Commentary: 'Step' in right direction for Oscar doc nom


"Step" story: Mid-April is too early to be talking about Oscars, but since I've just seen one of the likely nominees for best documentary feature, it's time to start spreading the word.

After an early look at "Every Little Step," opening Friday in New York and L.A. via Sony Pictures Classics and expanding over the next few months, it's a safe bet that this riveting film about the auditions for the 2006 Broadway revival of "A Chorus Line" is going to resonate with critics, audiences and Academy voters.

Produced and directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, "Step" was executive produced by John Breglio and by Douglas E. Hansen and Christopher C. Chen. The film docments the casting process for the "Chorus" revival directed by Bob Avian, who co-choreographed the original 1975 production conceived, directed and co-choreographed by the late Michael Bennett. The revival's choreography was restaged by Baayork Lee, who was one of the original production's key performers. The team that wrote "Chorus" was James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante (book), Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Edward Kleban (lyrics).

"Chorus" originally opened May 21, 1975, at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre and moved a month later to Broadway's Shubert Theatre. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and nine Tony Awards, played for 6,137 performances, was seen by more than 6 million people and remains the longest-running American musical in Broadway history.

The Broadway revival that "Step" focuses on so well opened Oct. 5, 2006, at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater and recouped its $8 million investment in just 19 weeks. I can vouch for how enchanted an evening it was, as I happened to be in New York soon after it opened and was applauding it the night of Oct. 11.

Having seen the revival gave me an enhanced appreciation for what Stern and Del Deo have achieved with "Step," but their movie will be every bit as entertaining to those who haven't seen "Chorus." The doc takes its title from the song "One," performed by the company near the end of the intermission-less musical, and its opening line -- "One singular sensation, every little step she takes ..."

Among those we meet as "Step's" cameras cover the revival's auditions are Yuka Takara, Deidre Goodwin, Alisan Porter, Mara Davi, Jessica Lee Goldyn, Chryssie Whitehead, Jeffrey Schecter, Jason Tam and Charlotte D'Amboise, all of whom wound up getting cast. There's also a passing parade of those who tried hard but were rejected -- and who sometimes seemed just as good as those who were hired.

I was delighted to have an opportunity to talk recently to Stern about the making of "Step," which was an official selection in 2008 at the Toronto International Film Festival and Berlin Film Festival.

"The movie came about because (of) John Breglio, who is the executive producer of the film and the producer of the revival and also the executor of Michael Bennett's estate," Stern explained. "Michael and he talked a lot about 'A Chorus Line' and Michael always thought of (it) as a kind of documentary on Broadway. He always said if there was ever another Broadway production of 'A Chorus Line' he wished there would be a documentary (about) the show, itself. John had seen Adam Del Deo and my prior film 'So Goes the Nation' and loved it and since I've produced some 16 shows in New York myself I was really the perfect person (for this project)."

When Breglio called to ask if Stern and Del Deo were interested in producing and directing the film, he added, "that was the first step. When John told me that he would give us full access to the legendary Bennett tapes of the fateful night when (a group of dancers at Bennett's invitation) all talked about their lives, which became 'A Chorus Line,' Adam and I got very interested."

Those tapes were clearly a great treasure trove of material to have access to. "Absolutely," he agreed. "Hearing those for the first time I can say that I had goose bumps. They'd been in (a) safe deposit box and John did not even know what shape they were in. He had not played them until we heard them."

Getting access to shoot during the revival's auditions was essential to making the movie. "John had begun the process by speaking to (Actors) Equity," Stern said. "Equity had never given any filmmakers this much access before in its history. So once that was started we spent some time with Equity and talked to them about what we wanted to do and we were able to shoot all the auditions. That process was about eight months, and then once the show was cast there was about a year of cutting (that footage into the final film). We had 400 to 500 hours of just the material from the auditions yet alone archival footage. It was a huge amount to cull through. It took us three or four months just to digitize the footage that we shot."

