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A Visit to a Girls’ Locker Room: Every Little Step

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A Visit to a Girls’ Locker Room: <em>Every Little Step</em>

This curiously sexist documentary, co-directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, scampers around after every nubile young woman caught up in the audition process that went on for the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, yet the moviemakers assiduously avoid the male dancers. Why? Every Little Step telescopes eight months’ worth of tryouts, callbacks, and final casting into 90 minutes, and much of the movie carries the feeling of being staged for the cameras. Early on, the viewers are introduced to a pale-complexioned girl with bone-straight corn-silk hair. She’s named Jessica; there isn’t anything particularly beguiling about her—she says nothing to prick up our ears, she’s rather bland. In fact, Jessica Lee Goldyn has the distinction of being the milkiest, least memorable person on screen. Nevertheless, Stern/Del Deo appear to take it for granted that we, the art-house audience, in need of someone “up there” to relate to, will embrace this ash-blonde with pink lipstick, a woman without much of a voice, or a compelling figure, or much in the way of stage presence, as the Designated Representative of all our middle-American hopes and dreams.

On first viewing, Every Little Step, I thought, was made with great affection. Del Deo and Stern have only reverence for A Chorus Line, perhaps too much so. I wished they would have dug a little deeper for persons, especially amidst the standing-on-the-sidewalk Manhattan twenty-somethings heard in drive-by sound bites during the movie’s early section, capable of articulating A Chorus Line’s legacy in terms that push beyond predictable pop cultural pabulum.

The interviewees (not all, although a great many of them) don’t express anything in words that they couldn’t have Tweeted about just as ineloquently; one positively longs for a bit of the Maysles Brothers’ sense of perspective. But on second viewing, Every Little Step, which with the notable exception of Kyle Smith in the Post has met with unquestioning critical hosannas among the mainstream, strikes me as darkly cynical in the choices it makes; it is also unbelievably slipshod in following through on narrative threads. For example, the Buddhist/Muslim choreographer Baayork Lee, who originated the part of Connie in 1975, has her casting preference for who will play “her” overruled by white male colleagues in favor of a candidate she dislikes. There isn’t a mention of how the formidable Ms. Lee—seen putting dancers through their paces with the inspired glee of a drill sergeant sticking it to new recruits—reconciles to the notion of an assertive Asian-American performer losing out to a demure Japanese wallflower whose halting accent would be more appropriate to Flower Drum Song. And reverent for the late Michael Bennett’s Pulitzer-adorned musical or not, the movie, unintentionally to be sure, shows up the lyrics, tunes, and sentiments of A Chorus Line as gratingly passé. (The abstract lines in the show’s top hat and gold lamé finale, “One smile and suddenly nobody else will do/You know you’ll never be lonely with/You know who,” fall, to my ear, halfway between the disingenuously coy and the self-aggrandizing.)

Let’s go back to the snubbing of the male dancers. True, most of the major roles in the play are for women; there are, however, and it has been decades since I last sat through the musical, at least two not inconsiderable parts for men: Paul and Mike. Mike’s big number, “I Can Do That,” may be the snappiest tune in the whole show; it’s a deliberately old-fashioned, turn-on-a-dime piece of showbiz one-upmanship, one that melodically harks back to an even earlier era of musical theater, and that’s perhaps the reason this song holds up better than most of the Marvin Hamlisch/Edward Kleban score. Unlike the majority of the other songs, it isn’t wedded to mid-1970s schmaltz, and its chief concern—a young man discovers that he’s a radically better, more energized dancer than his sister who’s had the benefit of lessons—isn’t self-pitying either. Every Little Step has three potential Mikes competing with one another, and what do the filmmakers do? They zero in on The Crazy Guy, one who ultimately doesn’t win the role but can be counted on to stream forth with hubristic psychobabble whenever the camera points in his direction. The other two, they ignore. This is a terrible, terrible disservice that Stern and Del Deo do, to these men in particular and, by extension, to male hoofers everywhere. It’s a directorial choice that re-enforces: you don’t matter. (Unless, of course, you’re obviously whacked, and we can exploit you for a few minutes in our little movie.) We’re shown every woman in the cast being informed and reacting to the news that she was chosen for whatever part over all the others, but the moviemakers don’t bother to tell us that Jeffrey Schecter got the Mike role—there’s no congratulation for him, no interview with him, not even a reaction shot. It’s an obscene oversight, especially given all the high-pitched squeals we’re expected to listen to. Oddly, the filmmakers don’t pursue at all what went into the revival’s producers and director, the avuncular Bob Avian, choosing Schecter over the other contender, the immensely gifted Rick Faugno, a man with a powerful voice who sings somewhat like Sinatra might’ve with a more pronounced gospel influence. To me, that’s a backstage story worth capturing or, if not that, then obliquely hinting about; we are, however, given nothing.

