Every Little Step opens Friday in select theaters
Before there was Rent, there was A Chorus Line. Both were smash musicals that celebrated, most of all, the heartbreak, aspiration and self-regard inherent in being a young artist in the big, bad Apple. Although the differences in style and content are many, one all-important X-factor is the specter of AIDS: When watching old footage of the original production of A Chorus Line, which premiered on Broadway in 1976, it's impossible not to think about the scourge that would mark the following Rent generation—and kill Michael Bennett, the creator and choreographer of A Chorus Line. In Every Little Step, a new documentary about the casting process for the 2006 Broadway revival, we learn that the raw material for Bennett's tale of 17 aspiring song-and-dance performers was gleaned from marathon group therapy-style sessions with real-life Broadway actors, some of whom would end up telling their stories for A Chorus Line. What emerged was a new kind of musical, by, for and about people who now seemed hip in this New York era of Taxi Driver, Studio 54 and the Ramones (not to mention the brilliant original Taking of Pelham One Two Three). The show became—and remains—the longest running American musical ever. Still, the vulnerability that characterizes those original 1970s performances—and perhaps the original run of Rent—has given way to a kind of jaded professionalism.
It's hard to find the fresh exuberance of the original A Chorus Line in this documentary. We follow the winnowing stages of the revival auditions, conducted over nearly a year, meeting the surviving members of the creative team, listening to those original tapes and scanning the dozens of anxious auditioners. Along the way, we learn little nuggets of trivia about the show's development. The creators, among them director Bob Avian, original cast member-turned-choreographer Baayork Lee and composer Marvin Hamlisch, are still entranced by the show: They're moved to tears by a speech they've heard thousands of times—a character's monologue about his parents encountering him performing in a drag show—when the right actor delivers it.
Gamely, the film's director, James Stern—a longtime producer on Broadway and in Hollywood—zeroes in on a few strong prospects and follows them through their days, including Jessica Lee Goldyn, who wants to be the surgically enhanced Val who sings "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" and Charlotte D'Amboise, who auditions for Cassie, the dancer who tragically swans before the mirror.
The problem is, none of these aspirants registers as being particularly interesting or vulnerable: In contrast to the reported magic of a successful production of A Chorus Line, which is predicated on soul-baring monologues and redemptive songs and dance, the people we meet auditioning for the revival are guarded, clipped and professional. With the memorable exception of one ragingly vain actor, these performers are polite, have generally realistic expectations and are rather dull. We live in the age of reality television, but these men and women are, in the main, far too self-conscious and well trained to indulge in the backbiting and histrionics we expect from such shows as Project Runway and American Idol. Credit should be given, one supposes, to the filmmakers for not encouraging such behavior, but they didn't dig very deeply, either.