By Jeff Walsh
I'm not an unbiased viewer of "Every Little Step," the new documentary about the Broadway show 'A Chorus Line.' It is my favorite Broadway show ever. It is one of the first Broadway shows I remember having an impact on me. The cast recording has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I have never once applied for a job without singing 'Who am I anyway? Am I my resume?' I've been known to sing about getting plastic surgery on my 'tits and ass' in public at karaoke bars.
On top of all that, I am still friends with Jason Tam from the Chorus Line revival cast, who I met (of course) because he was in the show, so just seeing him on screen is delightful. He gets a lot of praise in other articles about this documentary, as his audition is prominently featured and simply amazing. He leaves the producers crying, and is hired on the spot. But I'm way too biased about how talented Jason is to say any more. You'll have to watch this film and find that out yourself.
So, to see a documentary on Chorus Line? Well… what else could I be but blown away? I even watch the oft-maligned movie version of A Chorus Line, which doesn't even get mentioned in this documentary. The documentary has three basic parts. We see the origins of the show, the people who were part of the show onstage and behind the scenes, and the audition process for the recent Broadway revival.
But even with all this amazing footage, the biggest surprise (Jason being brilliant would never rank as a surprise) is that they have the tapes. The actual tapes. I still can't believe it. (Don't worry if you have no idea what I'm going on about, they'll be explained soon enough.)
When I recently sat down with the movie's co-directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, we started right in with the tapes. Here's what we said:
The most amazing thing to me, when I saw the movie was finding out the tapes still existed…
Stern: Yeah, it was pretty extraordinary. John Breglio, who was the executor of Bennett's estate and the producer of the revival, and also the executive producer of our film, had these tapes, which were the stuff of Broadway legend because, you know, it's that night in 1974 when Bennett gets these 19 singers and dancers together to talk about their lives. It's midnight on a Saturday night in January, after their shows are over for the ones who were in shows, and they all drink wine and whatever else, and Bennett puts it all on reel to reel and it became, verbatim, the show. For someone like me who came up through Broadway, as much as I've done, it gave me chills to hear those tapes for the first time. They're not in a museum, they're just in John Breglio's vault.
Are those being released?
Stern: I don't know what John has planned for them. We have no idea. But we're really gratified that you can hear the tapes through our movie.
Yeah, I just assumed they weren't still around, and they just start playing in the movie, and it starts playing the movie, and it's just 'Oh my God!'…
Del Deo: He actually talks about having them in the vault. He wasn't even sure when he pulled them out, because they're reel-to-reel tape, and they were just in a safe deposit box, whether or not over time that tape would withstand deterioration. And, when they transferred it, whether it was going to snap. But everything was OK, and thank God they're still around and, for us, it was an element of the film that we thought would be very strong and we could work with.
It seems the behind the scenes of casting the show… was this always planned to be a documentary? We see so much of the Grease, Legally Blonde reality audition thing now…
Stern: This was always planned to be theatrical. That's all Adam and I do, actually. It was never planned for television. It will be on television eventually, but it was always theatrical. Unlike Legally Blonde, and I'm one of the producers of Legally Blonde, so I was very supportive of the show, but unlike that or reality television, we wanted to make sure we had the excitement of some of those things, but the rigors of documentary. You learn about how a show is constructed. The first time there's ever been a workshop done. It's the first time there'd ever been confessional work done in the commercial arena. You hear Marvin Hamlisch telling amazing stories about how changing the title of a song gives the song a different impact. Or changing who gets a role at the end changes the audience's feeling. We wanted to make sure we gave the film that kind of rigor, but at the same time make it as exciting as possible. Adam is an outsider and I'm an insider, and I think our yin and yang hopefully makes the film accessible to both sides.
To me, it could never be long enough… I'd be happy if there was a four and a half hour rough cut (laughs)…
Stern: Don't worry, there is… (laughs) We had over 400 hours of footage, and that's just archival. That's just the stuff we shot. The archival was another… God only knows how long.
How much did you film? Was it just the audition? Were you here in San Francisco?
Del Deo: That was not the idea. We only followed them through the audition process, getting the job. When they came to San Francisco, that was rehearsals. Our film stops at final callbacks, and eight months later is opening night.
That was the only problem I had with the movie. It was anti-climactic wondering 'Who's going to get it?' when I remembered seeing the revival cast onstage.
Del Deo: If you saw it onstage, you will know, but just the process itself… this is the first time that Actors Equity has allowed a camera crew inside of a Broadway audition process. So not only do we have access to the dancers themselves, but we also have access to the key creative management team. So to see the dialogue that was happening and the thoughts and ideas they were thinking about various dancers and then to have our lens on the other side of the fence to capture the tensions, the emotions, the struggle that was going on from the dancers. That was something we played with.
