STAGE TO SCREENS: The New Chorus Line Documentary, Plus "Rescue Me" Actor Pasquale

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: The New Chorus Line Documentary, Plus "Rescue Me" Actor Pasquale
 
Charlotte d'Amboise, James D. Stern, Adam Del Deo, Jason Tam and Kay Cole discuss "Every Little Step," the A Chorus Line documentary. Plus, a chat with "reasons to be pretty" actor Steven Pasquale.
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"Every Little Step", produced and directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, is a Sony Pictures Classics documentary (opening April 17) that takes us behind the scenes of the auditions-to-opening-night journey of the 2006-08 Broadway revival of director-choreographer Michael Bennett's landmark musical, A Chorus Line.

Featuring archival footage and audio tapes of some original players (not identified), the film pays tribute to dancers and their art — as gypsies (seasoned Broadway dancers) are trying out for a musical about trying out for a musical: Life imitating art imitating life. I saw the original (1975-90) production eight times, with my wife, Marie, who wanted "to keep going back until Sheila gets the job."

Among those appearing in the documentary: director Bob Avian, Bennett's former assistant (the original's Tony-winning co-choreographer); Baayork Lee (the original Connie) who restaged the dances for the revival; Marvin Hamlisch (who, with Ed Kleban, wrote the score); Donna McKechnie, who won a Tony for originating the part of Cassie, the chorus-line graduate who wants to be part of the class again (and later, 1976-77, Mrs. Bennett); and the revival's Tony-nominated Cassie, Charlotte d'Amboise, who observes, "It's about what we do. [Dance] takes your guts. It takes your soul. But you're willing to give it."

Legendary dancer Jacques d'Amboise, Charlotte's father, is seen briefly, and dismisses the fact that he's had both knees replaced as "the price you pay." His favorite song from the score, "What I Did for Love," could easily define his life. A high point of the film is Jason Tam's riveting performance as he auditions for the role of Paul, and is signed on the spot.

Like any documentary, it filters truth. Some moments (d'Amboise getting a telephone call to say that she's been cast) are restaged, and there's nothing mentioned about cast members who had misgivings about Bennett originally paying them $1 for the rights to their life stories — the basis for the musical. (In February 2008, those dancers got a financial interest in the Broadway revival production as well as all future First Class productions, the Bennett estate and the artists jointly announced. "The financial arrangement applies to the original interviewees of the taped sessions that Mr. Bennett held in the spring of 1974 and the actors who participated in the workshops prior to the original Off-Broadway production," according to the statement.)

Born Michael DiFiglia, Bennett (1943-87) envisioned the movie of "A Chorus Line" as a casting audition for a film, but his concept was rejected. At various times, the picture was supposed to star Liza Minnelli and/or John Travolta.

Richard Attenborough (an Oscar winner for his direction of "Gandhi") directed the 1985 film, "A Chorus Line." He claimed, "This show is about kids breaking into show business." The Tony Award-winning original "Sheila," Kelly Bishop, was quoted in Robert Viagas' book, "On the Line - The Creation of a Chorus Line," as saying, "He doesn't even know what the show is about." The film failed.

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Charlotte d'Amboise in A Chorus Line
photo by Paul Kolnik

Admits Charlotte d'Amboise, "I can't believe ["Every Little Step"] ever got done. The whole process was such a mess. It went on forever. Then I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival and thought it was fantastic! I wanted to see it again. But I don't know how they did it." Since she's seen in the film getting a telephone call saying that she's been cast as Cassie, I ask d'Amboise does she share her home with a camera crew? "They shot that afterwards," she says.

"They actually got Deidre [Goodwin, chosen as Sheila] and Chryssie [Whitehead, who played Kristine] in the moment, but they had to re-shoot Jessica [Lee Goldyn, signed as Val] and me." Was there anyone on the other end of the phone? "No," she says with a laugh.

