Every Little Step Dir. Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2009]

There’s something ingeniously meta about Every Little Step, which traces the whittling down of some 3,000 hopefuls vying for 17 leading parts in the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. The first filmmakers ever to secure permission from Actors’ Equity to film its members during tryouts, directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern have cleverly fashioned a documentary about actors auditioning for a show about actors auditioning for a show. Accordingly, their film offers a truer tribute to Michael Bennett’s groundbreaking 1975 production than the 2006 reincarnation itself, which garnered lukewarm reviews, in part, for failing to deliver a fresh vision by hewing too closely to the original. Every Little Step also feels more urgent than the production it tails: With lyrics like “I’ve got to get this joooob!” A Chorus Line has always been less about divas seeking stardom than about professionals seeking work. And with so many fields now experiencing seismic shake-ups, the always-perilous plight of an actor has never felt more relatable.

And the thespians we meet here couldn’t ask for more arduous trials. The ultimate backstage musical, A Chorus Line is the triathlon of theater, demanding superior dancing, acting, and singing of each one of its performers. The filmmakers’ unprecedented access – they follow everything from open calls to final callbacks to actors learning whether they’ve won parts – offers a thrilling private glimpse at a nerve-racking ritual. Every Little Step is sure to become a staple of drama classes, as clear patterns emerge distinguishing the eventual cast members from the also-rans. Bob Avian, the show’s director, gently separates the natural, confident performers from the preening show-offs, who hog the spotlight by lingering in their dance poses a second longer than everyone else.

Even if you’re not the type to get goose bumps at the words, “Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch…Again!” – A Chorus Line’s opening utterances – Every Little Step offers the tension of a hard-fought sports contest. We see scores of talented singers wipe out on a notoriously tricky vocal passage, making it that much more satisfying when one Broadway newcomer finally nails it. Director Avian is similarly flummoxed in casting the role of Paul, whose monologue about his homophobic parents is the show’s dramatic apogee. All the men who audition are hopelessly melodramatic, until Jason Tam delivers a performance so unaffected he reduces the entire creative team to tears. Moments like these are especially impressive given the omnipresent cameras. (The filmmakers might have taken their inquiry further by asking those auditioning whether it stoked their nerves to know that their tryouts would be aired publicly.)

Nearly as riveting as the actors themselves are the figures on the other side of the casting table. We scan their faces closely for sideways glances and slight grimaces, knowing that these gestures will reveal the fates of performers with their livelihoods on the line. One casting director even seems to relish her minor position of power, telling the director, “Just tell her she didn’t get it!” of one stage veteran who chokes during the final callbacks.

It’s this aspect of the process – the unforgiving nature of auditions – that reveals intriguing insights into where the 2006 revival went wrong. With many of the show’s major roles coming down to face-offs between two final competitors, it’s the polished, consummate professionals who unfailingly deliver when it’s their turn to strut their stuff, while several of the more spontaneous, less varnished performers seem to combust under the pressure. But the resulting production was slicker than it should have been; as Ben Brantley wrote at the time, “It’s hard to separate professional shtick from [the characters’] private selves, which defeats the show’s purpose.” And with some pivotal roles, I found myself wishing I could urge the director to reconsider his casting decision by taking a risk on a less experienced performer. As perfectly befits the spirit of A Chorus Line, Every Little Step makes us feel deeply the desperation behind the headshots.

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