Where filmmaker Sir Richard Attenborough failed, the new film Every Little Step succeeds in making an engrossing movie of A Chorus Line. With its 1975 premiere, A Chorus Line became one of Broadway’s biggest hits, winning a Pulitzer and multiple Tonys and running for a record-breaking 6,137 performances. It dramatized the dance auditions for a glitzy musical, put the audience inside the theatrical creative process and, consequently, seemed utterly unfilmable. Attenborough’s 1985 adaptation felt artificial rather than immediate, and seemed to confirm that A Chorus Line belonged on the stage.
Directed by Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern, best known for their basketball documentary The Year of the Yao, Every Little Step has the ingenious premise of dramatizing the behind-the-scenes preparations for A Chorus Line’s 2006 revival. For the initial auditions, 3,000 aspiring dancers line up around the block, putting themselves in the same position as A Chorus Line’s characters. Every Little Step captures the white-knuckle, “American Idol”-style suspense of performance competition while doing justice to the demands on a dancer’s life.
Plus, the film pays deeply affectionate homage to the original show, particularly its director/choreographer Michael Bennett, who died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1987. Every Little Step revisits reel-to-reel tape Bennett recorded in the early ’70s from a late-night rap session with 22 “gypsies” — professional dancers often relegated to the background. The 12 hours of tape provided the raw material for A Chorus Line, and the documentary fascinatingly shows how lines from the initial conversation ended up in the final script. The film, however, tends to minimize the contributions of writers Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood, as well as lyricist Ed Kleban, all deceased.
Composer Marvin Hamlisch turns up as a seasoned Broadway raconteur, sharing oft-told war stories of A Chorus Line’s origins. He recounts how one song, a bawdy celebration of boob jobs, never got the laughs they expected in tryouts, until they realized that the program identified it as “Tits and Ass,” giving away the refrain and the joke. Changing the name to “Dance 10, Looks 3” made the difference and inspired big laughs.
In the present day, Bennett’s longtime collaborator and director Bob Avian and choreographer Baayork Lee number among the creative forces behind the revival. A spitfire of a performer, Lee was the first to play A Chorus Line’s 4-foot-10 dancer Connie, a role based on herself. Much of the film’s first half takes place in mirrored rehearsal halls and finds the humor in auditions gone wrong. No performer ever wants to hear, “It was very interesting, your choices.”
The process also contains surprise revelations. Young dancer Jason Tam recites a monologue, based on Bennett’s experience, about performing in a drag show and unexpectedly encountering his parents. Not only does Tam weep during his delivery, but he brings tears to the eyes of Avian and the other auditioners, even though they’ve heard the speech umpteen times before.
At an hour and a half, Every Little Step doesn’t have time to do justice to all of A Chorus Line’s characters and songs, and tends to keep the spotlight on the females in contention, including Charlotte d’Amboise. Nearly all the ladies see themselves mirrored in A Chorus Line characters and discuss the sacrifices required of this form of showbiz. One advocates for dancing full time without a day-job career: “I think if you have something to fall back on, you’ll fall back.”
Where A Chorus Line takes place over a single day, Every Little Step more realistically reveals that the call-back process drags out over months. In the film’s most terrifying, heartbreaking moment, one would-be performer’s routine goes poorly. Avian takes her aside and says, “I want you to do what you did last summer” and the dancer confesses to the camera, “I don’t know what I did last summer!”
Every Little Step conveys the anguish of being cut, but also elicits sympathies for the directors and decision-makers who do the cutting. For Avian and his colleagues, the hard part isn’t sitting through the bad performers, but rejecting the great ones. Every Little Step suggests that for every dancer in a chorus line, scores of other aspiring artists have stories that go unheard.