Continues d'Amboise, "Playing Cassie is the hardest thing I've done. You have to dance like it's the last time you're ever going to dance. ["The Music and the Mirror"] is eight minutes, eight times a week. You don't start until an hour into [the show]. Your body's cold. You're freezing, because of air conditioning — and suddenly you go full force. It's also a big song number. You've got to be in tip-top shape. [While working, her routine entails acupuncture, Pilates, warm-ups, icing, stretching....] I never ever felt happy with my performance. Well, maybe six times I danced great, sang great, acted great. Usually, one part was missing.

"Cassie's fantastic, but it's not fun. It's gut-wrenching, and hard [to play] in a long run. It wore on me, in a way that surprised me. If I were to do a long run in any role in that show, it would be Sheila. She gets laughs. Cassie's pretty much what you read on the page. When you're playing straight, less is better. You can't run with it. Whereas, I had much more freedom with Roxie [in Chicago] and [the title role in] Sweet Charity."

Daughter of dancers Jacques d'Amboise and the former Carolyn George (who died in February), Charlotte and her siblings, a twin sister and two brothers, attended the School of American Ballet, which was affiliated with the New York City Ballet. "We performed in anything that had kids, and Nutcracker every year." At home, she often would "dance to 'Music and the Mirror' — with my arms up in the air. We had the album."

Was she responsible for her father being in "Every Little Step"? She tells me, "When I was interviewed, I mentioned my dad a few times. They said, 'Do you think he'd come in, and talk to us a few minutes?'

"I'm inspired by my father in everything I do. I grew up watching him dance. I wanted to be a guy, and dance large, and have personality. I didn't want to be a girl, and just look pretty. I wanted to say something. I was a very athletic dancer. It was all about if I could jump higher than the guys."

Later, Charlotte chose musical theatre over ballet: "You could have a character, and incorporate dance. When you're able to incorporate dancing, singing, and acting — that's when it's fulfilling."

After taking over for an injured Christina Applegate, out of town and during Broadway previews, in the 2005 Sweet Charity revival, d'Amboise was signed as her standby — while simultaneously playing Roxie (a part she's played "more than any other") in Chicago. (Either role, claims d'Amboise, is her "favorite, to date.") Once, she played Roxie at a matinee and Charity for the evening performance. "And that," she insists, "was easier for me than doing A Chorus Line. Cassie was hard on my body, on my mind, on my soul. The character is so close. In a way, every one of those characters is me. Everybody on the line feels that way. It's our lives."

She enjoys being a replacement: "I like to come in, do the work, and not have the stress of opening night. I don't need the attention; to me, it's about the work." She's been "in and out" of Chicago "for 11 years. I am in it at the moment."

Terrence Mann and Charlotte d'Amboise
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Now and forever: In Cats, which marked her Broadway debut (as a replacement Cassandra), she met Terrence Mann (Rum Tum Tugger). In the movie, "A Chorus Line," Terry Mann played Zach's assistant, Larry (based loosely on Bob Avian). Married since 1996, the Manns have two daughters, Shelby (5) and Jojo (6), who have seen Mom dance ("when I couldn't get a babysitter") in A Chorus Line and Chicago. Original productions of the musicals were Tony competitors in 1976, with the former receiving 12 nominations (and winning nine), and the latter being nominated 11 times (but winning none).

Says d'Amboise, "'Every Little Step' is a great film. You get Michael Bennett [in archival footage], the history [of the show], and a new generation auditioning. I'm very happy with it. Anybody who wants to be in musical theater must see it!"

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"Every Little Step," the third documentary (following "So Goes the Nation" and "The Year of the Yao") made by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, came about because, as Stern says, "I knew John Breglio."

Executor of Bennett's estate, Breglio produced the revival, and is co-executive producer of the documentary, in which appears. "He said, 'Michael always viewed A Chorus Line as a documentary. Are you interested?'"

Breglio permitted them to use the original audio tapes, described by Del Deo as "the connective tissue between the two worlds," and by Stern as "the stuff of legend. The first time I heard them, I got goose bumps."

Did they consider mentioning the controversy between Bennett and the dancers? "The film's not about that," notes Stern. "We wanted to make a film about how a show was structured and how it was juxtaposed with auditions."

Were any original-cast members, aside from Donna McKechnie and Baayork Lee, asked to participate? "We did interview some," says Del Deo. "There's only so much you can put in a film. The film Jim and I set out to make, we made."

