's where true talent tells.

A session devoted to the three women who sing "At the Ballet" is particularly revealing; those desiring the role of Maggie must conquer the song's heart-stopping crescendo, and we can tell  as the expressions worn by Avian and his chums behind the table also reveal  who makes the grade. There is nowhere to hide during this song's climax.

And we would think, given the hundreds of young hopefuls who receive such generous portions of Avian's time, that he and his colleagues have seen it all, heard it all; certainly they're beyond being surprised. But that's not true: One young man builds his way through a solo audition for one of the male roles, and he nails it ... he just nails it.

We know it, as sure as the knowledge that the sun will rise tomorrow.

He leaves the room, having no idea whether he made an impact; the camera out in the hallway records the hopeful but uncertain look on his face. But back in the audition room, that camera catches Avian and his half-dozen colleagues as they collapse into tearful emotion. It seems anticlimactic when somebody finally mutters, "Hire him."

As is the case with the play itself, Stern and Del Deo interview and identify these men and women only by their first names. That's appropriate, because they're gypsies, just like the roles they're hoping to get. The process is arduous and lengthy; four-month chunks of time separate each round of auditions.

Yet every time somebody hits a mark during every little step of the way, it's to deliver what must be the equivalent of an actual opening-night performance. It's exhausting, uplifting ... and heartbreaking. Because most don't make the cut.

The show's iconic songs  the underscore is used with goosebump-raising skill during this film  feel freshly authentic all over again. This grueling, emotionally unmasking torture is what these people do for love.

"This is not for the faint of heart," one woman sighs, and we see the years of dawn-to-dusk practice reflected in her single sentence.

Those who remember being touched by A Chorus Line back in the day will have chills throughout every moment of this film. Those coming into the material fresh will be charmed, deeply moved and impressed by the talent, raw desire and naked candor Stern and Del Deo capture and edit so skillfully.

Every Little Step is both a mesmerizing time capsule and  once it hits the home video market  something for the permanent library: a pick-me-up to be watched again and again, particularly when needing a reminder that passion really can move mountains, and that dream really do come true.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I really must see it again...

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