Were the cameras something the people auditioning welcomed?
Del Deo: They did overall, yes., to the 99.9 percent level. When they came to the audition, they explained what was happening, and they had the opportunity to participate and sign a release or not. But pretty much everyone did. And, lucky for us, all those that made it to the final callback had signed releases. So, we were able to cover our story.
Stern: When your focus is 'God, I hope I get that job' you're not really focused on cameras in the far reaches of the room. They were just focused on what they were doing. And we were very careful to be flies on the wall. No sudden movements.
It just seems it's hard enough to go in there and try to book the job, and that could be just another level of 'Now they're also making a documentary, and even if I don't get the job, I could end up in this… like the American Idol reject reel.'
Stern: We were very clear with everybody, and true to ourselves in the final version, that this was going to be the anti-American Idol. And these kids would rather give up a meal than give up a dance class. They get up every morning, they work like crazy, they're absolute trained professionals. They get the job, they don't get the job, they get up the next morning and do the same thing. There were 3,000 people who auditioned, and that means 2,980 did not get in the show, and I can guarantee that every single one of them got up the next morning to try again. The thing about American Idol is it's all about instant success and fame. Bu the time these kids are 33, 34, 35-years-old, they're on the downhill slide in terms of their bodies and they haven't made any money. So they really do 'What I did for love.'
Obviously, the Paul storyline is big for gay audiences, but in retrospect, Gregory is very openly gay, but somehow the focus is always on Paul when people discuss it having gay themes.
Stern: Well, you have to remember that nobody had come out on a commercial stage yet. Paul's monologue is the first time when someone talks openly on a Broadway stage about being gay. Let along that you have a Broadway musical where, in the third act, the eleventh hour, where you give an eight or nine-minute monologue, without music, about anything. So, it was incredibly daring that you would stop a show and do that. It really took the genius of Michael Bennett and the approval of Joe Papp to allow that to happen.
Del Deo: When we shot Jason Tam's interview, we knew we had lightning in a bottle. That's an accurate representation. They were struggling, and John Breglio said next to Cassie, Paul's the hardest role to cast. And they couldn't find anyone. And he walked in and we didn't have to do anything to make that moment any more dramatic. It was a great verite 'struck gold' moment for us.
Stern: People really thought that Jason was going to get nominated for the Tony when the show opened.
I agree, but since I know him, I don't want to load the interview up with how amazing Jason is…
Stern: Although, just so you know, many people do talk a lot in interviews about how brilliant Jason is.
What do you think the appeal of your documentary is for people who might not be into theater? Do you think it's a universal message?
Stern: It's the universal message of: you keep trying and everybody needs to be heard and everybody needs to be true to themselves, and everybody needs to push through, and work, and achieve their dreams. And that is absolutely a universal message and an underlying theme of the show, which is set in a venue of Broadway, and has a great resonance, no matter who you are and what you’re doing.
Del Deo: The lyrics are pretty pointed. 'I hope I get it,' and then at the end is 'I need this job.' It's so relevant today.
What was it like fastening this whole thing together? I mean, you have the tapes, the history, the auditions, the stories of the people auditioning, it seems like an overwhelming amount of options…
Stern: It was overwhelming, and I think we made four films before we ended up making this film. It took us a year in the edit room alone. There were so many different strands, and some things you really like get winnowed out, and a story about Michael Bennett gets winnowed out, or the tsunami that Chorus Line became after it opened gets winnowed out. So, you have to adhere, at the end of the day, to what the film feels like it needs to be. Or, as Stephen Sondheim says, you put your best songs in the trunk sometimes to make a good show.
Del Deo: This film took a lot of specific engineering in terms of 'this is the concept, this is what we're trying to achieve.' We had very long, detailed conversations with our editing team, and we needed the right team to be able to understand what we were communicating. It was a lot of specific editing. It was very precise, and that's the type of film we knew we had to make to have an opportunity to be successful.
Stern: For me, we needed to make a film that was going to pass the test of people I make Broadway shows with. And we did. And we also passed the test of people who don't know the show and were just looking for an emotional entertainment experience. But for me to feel comfortable coming from my background, because this is so important to me personally, we really wanted to make sure it had enough in it so that people who are of this world would be really pleased. And we actually just showed it at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art in new York over the weekend, and the audiences went crazy for it.
To find out where the movie is playing near you, check out the movie website: http://www.sonyclassics.com/everylittlestep/