Stern believes that the film will have wide appeal. "First of all, A Chorus Line played to 16 million people, in its initial incarnation — in America alone. You have to think about how many people have been privy to it through [productions in] high schools and colleges. Millions and millions have seen it and been touched by it.

"Just because it's theoretically about dancers doesn't mean it's not something for the masses. How many people watch television shows about auditioning? What we've done," Stern insists, "is taken that construct and laced it with historical underpinnings — about how you make a show and how things come to life. That's a documentary!"

Declares Stern, "We have 400 hours of film," which prompts me to ask: "Will the other 399 be on the DVD?" He responds, "Some of it." Concludes Del Deo, "Following a screening, Donna McKechnie said onstage, 'Michael Bennett would have loved this film.' There's no greater praise!"

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Jason Tam

"Lightning in a bottle," is how Adam Del Deo describes the Jason Tam audition for the part of Paul. Call it what you will, you won't soon forget it. He walks in and walks off with the film. On what did he draw? "First of all, I wanted to get 'off book' [sans script] completely. It's hard to find the truth of emotional life and circumstance if I'm tied to what I have to say next. I didn't want Paul to be a sob story. Paul hasn't felt sorry for himself for a second. If he did, he wouldn't be who he is.

"He disappoints his parents [by performing in drag]. Even though his father says, 'Take care of my son,' in his heart, Paul hears his mother say, 'Oh, my God!' In truth, I think it's his own voice, as well. He has a sort of love-hate relationship with being a dancer and his sexuality. Then I tried to focus on telling the story and getting the job. That's what he's there for. The emotional stuff is boiling underneath, whether or not he likes it."

Prior to auditioning, how familiar was Tam with the role? "To be honest, I grew up on the film, which I loved. That's kind of blasphemous, but I saw it before I saw the actual musical, which I saw once — on a tour that came through [his native] Honolulu.

Tam says his audition scene in the documentary was an on-the-spot one-time take. "I treated Paul like any other character I was attempting to portray. I tried to find the truth in the character and circumstance. In Paul's case, he needs more acceptance than approval. Who can't relate to that?"

When did Tam know that he wanted to act? "I've been in community theatre since I was in third grade. I fell in love with it. [He made his Broadway debut as a replacement Gavroche in Les Miserables.] In college, I made the decision: This is what I want to do. I decided to put my heart and soul in this profession."

Tam plays Markko Rivera on "One Life to Live," the ABC-TV soap opera, on which Charlotte d'Amboise occasionally appears, but he "would love to get back to stage."

His favorite parts of "Every Little Step," Tam tells me, "was seeing Jacques d'Amboise and hearing the audition tapes. They guard those tapes like they're gold, which they are. Hearing them was really cool. When you do a show for a year, people become family and friends. It's so great to see them on the screen - kind of like a yearbook."

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Kay Cole
photo by Michael Lamont

An original (and sterling) voice: Kay Cole, who played Maggie in the original production, hits the indelible "high E" at the end of "At the Ballet," which (in the film) Marvin Hamlisch calls "the heart and soul of A Chorus Line." Unfortunately, he doesn't credit Cole, without whose ability to sing that high, the song probably wouldn't be part of the score. "I understand Marvin saying that it's 'the heart and soul,'" says Cole, "because it encompasses everything A Chorus Line is. "Michael [Bennett] used to say that A Chorus Line didn't begin until ['At the] Ballet.' Ed Kleban was brilliant — a heartfelt lyricist, a wonderful collaborator, a great spirit. Storytelling was his greatest gift."

Recalls Cole, "Michael and the creative team allowed the seed to blossom — for the actor, the singer, the dancer. These many years later, the original company is revered and loved — a gift to the theatre, but also a great gift to all of us. It meant so much. So, hats off!"

As for the dancers-Bennett controversy, Cole says, "It's water under the bridge." Before the role of Cassie was created, McKechnie was playing Maggie, whose story was basically Donna's story: "'Maggie, do you wanna dance?' And I'd say, 'Daddy, I would love to dance.'"

