Every Little Step
Making it in 'Chorus Line'
Professional stage actors are a far more compelling subject of study than typical movie actors. Everything about them is turned up a level - their hunger for a part, their self-confidence, self-doubt, their lust for approval. In despair, they bleed charisma. Even in repose, they're projecting to the back of the house.
That intensity is the star of "Every Little Step," Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern's engrossing backstage documentary - OK, pre-backstage. Their project is built on a clever conceit. The movie is about the casting of the 2006 Broadway revival of "A Chorus Line," the award-winning 1975 musical about the casting of a musical. And from the opening minutes, the aspiring stars look scared, excited, and ready to eat somebody - but intensely so.
"A Chorus Line" was born after Michael Bennett, a stage director and choreographer, sat down with 22 professional dancers and recorded them talking about their lives. Expanded from their group therapy session, the show was configured for the stage as a grueling audition epic whose dramatic centerpiece is Cassie, a former star reduced to auditioning for the chorus because. . . she needs the work. In meta-theater terms, her descent is tragic; her redemption triumphal.
The brilliance of the original show was the way it upended the conventional musical's pecking order. In "A Chorus Line," the background players were the stars. The documentary weaves audio from Bennett's interviews with mini biographies of Bennett himself, ancient-looking footage from the original show, interviews with its stars (including Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie), and peeks into the lives of a few of the women auditioning for parts in the new production. Songs like "At the Ballet" and "Dance: 10, Looks: 3" are patched together from separate auditions. "I Hope I Get It" shrewdly becomes the theme of the first round of cuts, with prospective chorus liners shrieking into their cellphones ("I got it!") or looking despondent ("I didn't get it.").
The audition panel includes Jay Binder, the casting director, Bob Avian, the original show's co-choreographer and the new show's director, and Baayork Lee, who played Connie in the original show and is the revival's choreographer. They sob together when one impressive actor, Jason Tam, weeps during his Paul audition (whether it's strategic seems irrelevant since it works) and cringe, more than once, at assorted performers. Lee makes a rather astounding taskmistress. She's prone to terrifying commands ("Eat nails!") and puts the dancers through their paces with comical chastisements: "Don't do that. That's 'Cats.' "
Cable television is full of reasonably involving audition and performance shows, where we spend months watching dreams either come true or fail to. But the dreamers on a show like "American Idol" or "Top Chef" never seem to need the employment or the approval as much as the people in this movie do. Reality television has a way of taking the reality away.
In "Every Little Step," the performers bleed, sweat, cry theater - without having to tell us. Even a veteran like Charlotte D'Amboise appears to want to play Cassie as much as she's wanted anything. The character's hunger seems, somehow, to feed her own. These people are probably annoying to live with (it's always about them), but under Del Deo and Sterns's microscope they're more interesting, and in most cases far more talented, than anybody you'd meet on TV.