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Onstage onscreen: three theater documentaries well worth watching

From "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me."
From "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me."Courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival

Theater is a thing of moments, fleeting and unrecoverable except in memory. Actors and audiences alike know that the performances they deliver or witness will never again unfold in exactly the same way. That built-in ephemerality is part of theater’s singular magic and also its terrible poignancy.

Small wonder that theater people so often invoke that achingly fraught word, “moment.” It surfaces at key points in two excellent documentaries: “Every Little Step” (2008, available on Amazon), about the making and remaking of “A Chorus Line,” one of the most successful musicals in history; and “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened” (2016, available on Netflix), about the brief life and lengthy afterlife of one of Broadway’s most storied flops, “Merrily We Roll Along.”

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At the very end of “Every Little Step,” we see “A Chorus Line” creator-director-choreographer Michael Bennett accept a Tony Award in 1976 with the words: “I wanted one moment. And I have it.” More moving than that scene of triumph, though, is the sight of middle-aged Lonny Price at the beginning of “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” watching a videotaped recording of himself at age 22, nearly vibrating with excitement after being cast in a lead role for the 1981 Broadway premiere of “Merrily We Roll Along.”

We know something the young Price could not: “Merrily” would close after only 16 performances on Broadway and bring an ignominious end to the extraordinary, decade-long collaboration between composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince. “This show …,” the young Price says, then pauses before continuing. “If I never do anything again in the rest of my life, I will have had this moment.” The wistful expression on the face of the older Price (who went on to a substantial career as a theater director and directs “Best Worst Thing”) suggests that he still feels the same way.

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So, too, to judge by their expressions, do the cast members from 1981 (including Jason Alexander) whom Price interviews. As they reminisce and banter about “Merrily” and trace the course of their careers since then, in show business and outside it, a collegial warmth pervades their conversations. They might be fellow survivors of a shipwreck.

The throat catches a bit at the sight of Hal Prince, who died one year ago, eyeglasses propped atop his head as always, obviously energized by the chance to work with such young performers (the “Merrily” cast ranged in age from 16 to 25) and voicing absolute confidence that the show would be a hit. And why wouldn’t he feel sanguine? After all, the (sanguinary) Sondheim-Prince show that preceded “Merrily” was “Sweeney Todd.”

Sondheim’s score for “Merrily” would ultimately be considered one of his best, but in 1981 footage his candor is striking in acknowledging his struggles, with opening night approaching and five more songs still to write. “When you’ve been writing complicated, it’s hard to get back to being simple,” he admits. A much more relaxed sequence, and a high point of “Best Worst Thing,” is Price’s audio recording of Sondheim sitting down at a piano at Price’s birthday party in 1981 and giving an impromptu performance of “Good Thing Going” before the awestruck young guests.

From "Every Little Step."
From "Every Little Step."Paul Kolnik/Sony Pictures Classics

But what makes “Best Worst Thing” and “Every Little Step” so resonant is that both films mainly focus not on the big names but rather on the unknown performers who vied for a shot at the bright lights of Broadway and remained largely unknown even after they got that shot.

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Seldom has the agonizing pressure cooker of the audition process been more vividly captured than in “Every Little Step,” which shrewdly mirrors the structure of “A Chorus Line” itself. More than 3,000 performers competed for just two dozen roles in the 2006 Broadway revival, which was directed by Bob Avian, the original co-choreographer of “A Chorus Line.” The documentary (co-directed by Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern) take us into the audition room where the final crop of leotard-clad dancer-singers give it their all before Avian’s appraising eyes. He’s a kindly presence, but the brutal realities behind the glitzy spectacle of Broadway musicals are made clear as the hopes of auditioning performers are raised, dashed, and, rarely, fulfilled. When speaking of forging a career in the theater, one actor says with matter-of-fact fatalism: “There’s going to be 100 ‘No’s’ to one ‘Yes’.”

What keeps them going? Almost always, it’s the need to perform — and that’s a need that does not necessarily subside with age. Exhibit A, perhaps, is “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” Chiemi Karasawa’s superb 2013 documentary (available on Amazon) about the Broadway legend, who achieved mass fame late in life with her performance on “30 Rock” as the forbidding mother of Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy.

Stritch was nearly 87 and in very frail health when Karasawa was filming “Shoot Me.” While the documentary becomes, inescapably, about a woman coping with aging and mortality, the overall portrait of “Shoot Me” is of a show-business trouper. Even as she increasingly had trouble remembering lyrics (”I want to remember my words!” Stritch says before one performance, her voice edged in panic), she soldiered on with cabaret performances in New York and elsewhere. Many entertainers, and Stritch was one, feel most fully alive when they are in front of a crowd. She acknowledges as much in “Shoot Me,” saying: “Their love for me was what I needed.”

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So Stritch went on performing until near the very end, forever in search of and in need of that elusive, vital, sustaining moment.


Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.