Notes Cole, "Donna and I have an extremely similar story, almost verbatim. It not only fit like a glove, but also it was able to fly. Dancers often have similar stories. We sometimes went to ballet class to get away from our lives — and, if we're lucky, create a new one."

Cole (Mrs. Michael Lamont) is now a director-choreographer. She directed Desperate Writers, by Catherine Schreiber and Joshua Grenrock, a comedy currently at Santa Monica's Edgemar Center. "Our goal," says Cole, "is that we'll all be in New York [with the play] in 2010."

Meanwhile, the original-cast recording preserves Cole singing "At the Ballet," and hitting that "high E." She feels "very proud to have been part of A Chorus Line, and proud that it lives on. In retrospect, it was an enormously important experience for all of us."

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Steven Pasquale

Perhaps he should be called "the ubiquitous" Steven Pasquale (Pas-QWAHL). He's just opened on Broadway in Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty, his FX-TV series "Rescue Me" (on which he plays the not-too-bright Sean Garrity) is starting a fifth season, his first solo CD "Somethin' Like Love" was recently released by PS Classics, and this week he's playing Prince Sirki/Death in a reading, directed by Doug Hughes, of the new musical Death Takes a Holiday by Maury Yeston, Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone. LaBute's play marks Pasquale's Broadway debut ("I have my own dressing room, for the first time"), while wife Laura Benanti (a Tony winner for Gypsy) is Off-Broadway ("and sharing a dressing room, for the first time").

Benanti's at the Public, in Chris Durang's Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. They met in a 2005 World AIDS Day concert performance of A Secret Garden (he was Archibald; she, Lily).

Pasquale's worked previously with Terry Kinney, who directed pretty, and the playwright — a combination that the actor terms "just the best." Kinney directed him in Nicky Silver's Beautiful Child, in which Pasquale played a pedophile teacher involved with an eight-year-old male student, and in LaBute's Fat Pig, he succeeded Jeremy Piven. "That was the first time he quit. He's embarrassed all of us by his behavior. I hope he never sets foot on a New York stage again. He's not welcome."

Kent, Pasquale's pretty character, he says, is "sort of the classic LaBute asshole-friend. He's shallow, beauty-obsessed, and has bullied Greg [Thomas Sadoski] his whole life. I was struggling with it, and Neil said, 'This is it in a nutshell: more Kowalski, less Pasquale-ski.'" The play co-stars Marin Ireland (Steph) and Piper Perabo (Carly). Tours of West Side Story and Miss Saigon preceded Pasquale's arrival in New York, where he was "jobless and miserable for almost a year." He stood by for Brian d'Arcy James ("a great friend") in The Wild Party, and other shows followed, including Spinning Into Butter, The Spitfire Grill, A Man of No Importance (for which he earned Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations), and A Soldier's Play.

"Somethin' Like Love," Pasquale's first solo CD, features several numbers from years gone by. "I'm a big fan of the American Songbook." Among them: "Laura" (for guess who), some Frank Loesser songs ("If I Were a Bell," "I Wish I Didn't Love You So," "The Lady's in Love with You," the last with music by Burton Lane), "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," and "My Funny Valentine."

Steven Pasquale with Celia Keenan-Bolger in The Light in the Piazza
photo by Chris Bennion

Though TV is lucrative, the downside of being in a series is that one can't commit to a theatre run that conflicts with the production schedule. It cost Pasquale the chance to open on Broadway in The Light in the Piazza, after having created the role of Fabrizio in the 2003 Seattle world premiere of the Adam Guettel-Craig Lucas musical. Confides Pasquale, "Professionally, that was the most heartbreaking thing that I've ever experienced." To date, Fabrizio was Pasquale's "most rewarding onstage experience. Everyone knows how special Adam Guettel's music is. It was magical — with incredibly talented people. Celia Keenan-Bolger is one of my closest friends, one of my favorite human beings. [In Seattle, she played Victoria Clark's daughter, Fabrizio's love interest.]

"There's a ton of roles I haven't done that I'd love to do — like Billy Bigelow [Carousel] and Georges in Sunday in the Park with George. They're just two of the great roles I've been listening to my whole life, and I'm finally getting old enough to play them." Meanwhile, Pasquale is enjoying highs privately (as a husband) and professionally (on Broadway, TV, and CD). He has a number of reasons to be happy.

