Everything's Coming Up Gypsies

"I'm not really a Broadway gypsy; I just play one in A Chorus Line." That's a quip one can imagine hearing from the performers featured in Every Little Step, a new documentary from Sony Pictures Classics, which opened April 17. It chronicles the casting of the lead roles in the 2006 Broadway revival of the landmark 1975 musical. The film also revisits the original production—conceived, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett—through archival footage, interviews with members of the cast and creative team, and provocative snippets from the reel-to-reel audiotapes of the late-night talk sessions the musical was based on.

But for a film about a musical that celebrates Broadway gypsies—those unheralded dancers who go from show to show, dancing their hearts out anonymously behind the stars—there is surprisingly little emphasis on dancing. Aside from some montages, a scene with Baayork Lee (the original Connie and re-stager of the revival's choreography) teaching a group audition phrase, and a few segments in which contenders for the roles of Mike and Cassie perform solo dances, the film rarely examines the dance audition experience. Most of the audition footage is of the performers' singing and acting tryouts. Viewers learn nothing of the rigors of a gypsy's life—highly competitive auditions, grueling technique classes, bleeding toes, obsessive dieting, countless visits to the chiropractor, the traumas of injury, and the ticking clock of a dancer's career.

But this is as it must be, because A Chorus Line is musical theatre, and Every Little Step reminds us that while musicals can certainly include lots of dancing, they are works of theatre, not dance. And the essential ingredient of theatre is the actor. Ironically, once a performer gets cast in A Chorus Line, he or she is no longer a gypsy but a full-fledged actor, albeit one who must dance well enough to convincingly play a gypsy.

So if you're expecting Every Little Step to teach you about the lives of Broadway dancers, you may be disappointed. But if you want a gripping, tearjerking, reality show–style movie that offers a close-up look at the casting of Broadway leads, it will have you on the edge of your seat. And while the intimate, brutally revealing audition sequences are riveting, some of the most entertaining moments are the contextualizing historical segments, which include footage of Bennett go-go dancing in a 1965 episode of Hullabaloo and Donna McKechnie (the original Cassie) performing "The Music and the Mirror."

Unprecedented Access

"It is because of my love for the world of theatre that we made this film," says James D. Stern, who with Adam Del Deo produced and directed Every Little Step. "And if people who really care about the theatre like our film, then I'll feel as though we've done our job." In what may be a first in the history of Broadway musicals, camera crews were invited to film the auditions for the revival, and Stern and Del Deo were granted exclusive access to the show's casting process.

John Breglio, producer of the revival and executive producer of Every Little Step, wanted to document the work of reviving A Chorus Line from the get-go. "This follows along very closely with the views of Michael Bennett himself," explains Stern. "Bennett viewed A Chorus Line as a kind of documentary in and of itself. And it really is if you think about it, especially the way Bennett put the show together from verbatim interviews."

While the core audience for the film is clearly A Chorus Line fans and theatre lovers, Del Deo believes it has broader appeal. "The show's theme of putting yourself on the line resonates so far and deep," he says, "and we've tried to keep that theme throughout the documentary." Adds Stern, "And the idea of striving to achieve a dream is universal."

While the filmmakers had unrestricted access to the casting process, the auditioning performers had the right to refuse to allow their images to be used in the film. "They were not required to sign a release form for us in order to audition for the show," says Del Deo. "But only a very small percentage of them didn't sign. And none of those were any of the main performers who made it to the final auditions."

In shooting the dance scenes, the filmmakers made use of multiple cameras. "We knew we had to do that in order to get enough footage to be able to edit through it in a kinetic way," Del Deo says. "We wanted to make sure we had close-ups and wide shots and were moving the camera up and down the body. We needed those sequences to feel very dynamic and sexy and strong."

"When you're shooting this kind of stuff, yes, you want to see what the dance is," says Stern, "but you also want to understand what it's like to come into a theatre, so you have to be very careful about how you're showing the proscenium versus how you're showing close-ups, and you have to be very aware of what makes pace work in film versus what makes pace work on stage. We had to think about all those things."

"And while we were focusing on dancing, acting, and singing, we also were very conscious of building an emotional core to the movie," explains Del Deo. "As we move through the audition process, you become drawn in and attached to the characters. By the third act, the pressure builds, and you're invested in much more than just how well these people can dance or sing."