In 1974, Broadway choreographer Michael Bennett sat down with a couple dozen of his friends in the dance business, and asked them to talk about what their lives were like. The storytelling went on for 12 hours, and the resulting material was eventually distilled into the Tony-winning musical A Chorus Line, perhaps the single finest effort ever made to describe the process of being a struggling actor battling for every audition. When A Chorus Line was revived in 2006, directors James D. Stern and Adam del Deo saw a chance to revisit the process again, from inside the auditions of A Chorus Line itself. Bennett’s estate and the producers of the revival granted them access that was unprecedented for any documentary previously made about Broadway. The documentary Every Little Step is the result.
The film addresses the audition and casting process from start to finish. Although it does occasionally introduce us to a dancer that is followed away from the screen (complete with title cards: “Jessica,” “Tyce,” “Charlotte,” etc.), the vast majority of the film is simply in the casting room. We are there as the unkindest cuts are made again and again to turn more than 3,000 respondents to an open casting call into just 13 actors and a handful of understudies.
The pressure is double because of the way in which A Chorus Line was created. Eight of the actors who sat in that circle with Michael Bennett would eventually originate the roles based on their lives, and play them for years on Broadway. Some of them in turn have assumed duties behind the camera for the revival, such as choreographer Baayork Lee, whose story was the basis for the character of Connie. Lee judges each of the actresses up for the role – actresses who are essentially playing her life story – as harshly as she can, just another ounce of pressure on the actors and dancers who appear in the film.
The film does a good job of showing what gets an actor chosen. Of course everyone responding to the call thinks they can sing and dance, and almost everyone who makes the second call-back feels like they should have the part, at which point it’s just the smallest nuances that can swing the casting director’s choice. Watching the auditions for the cross-dressing gay dancer Paul, it’s clear that there are no shortage of actors who can identify with Paul’s difficult situation, but compared to Jason Tam their emotion seems flat. Short clips from the other auditions are edited together in a similar fashion, such that it’s easy to see to show who is merely decent and who is superlative.
In the reality-TV era, it’s certainly possible for a cynic to watch this film and feel it to be a rigged game. This viewpoint was voiced at Movie Klub after the film was over: it’s just coincidence that [name redacted] is being followed by a camera from the first audition, and eventually lands a part? Yet the filmmakers were granted such unprecedented access from the beginning of the production that having such access to people who did not yet win roles is not so unrealistic. The film is slick enough and polished enough that it could give the impression of being artificial, but that’s going to be each viewer’s personal impression, and I for one went along with the film without feeling that way.
In fact, the bigger problem with focusing on casting is that if you’re unfamiliar with A Chorus Line – and I’ve never seen it – then the show itself is lost amongst all of the casting details. Stern and del Deo think that the best way to describe the show is simply as “a story of struggling dancers,” and that’s not a bad idea. but they also refer to things like “Paul’s monologue” or “the mirror dance” in reverential tones that suggest the viewer already knows what they’re talking about. It’s not a big issue – the film eventually explains enough to set the scene – but it does give the movie a sort of inside-baseball feel that could have been avoided.
Every Little Step is at its very best when it just lets the actors work. Tam’s audition for the role of Paul, in which he moves hardened casting directors to tears, is simply the best moment in the film, but Tam’s problem is that he’s too good: since he has a hammerlock on the part from his first performance, there’s no need for him to be in the rest of the movie. The actors that the film follows throughout aren’t quite as lucky, and have to battle against tough competition. The climactic final audition is nerve-wracking because we’ve seen these actors do so well in their previous call-backs; any one of them has done enough to earn the part, but someone will have to go empty-handed. Once [spoiler redacted] gets her big part, and you find yourself thinking, “no, [spoiler redacted] should have gotten the role!”, that’s when you realize this movie had you all along.
Of course the film ends with the eventual stars of the show doing the famous high-kicking dance to the closing song “One” on opening night, a scene that must have been contractually obligated for the directors to deliver. However, one more moment is taken to linger upon Bennett, and the tape of the actors that he gathered in that empty room decades before. Every Little Step refuses to let you go without one last reminder that this is play was conceived by actors, for actors, in order to tell the stories of actors in a way that audiences had never seen before. In a way, this documentary is playing that exact same role, and it does so just as well.
Reviewed by Mark Young