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Various and Sundry

Nathan Lane, who plays Estragon in the revival of the Samuel Beckett absurdist comedy Waiting for Godot (in previews, opening April 30, at Studio 54), has connections with some of his predecessors.

Bert Lahr, Broadway's first Estragon (1956), played the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz", while Lane portrayed the fearful feline in 1995's "The Wizard of Oz in Concert: Dreams Come True".

Zero Mostel, who played Estragon in a 1961 PBS-TV version of "Godot," originated roles (Pseudolus, Max Bialystock) later played by Lane. Robin Williams, Lane's co-star in "The Birdcage", was Estragon in the 1988 Lincoln Center production, in which Bill Irwin, currently Lane's co-star as Vladimir, had the part of Lucky.

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Back in '88, Bill Irwin's Lucky understudy was David Hyde Pierce, who's won four Emmys (as Niles Crane, brother to Kelsey Grammer's "Frasier") and a Tony (for Curtains).

Pierce is back on Broadway in a revival of Accent on Youth (previews April 7, opens April 29, at the Samuel J. Friedman). On screen, his role's been played by Herbert Marshall ("Accent on Youth," 1935), Bing Crosby ("Mr. Music," 1950) and Clark Gable ("But Not for Me," 1959).

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Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino, Pablo Schreiber star in a Broadway revival of Desire Under the Elms (previews April 14, opens April 27, at the St. James), by Eugene O'Neill. In addition, two-time Tony winner (Death of a Salesman, Long Day's Journey into Night) Dennehy and Gugino co-star with (Pablo's brother) Liev Schreiber in the upcoming film "Every Day".

Dennehy's role in Elms was previously played on Broadway by two Oscar winners: the 1924 original starred Walter Huston ("The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"); and the '52 revival, Karl Malden ("A Streetcar Named Desire"). The 1958 film version starred Oscar winners Burl Ives ("The Big Country"), Sophia Loren ("Two Women"), and Anthony Perkins.

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An upcoming HBO movie about Bill and Hillary Clinton is entitled "The Special Relationship" (not "Desire Under the Realms"). Playing the dynamic duo are Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore. Written by Peter Morgan ("Frost/Nixon"), who also directs (for the first time). Michael Sheen co-stars as former Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom he's played in Morgan's "The Deal" and "The Queen.

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Hello, Dolly: 9 to 5 (previews April 7, opens April 30, at the Marquis) welcomes Dolly Parton to the ranks of Broadway composer-lyricists, joining Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Frank Loesser — and Mel Brooks. The musical's based on the 1980 movie "Nine to Five", for which Parton wrote the Oscar-nominated title song, and in which she co-starred with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin.

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Bobby Cannavale, who played Will's policeman partner on "Will & Grace" (and was a "Third Watch" regular) and Sarah Paulson (The Glass Menagerie, "Studio 60") are appearing Off-Broadway and on TV.

They're in The Gingerbread House (previews April 11, opens April 18, at the Rattlestick), and on "Cupid" (ABC, Tuesdays, 10 PM ET). Cannavale plays the title role, a god of love (exiled in Manhattan) with Paulson as his shrink. It's a rare remake of a TV series, the short-lived (1998-99) "Cupid," which starred Jeremy Piven.

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Mary Stuart marks the second Broadway turn for three British fair ladies: director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!, onstage and screen), Janet McTeer (A Doll's House Tony winner), and Harriet Walter (All's Well That Ends Well). In previews, it opens April 19, at the Broadhurst.

Since Broadway: McTeer has played Gertrude Lawrence in the British TV-drama "Daphne" (on DVD), and portrays Clemmie (Mrs. Winston) Churchill in the upcoming "Into the Storm". Walter was mother to Keira Knightley ("Atonement", now on DVD), and stars in the new British-TV series "Law & Order: UK". (The "Law & Order" franchise has now acquired a British accent. Crimes are the same, but discussing them sounds more refined.)

Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between theatre, film and television projects and people. Contact Michael Buckley at stagetoscreens@aol.com.

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