Most actors have two terrors. The traditional "actor's nightmare" is forgetting one's lines in the middle of a performance. Running a close second is the nerve-jangling gauntlet of an audition: a soul-baring performance for a very small and very judgmental audience, often with a much-needed paycheck at stake. The smash-hit Broadway musical A Chorus Line deals with the latter terror; so too does a new documentary film about the show and its 2006 Broadway revival: Every Little Step.
The 1975 play A Chorus Line memorably depicted dancers auditioning for prized roles in the chorus of a Broadway musical. In the years since, the audition process has increasingly become the stuff of "reality" entertainment, from Star Search to American Idol (and YouTube sensation Susan Boyle). But the play's creator, the late Michael Bennett, understood better than most what dancers think and feel. A dancer himself, Bennett created A Chorus Line through an innovative workshop process, beginning with a 1974 gathering of twenty-two dancers coaxed into sharing their personal histories, their sexual identities, their triumphs and, most importantly, their fears (a "big jug of red wine" helped to open the floodgates).
Filmmakers James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo begin the film by delving into those tapes, and Every Little Step devotes not insignificant screen time to recounting the development of a play referred to as "every performer's story" and "the history of dance in theater." An oral history of the show includes comments from original co-choreographer Bob Avian, composer Marvin Hamlisch, original "Cassie" Donna McKechnie and original "Connie" Baayork Lee. As director and choreographer of the revival, respectively, Avian and Lee sit behind the audition table, their experience with the play making them especially discriminating and especially empathetic.
Stern and Del Deo enjoyed unprecedented access to the revival's audition process (thanks to a special dispensation by Actor's Equity), so we get a strong sense of the eight-month process of cattle calls and callbacks used to whittle 3000 auditioners down to a cast of about 30. Naturally, some dancers wilt under the pressure and others shine. One reduces the audition panel to tears and, seconds after he exits, gets a "Sign him up!" from Avian. Another invites the filmmakers into her home to meet her father, a retired professional dancer who shares, "The hardest thing is when you can't dance."
In an obvious but basically effective approach, the film counterpoints the musical's deconstruction of auditions with the 2006 auditions we're seeing. As Cassie puts it in the play, "I am putting myself on the line." All artists at some point feel that ultimate vulnerability of putting it all on the line through and for their art; that visceral feeling is the beating heart of Bennett's work and Every Little Step's fine return to it.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]