Then there’s the matter of what the movie does—or doesn’t do—with Jason Tam, the beatifically handsome Pacific Islander whose audition for the role of Paul is the best two or three minutes of footage that the filmmakers can lay claim to. Prior to his arrival, Del Deo and Stern insert of a montage of Kewpie doll men reading for the part, some of them off sheets of notebook paper, and their actor-ish falsification of the lines set my teeth on edge. There seemed to be no confession more maudlin than, “I knew I was gay, and that didn’t bother me. What really bothered me was…I didn’t know how to be a boy.” On the 1974 reel-to-reel tape recordings of dancers talking late into the night, Nicholas Dante, whose musings became the basis of Paul’s coming-out monologue, sounds persuasive and understated, a tone nearly impossible to reprise unless one has grappled with similar doubts of gender identity. And then Tam enters the audition, not reading off scraps of paper, and not merely knowing the lines by memory, either, but simply submerging so deeply into the character that it seems to be his own life. In the first cutaway to the panelists observing him, Avian and the others are beaming. By the time Tam reaches the “Oh, my God” moment in the speech, the moment when Paul’s mother and father see him in drag for the first time, the shock of recognition for us as listeners becomes too great. You can see Avian’s lips tightened in trying to hold back emotion. Seated next to him, the casting director Jay Binder all but openly weeps, and I, after being unmoved for the first 40 minutes of Every Little Step, was in tears myself. Tam, through a combination of physicality, emotionality, and racial otherness, wakes the movie up. Who is he? How did he get there? And why do Stern and Del Deo stupidly keep him off screen, save for a blip at the end, for the rest of the picture?

It’s absolutely astounding that the co-directors keep Tam at arm’s length. Can their decision be chalked up to ineptitude? Homophobia? A desire to chase tights? All of the above? This movie scrutinizes the female form with an almost gynecological rigidity. There are a few pulchritudinous young women on display here, women who by sheer force of personality and intelligence escape the filmmakers’ tendency to mechanize: the elegant Charlotte D’Amboise, the well-sculpted Deidre Goodwin (her fearsome bone structure slightly suggests the ethereal beauty of Grace Jones, and I loved how her voice sank into the viola register on the final notes of “At the Ballet”) and, best of all, Nicole Snelson, a blonde with short curls who outsings, outdances, outacts, and in general outpaces her rival performers for the role of Val, which, unaccountably, she loses to an inferior talent. When Snelson holds the stage in “Dance Ten, Looks Three,” that wicked gleam in her eye as her palms accentuate the curve of her breasts comes closer to exemplifying the spirit of A Chorus Line’s staying power than anything else.

