Tuesday, August 04, 2009

5, 6, 7, 8

It would be way too obvious to point out that the wonderful new documentary Every Little Step, which follows the audition process of the recent Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, eerily reflects the very theme of that musical theater landmark. So obvious, in fact, that directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo feel no need to stress it. They know they've got great material and need do nothing more than stand back and watch.

Yes, they do focus too much at times on one blandly pretty semi-professional dancer just starting to make her way with a lot of pluck and moxey, and its thumbnail description of A Chorus Line's genesis is a bit too well-scrubbed. (Director-choreographer-genius Michael Bennet is presented as a genial good guy, when pretty much all of his collaborators would describe him as an egotistical, credit-grabbing monster, though they'd undoubtedly agree about the genius part.) But mostly they just let the cameras roll as the grueling process of making a show grinds along, with a lot of pain and a lot of joy along the way.

The pain is there in the bodies of dancers who can't quite make their limbs do what they need to do, in the voices of singers who can't quite hit the notes. It's in the faces of the show's director, Bob Avian, and choreographer, Baayork Lee--two former Bennet who didn't come to hate his guts--as they relive some painful memories watching fresh-faced talent recreate moments from their own lives. And mostly it's in the reactions of actors who don't get the job, who feel as if they've been cut for entirely arbitrary reasons, as if their professional careers, their very lives, have been judged and found wanting.

The joy, of course, comes when the bodies and voices do exactly what they're supposed to do, when everything snaps into place with clockwork precision. (One of Every Little Step's highlights is when auditionee Jason Tam reduces the entire casting staff to tears with a recitation of a monologue they've all heard a thousand times. The film doesn't even bother trying to milk suspense over whether Tam would get the gig; it's just assumed we'll understand he had it then and there.) But even that joy is bittersweet and fleeting; all these people working so hard for something that is, after all, ephemeral. In that sense, perhaps it is appropriate that the revival of A Chorus Line had already closed by the time the film opened--nothing lasts forever.

Of course, we know that, don't we? A soon as the movie ended, I felt the overwhelming urge to share my enthusiasm for it with the one person in the world who would most appreciate it--Mom, of course. For one brief moment, I forgot that I can't do that anymore, and when the realization that such a conversation will never, ever be possible again passed over me, I hurried from the theater to the privacy of my car, where the tears began to fall.

Mom's life--like all of our lives, or like a dancer's movement or a first, awe-struck viewing of a profoundly moving work of art--was temporary, here and gone, never to return. Yet without her, I never would have seen Every Little Step, because I would have had no interest in the subject matter. But I do care, of course, because throughout my life, she introduced me to things she must have instinctively known I'd love. (She pointed me toward tomorrow, you might say.) Movie musicals, the novels of Ross MacDonald, the music of Roger Miller and Spike Jones, even the comic books she picked out for me when I was a kid were all perfect, were all ideally suited to me, the person I was, the person I'd become, the person I have yet to be.

A Chorus Line may have closed, but its original run is still legendary, and it is still revered by dancers and actors everywhere. Mom may be dead, but every time I reflect on her, when I remember everything she did for me, she is still somehow here. Nothing lasts forever, but maybe everything lasts long enough.