How do you manage to keep track of so much footage? "Well, it's almost like what you do is create a mini-Google," he replied. "You digitize all this stuff. You set it all up so that you can just type in, like, 'exhausted dancer' and you'll get, like, 25 shots and time codes of exhausted dancers or 75 shots or 150 or whatever it is. So not only do you have to digitize everything, but you also have to label it as specifically as possible so that when you want to call up an 'exhausted male dancer' you can do that without going back through everything. Otherwise, you could never cut a film like this. I don't know how they did it before (computer editing) Avids."

When I asked if shooting the auditions affected those performances, Stern told me, "No, it didn't affect them at all. I mean, 'God, I need this job' (a line from the show's opening song 'I Hope I Get It') is much more important to them than cameras in the back of the room. They all signed releases so they knew we were going to be doing this. Their focus was so much on the director and the producer and Baayork Lee and the casting people that this did not have any effect whatsoever."

Two digital cameras positioned in the back of the theater covered the auditions: "We were always shooting both the table (where Avian and his team sat) and the auditions. We shot with the light that was there. We didn't bring in lights or anything like that."

Since they didn't know during shooting who was going to be cast, they had to cover everyone. "The process itself winnowed down the people that we were following because they were being winnowed down, so that ultimately helped," he said. "And then you get a sense of people who are doing better and people who are doing less well and so you follow along with them. There were probably 10 people who we had more personal access to in terms of their homes and things like that. Very little of that ended up making it into the film, but some of it did. It depended on whether that performer ended up going far enough along that it made sense."

Were their hunches right about the people they thought might be cast? "Well, they were and they weren't," he answered. "They were mostly right, but, again, I've done 16 shows in New York, myself, so I have a good eye. I've been behind that table many, many times so I had a good sense of what they were looking for."

Once casting was completed, Stern and Del Deo went straight into editing for about a year. "We had no interest in rehearsals," he pointed out. "We were not going to cover anything that 'A Chorus Line,' the show, did not cover. The show is about making a show so the movie was about a show about making a show. Conceptually, we didn't care about rehearsals because it wasn't a movie about the rehearsal process of 'A Chorus Line.' It was about this show that Michael Bennett constructed and how he put it together and how for the first time in history he used a workshop, how he revolutionized Broadway in that way, how structurally you can change shows through small things like changing how people feel about your show by changing one small part of the ending and things like that. That's what we were interested in."

It was tough going, he observed, "when you have that many hours of footage and that many people that you've covered and you have those many stories you can tell. I think we had four different movies that we tried to cut before we ended up with the film we cut."

Of course, in this age of multi-disc DVDs it's not so terrible to have all that additional footage to use later to create bonus features. "As you would put it, a 'treasure trove' of them," he laughed.

Aside from the sheer volume of footage to wade through, what were some of the other challenges they faced? "The challenge," he replied, "was to find the right metric between the historical footage (with Bennett), which makes it into a fully blown documentary, and keeping the pace going and making us care about the characters and the excitement of who makes the show and who doesn't," he replied. "I think the more we cut the more we adhered to Bennett's own structure, which I think was in the best interests of the film."

When I referred to the grainy quality of some of the archival footage with Bennett, Stern emphasized, "That's not taking what we could get. That's what we wanted. Some of that came from the Lincoln Center library, which was never-before-seen. Grainy is good. Grainy alerts people to the fact that it's rare footage and that it's old footage. Too oftentimes we think everything needs to be in pristine shape, but in fact from a story standpoint there's different ways to tell stories and there's different forms to use in order to tell the story."

Asked how "Step" came to Sony Pictures Classics, he explained, "We showed the film at the Toronto Film Festival and we had a five-minute standing ovation. It was one of the great moments because Donna McKechnie (who starred in the original), who had been reticent at first about doing an interview (in the film) because she was worried about would it be serving Michael Bennett's memory, got up on stage and said Michael would have loved the movie. It was a really beautiful moment, and we had this five-minute standing ovation. It was a huge night, and we had five companies bid on the film."

As for working with SPC, he added, "I love 'em. I love the trailer. I love the poster. I love the support. I like all the theaters we're being booked in. I think they're really smart and they get the movie. Honestly, I couldn't be happier. They've been terrific."

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