Friday, April 17, 2009

Review - Every Little Step

This is my latest review for the National Board of Review

I have a very personal connection with this one, actually. When I was a senior in college, I went to see A Chorus Line. I was just contemplating the idea of changing my focus towards theater, and was deciding whether I would go to grad school. I was in tears by the end. I called my cousin, whom I was (and still am) very close with.

"It seems like such a hard business," I said. "What if, twenty years from now, I'm still struggling, still trying to be seen among the thousands other talented people who want the exact same thing. I've been joking about being a starving artist. Do I really want to be one?"

She comforted me. I decided to do what I loved. After all, it was just a musical, not reality...

Unfortunately, it turns out the essence of it was also completely, 100% true. I'm still not sure I made the right choice. But make it I did. And I would again. Perhaps.

Anyway, here's the review:
Every Little Step, the new documentary focusing on A Chorus Line, and in particular on the 2006 Broadway revival of the musical A Chorus Line, tells one part of a very large story. The saga behind A Chorus Line could fill many documentaries – from its start, when director/ choreographer Michael Bennett and the dancers Michon Peacock and Tony Stephens first interviewed a room full of dancers about their lives; to the months of workshops as Bennett, composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Edward Kleban, and playwrights James Kirkwood and Nicolas Dante shaped the piece; to its triumphant first run; to the subsequent controversies about who owned the rights to the dancers’ stories; to its recent revival.

This documentary is a love song to Bennett, in part, and many of his huge cadre of collaborators are mentioned very little or not at all. It is also a love song to Broadway performers and would be Broadway performers, the sort of people who inspired the original musical. The documentary cleverly takes the subject of A Chorus Line—the audition process—and makes it the subject of the film. We witness the triumph of achievement alongside the disappointment of the hundreds or thousands of the talented who “really need this job” just as much, but aren’t lucky enough get it.

The movie is about the making of art, a messy, complicated process that defies formula. Ironically, the movie achieves what the revival, according to most reviewers, did not achieve: it captures the soul of the musical. The musical itself was a one of the first of a genre that is currently in vogue among the downtown crowd—documentary theater. In the original run of A Chorus Line, the actors onstage were telling their own stories, speaking and singing their own words. In this current documentary, a whole new set of stories is told, about performers trying to make it on Broadway by fitting inside the skin of those dancers who told their stories thirty years before.

The hidden truth about the musical is that it has a very dark core. A line of desperate dancers stands in front of an unseen, dictatorial director, who makes them bare every inch of their soul so that he can judge whether they are fit to be in the chorus of his upcoming musical. They submit to the process because they are so hungry to work, because jobs are so scarce and all around them there are others just as talented waiting to take their place in line.

Yet revealed in the process are the joys in working in theater, the reasons that they are so desperate to do this work and no other. And in this documentary, that joy is there. It is there in the moment one young man (Jason Tam) moves director Bob Avian to tears with a monologue he has heard hundreds of times, from hundreds of actors. The joy is there in all the dancers’ bodies, as they come to life onstage, trying to “eat nails” as choreographer (and original performer) Baayork Lee commands them.

The desperation is there as well. It is no coincidence that eating nails is the masochistic metaphor Lee has for the opening dance, the first audition.

Recently, television has offered a few watered down versions of the audition process, with shows like You’re The One That I Want. These flimsy recreations attempt to manufacture the same experience this documentary chronicles. It is so much more moving to see a set of performers who have spent their life honing their talent, performers whose personal dramas belong in the real world, not The Real World.

Yet what defines artistic success? It doesn’t end when one gets the job. The reviews of the revival indicate that what works in the audition room doesn’t necessarily work onstage, in front of an audience. One of the many ironies of A Chorus Line is that it was a musical about an audition that was created without an audition. It was created by the company as whole, in a long workshop that would be impossible today – the rules of Actors’ Equity would certainly not allow it. I suspect that the reason the revival was a critical failure was that these performers were asked to tell other people’s stories, not their own.

In this movie, we get to hear those stories, mixed with the stories from the past. And for that reason, just for capturing the spirit of those dancers past and present, it succeeds.

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