In early 1974, in New York City, stage choreographer-director Michael Bennett gathered together almost two dozen dancers and, plying them with jugs of red wine, taped 12 hours of conversations about their creative passions, personal histories and occupational highs and lows. His goal was to craft a Broadway musical that placed the hardworking artisans at the center of its story, and the eventual result, A Chorus Line, became an international phenomenon that won multiple Tony Awards in 1976, as well as a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Exploring a bit of the history of this show but mostly chronicling for over a yearlong period the casting process leading up to a successful 2006 stage revival, the buoyant nonfiction film Every Little Step serves as a portrait of reach-for-the-stars aspiration, as well as a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the pre-rehearsal mounting of a Broadway show. Both its aims and achievement are modest, but for a country which regularly counts demi-celebrity dance-offs and other artistic competitions among its most popular TV series, this movie should satisfy a general audience’s relatively uncomplicated interest in the specialized backdrop against which it unfolds.
Every Little Step starts with footage from a massive open call audition, and tracks the process as potential cast members are whittled down from literally thousands to hundreds, and then only dozens. All of this is intercut with interview footage from some of those who have a hand in either this iteration of A Chorus Line or its original production, including Broadway legend Bob Avian, original cast members Baayork Lee and Donna McKechnie, and composer Marvin Hamlisch, to name a few. Certain anecdotal tidbits prove fascinating. Hamlisch relates how audiences simply were not responding to what he felt was one of the best tunes he had ever written, a sardonic, woe-is-me tale of a dancer’s body issues entitled “Tits and Ass.” Figuring out that the program’s song listing tipped off audiences to the punch line, he and Bennett changed the title to “Dance: 10, Looks: 3,” and it received raucous reaction the very next evening.
Eschewing any florid stylistic touches, co-directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo tell the story in a fairly straightforward manner, hoping that the natural drama of watching actors being put through the paces of grueling song-and-dance routines will carry the day. In this manner, the documentary is not unlike the audition rounds of perennial small screen sensation American Idol, except for the fact that all the contenders actually have at least a modicum of talent. In terms of overall tone, this approach mostly works, in that Every Little Step locates, engagingly if a bit fitfully, the sense of need in performers — their burning desire for expression, which is the very emotion that forms the spine of A Chorus Line itself. There is also a pleasure to be found in simply bearing witness to the basic reaction of human joy attached to reward — of seeing someone become emotional after achieving a hard-fought dream, even if the dream is not your own. When one performer talks about dance being “the best part of me,” her unsentimental, straightforward self-analysis is enough to give one a catch in their throat, providing there is anything the viewer feels a flicker of applied passion for in their own life.
Where Stern and Del Deo misstep is in not delving deeper into Bennett’s groundbreaking concept of shaping both A Chorus Line‘s music and book through a series of grueling workshops, for which all involved were paid only $100 per week. It also seems a bit strange that Bennett’s death (he passed away from AIDS-related lymphoma in 1987), bisexuality and brief marriage to leading lady McKechnie are not mentioned. They are not necessarily matters to be doted on, but for either more casual followers of Broadway or those with no knowledge whatsoever of the show they would augment and enhance a reading of the creation of the musical, so their absence seems a misguided choice erring on the side of personal privacy. In the end, though, these are thinking criticisms that would offer a more fine-tuned product; A Chorus Line is ultimately about the depth of feelings of its subjects, and the price of consistently flaunted vulnerability — a brutal necessity in the acting trade. Every Little Step captures those difficulties, pitfalls, trade-offs and rewards, more than adequately.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Every Little Step comes to DVD presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language Dolby digital 5.1 audio track and optional French and English subtitles. Hamlisch and co-directors Del Deo and Stern sit for a feature-length audio commentary track, and there’s a massive clutch of deleted scenes, around 35 minutes total, that gets more substantively into exactly the sort of workshop particulars mentioned above. Two other short but edifying featurettes are also included — a 16-minute conversation with McKechnie, as well as with an eight-minute conversation with the aforementioned Avian, Lee and revival producer John Breglio. A theatrical trailer and previews for around a dozen other Sony DVD releases round out the disc. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B (Movie) A- (Disc)