Despite what you may have heard, the new “A Chorus Line” documentary feature, “Every Little Step,” is not a singular sensation.
In fact, docus about live theater are sprouting everywhere, with Sony Pictures Classics’ “Step,” which unspooled April 17, being followed later this year by “Theater of War,” which focuses on the Public Theater’s production of Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.
Then there’s Crayton Robey’s “Making the Boys,” a chronicle of Mart Crowley’s landmark glimpse inside a bickering circle of gay buddies, “The Boys in the Band,” timed to bow next month at the Tribeca Film Festival on the 40th anni of the Stonewall riots.
The question is, who’s going to see these movies
“Everyone in the world,” deadpans “Step” producer and co-director James Stern. “Seriously, though, I think our film skews pretty broad. Something like 16 million people saw this show in its first iteration, but then you add all the people who did it in high school, who did it in college, who saw the Broadway revival, and the people who know the music, and that’s pretty much everybody.”
“Step” started life as a phone call between Stern and John Breglio, the lawyer-turned-producer who controls the estate of “Chorus Line” mastermind Michael Bennett. Breglio told Stern he had archival audio tapes of the late-night conversations with a group of Broadway dancers that Bennett and his collaborators eventually developed into the musical.
“John called up and said, ‘Look, would you have any interest in coming into this and producing and directing it — I have these tapes.’ Which no one had ever heard,” Stern says.
There’s a perception that docus in general, let alone the theater-related ones, are going to be more popular with the Netflix crowd than in theaters, but Sony Classics co-prexy Michael Barker disagrees, citing the distrib’s hit 2001 nature pic as an example.
” ‘Winged Migration’ was shot like ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ which gave it a chance,” Barker says. “Sometimes the experience of watching a documentary is far superior if you see it in a movie theater.”
Richard Lorber, whose Alive Mind banner is distributing “Theater of War,” says legit documentaries tap into a market that soaks up advertising but can’t always access the product — particularly audiences living outside New York.
“When you consider how much is spent on promotion and marketing, live theater has always had a larger footprint than its shoe size,” Lorber says.
In other words, more people will know about Streep in Tony Kushner’s adaptation of “Mother Courage” than will see it (the production played a limited summer 2006 engagement in Central Park). Lorber believes the film can exploit that leftover curiosity.
There’s also the direct video market to theater fans, which Lorber says has been his target aud for “Hair: Let the Sunshine In,” Wolfgang Held and Pola Rappaport’s docu about the original production of the flower-power musical. Retail deals with Broadway Cares and similar theater-centric orgs helped move copies of the film, consisting largely of archival footage chronicling the show and its era. (The Public, however, nixed the sale of DVDs at the Hirschfeld Theater, where the Broadway revival of “Hair” is playing.)
Filmed stagings do better in this market, too — though producer Steve Kline says he hopes Spike Lee’s film of last season’s Broadway tuner “Passing Strange,” which preemed at Sundance, can break out. A film of the final performance of Broadway long-runner “Rent” recently saw some multiplex play.
While “Theater of War” has a similar historical bent to the “Hair” docu, Stern and co-director Adam Del Deo say “Step” is more of an exercise in making a film the way Bennett made the musical. The collaborators had to winnow down 400-plus hours of their own footage, plus the archival material, with the casting process for the 2006 revival (now on a post-Broadway tour) shaped into a tension-filled talent contest. Stern thinks that’s how Bennett would have wanted it.
” ‘A Chorus Line’ had always been kind of a documentary,” he says. “Instead of the Richard Attenborough film, Bennett always wished there had been a documentary.”