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On Movies: 'Every Little Step' is a singular sensation - again

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 4, 2009 - Americans love auditions, as long as it's other people doing the auditioning. That apparent fact, inescapable to anyone who watches prime time television, might be one of the reasons that "A Chorus Line" has proven to be one of the most popular Broadway shows of all time.

But it's only one of the reasons. To compare "A Chorus Line" more than superficially to "American Idol" and its spawn is to unfairly diminish the musical that opened in 1975, ran on Broadway for 15 years, was revived in 2006 and last passed through these parts last month, spending a couple of successful weeks at the Fox Theatre.

Now comes "Every Little Step," a spectacularly good new documentary about auditions for the 2006 revival of the musical, which is, of course, about dancers auditioning for the chorus of a Broadway show.

One of the producers of "Every Little Step" has pointed out a crucial difference between his movie - and for that matter the original musical -- and all those TV reality shows that promise stardom: "It's not about being a star," he said. "It's about getting a job."

That underlying sense of sweaty desperation beneath the leotards and behind the pirouettes has always been one of the deeply appealing elements of "A Chorus Line," linking its not-so-young "gypsy" dancers struggling to stay in the game to anyone who has ever fought to get and keep a fulfilling job.

There is nothing dated about the musical or the documentary about it. "A Chorus Line" came out at a time when the nation was haunted by a bitterly controversial war, as it is today.

It addressed issues like racial prejudice and gay rights that are still alive in public discourse and public rancor. And jobs, any jobs, are even harder to find and hang onto now than they were in the recession of the mid-1970s, when "A Chorus Line" took Broadway by storm.

Roger Ebert has aptly called "A Chorus Line" a "musical about itself." "Every Little Step" takes the self-referential nature of the original a step or two further - it's a musical about trying out for a musical about trying out for a musical. Inside a hall of mirrors, it roams freely and smoothly through the decades and the venues.

For example, an aspiring cast member in 2006 speaks lines first spoken on another stage in 1975. But the words originated in a dance studio a year earlier. We are made witness to the evolution of those words through three stages. Yet the film never loses its way or sends us off down blind passageways.

"A Chorus Line" had its beginning in 1974. A group of dancers who had been struggling for years in New York got together to talk all night about their trade and their lives.

Choreographer Michael Bennett took the 12 hours of recording tapes from these workshop sessions. He and several writers and composer Marvin Hamlisch turned the monologues into a musical about Broadway dancers -- about their lives, their dreams and their disappointments, their successes and failures. Audiences loved it.

The original show opened in 1975 and remained on Broadway for 15 years, making it at the time the longest running show in Broadway history. (Its record was eclipsed by "Cats.")

The day that auditions began for the 2006 revival of the musical, documentary directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo ("So Goes the Nation") were on hand to begin shooting "Every Little Step."

Only a couple of dozen of the 3,000 eager performers we see lined up in the rain to audition for the revival will actually be chosen, and stages full of dancers are summarily dismissed after a few quick turns. As the auditions progress, the directors tighten the focus.

Through the course of the film, we get to know and recognize the dancers trying out for five major roles, knowing that some will succeed and some will fail.

At well-chosen moments, "Every Little Step" will slip back in time, to the dancers who played those five roles in the original production, and even to the dancers at the all-night workshop who spoke the words that inspired those roles. At times it is amazing how closely the final play followed the original words.

Key people involved in the new production are inextricably linked to the original show. Creator Michael Bennett is dead, but his 1975 co-choreographer, Bob Avian, is the director of the revival. And the new choreographer, Baayork Lee, played the role of Connie, an Asian American, in the original show.

One of the most touching sequences in the movie comes when Lee has to choose a young dancer to play the role that she created - in effect, to play herself.

Seldom has a documentary film revealed so deeply what really goes on in the grueling months before a theatrical production reaches the stage - indeed, before it even reaches its first true rehearsal. But the movie succeeds in a larger way as well. In a way, the musical about itself is a musical about millions of us, and the movie only strengthens that connection.

Opens Friday, June 5

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.