Thursday, April 16, 2009

Reverend's Reviews: What They Did for Love

I came late to an appreciation of the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, A Chorus Line. While I had seen and enjoyed Richard Attenborough's 1985 movie adaptation (which is reviled by most fans of the stage version), I only saw it performed on stage for the first time last year. It is a great musical that has easily stood the test of time, 34 years after its Broadway opening.

Every Little Step, an engaging documentary opening tomorrow in major cities, isn't only a backstage glimpse into the casting process behind the musical's 2006 revival but a revealing look at the show's genesis. Archival audio tapes and video footage of legendary, gay choreographer-director Michael Bennett, composer Marvin Hamlisch and original cast members (notably Donna McKechnie) help illuminate the power of A Chorus Line for a new generation.

One night in January 1974, Bennett assembled 18 of his fellow Broadway gypsies in a Manhattan exercise room and encouraged them, with the help of a jug or two of wine, to tell their personal stories about why they were dancers. The recorded revelations about their upbringings, family lives, sources of inspiration and sexuality became the basis of A Chorus Line. As we learn in Every Little Step, quite a few of these gypsies' statements were lifted directly by lyricist Ed Kleban for his and Hamlisch's songs.

A Chorus Line then went through a workshop-development process with the cast. The film states this was the first time the workshop approach was used for a musical. Original co-choreographer Bob Avian, who directed the Broadway revival and is prominently featured in Every Little Step, proves to be a font of information about the show's history, casting, and Bennett.

When A Chorus Line opened in May 1975, it was an immediate and (in the words of its famous closing song "One") singular sensation. It ran on Broadway for 15 years and remains to date the longest-running American musical, excluding British imports Cats, Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera.

Every Little Step, directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, moves briskly and is at times nail-bitingly engrossing. Editors Fernando Villena and Brad Fuller are to be particularly commended for their work here. The revival's casting process offers a bit of American Idol-esque suspense as we follow several hopefuls (including Broadway veteran Charlotte D'Amboise) through the arduous auditions, callbacks and more callbacks that lasted over eight months in all.

Whether talking about the original production's cast, the film version's cast, the Broadway revival's cast, or the cast of any production mounted anywhere in the world, these words from Every Little Step's press notes hold true: "Their lives are interwoven with one of the world's greatest musicals, their hopes and dreams hanging in the balance. This is their story, and the story of the phenomenon known as A Chorus Line."

UPDATE: Every Little Step is now available on DVDfrom

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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