So, then, what remains? I should interject at this point that I wanted to like this movie; I honestly did. I came on board, as it were, brimming with good will toward a film that purports to address not just theater history, but also the more intractable subject of process itself, in all its mysterious, un-cinematic, and political permutations. I say this because there’s a certain breed of House reader, stretched out on a divan somewhere in Williamsburg, who, in between puffs on a Gauloise, must, at this very moment, be exhaling to himself, “N.P. Thompson hates everything!” Let me pause, thus, to assure this dear reader that nothing could be further from the truth. Be that as it may, minutes into Every Little Step I remembered something I’d managed to forget: chiefly, that I never much gravitated to A Chorus Line in the first place, despite my youthful proclivity for musicals. When I was 13-years-old (never mind how long ago that was), my mother took me to see a national touring company production of the play, which, even then, was sufficiently renowned to grace the forlorn boards of our below the Mason-Dixon backwater, a Southern hamlet so unprepossessingly sleepy and deprived artistically that it could, perhaps, legitimately be said to lie several yards extant from Tobacco Road. A year earlier, my mother’s more adventurous younger sister had taken her charge—twice—to watch Bob Fosse’s masterwork All That Jazz at our local three-screen multiplex, and in comparison A Chorus Line, striding over some of the same ground, and which I anticipated being as magnificent as its critical repute led one to believe, most definitely paled.

The received wisdom engulfing this work has been so thoroughly inculcated into generations of singers, dancers, theatergoers that it came as a refreshing surprise the other night, on thumbing through my volume of Arlene Croce’s Writing in the Dark, Dancing in The New Yorker, to find that not everyone, back in the day, bought it. There it is, in August 1975, the clear-thinking Croce bringing things down a peg, in an essay called “The End of the Line”: the musical, she states, “takes its cues from…the assumption that recitals of past humiliations are synonymous with character revelation…When the show is over, we have our choice of two conclusions—either that we haven’t discovered who these people are or that they’re actually as shallow as the show makes them out to be.” Croce goes on: “One illusion the show can’t sustain is the worthiness of a dancing career on Broadway; especially at the chorus level, conditions haven’t been so bad since the days when show dancing consisted of hack routines that the able-bodied could pick up overnight…One girl sings about a Method-acting course that nearly destroyed her, but nobody sings about the aesthetic content of the dancing that they are asked to do.”

Or likewise, about the mortifying lyrics that they are asked to sing. Contrary to Hamlisch’s and Donna McKechnie’s insistence that “At the Ballet” comprises the “heart and soul” of the show (in separate interviews, that’s the phrase both of them trot out), it is precisely this paean to the cloddish parents of awfully sensitive girls that, heard now, feels the most calcified. Concrete details, such as the mother and daughter collecting earrings dug out from the nether regions of car seats (the child instinctively knows that the jewelry found in dad’s jalopy doesn’t belong to Mommy), have the veracity of truth, but when set to Hamlisch’s propulsive bombast, they curdle into phoniness.

Consider, if you will, these lines, the first four of which are to be sung rapidly, the final two in staccato fragments.

Mother always said I’d be very attractive
When I grew up, when I grew up.
“Different,” she said, “with a special something
and a very, very personal flair.”
And though I was eight or nine, though I was eight or nine,
Though I was eight or nine, I hated her.

Even as a 13-year-old, I was already a partisan for Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, and possibly Berlin and Kern, all of whom I learned through Billie Holiday records, as the Alpha and Omega of American Popular Song. I’ve no means of remembering what I thought then of Kleban’s verses—I suppose I took them to be deep, in the way that embarrassingly confessional lyrics almost always have to, in the moment, be taken as evidence of depth just to counteract that sensation of your skin turning purple. Yet nothing about the above-quoted stanza, from its needless repetition of the girl’s age to that scored-in pregnant pause before, “I hated her,” could possibly be the stuff of good songwriting. The shortcomings of the material appear quite clearly, the haze of nostalgia notwithstanding. That’s actually what Every Little Step (in spite of its emphatic cuddling and cooing over female flesh) pulls back the curtain to reveal.

House Contributor N.P. Thompson lives, writes, and (yes, it bears repeating) photo blogs in the Pacific Northwest.