On Broadway

April 27, 2009

After, er … decades as a theater writer, I’ve spent many hours watching shows take shape. I’ve been in rehearsal halls uptown and down and backstage in theaters from coast to coast. At run-throughs, tech rehearsals, and load-ins, I’ve talked to Tony winners and stagehands alike. But I’ve been allowed to watch people auditioning exactly twice.


For performers, auditions are a way of life (as you know). Ditto for producers, directors, choreographers and the other parties putting on a show. But with very few exceptions—and for very good reasons—the rest of us are generally excluded from the labor pains that go into assembling a cast. Even those who are privy to this excruciating process get to witness only a part of it: Once a dancer steps off the stage or out of the room, she is in the dark about what’s going on at the table. And those at the table don’t know if she’s satisfied with what she did or kicking herself.


But this private ritual is out in the open with the arrival of the wonderful new documentary Every Little Step. Filmmakers Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern recorded the casting of the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. Their cameras tracked the winnowing, from the thousand plus open-call aspirants who did two pirouettes for director Bob Avian and the other members of the staff, to the dozens doing entire numbers and showing off their split leaps or tap chops, and, ultimately, to the handful facing each other down in the final, grueling callbacks that decided who would be in this iconic show.


Based on the life stories gathered at a late-night bull session with a group of Broadway gypsies, A Chorus Line holds a special place in the annals of musical theater, the backstage musical to end them all. It won nine Tonys and the 1976 drama Pulitzer. Its success sanctified the workshop process that had created it and deified its director and co-choreographer, Michael Bennett. And its arrival, just about a year after the first issue of People, fed into the culture of confession that now pervades every aspect of American life. A Chorus Line also presaged today’s reality TV shows. Every Little Step combines the appeal of the original musical with the he’s-up-she’s-down suspense of So You Think You Can Dance in a potent entertainment package.


But it’s more than that. For all the differences between A Chorus Line and TV’s talent competitions, they do share this: The audience’s sympathies lie, always, with the performers. Zach, the fictional director in A Chorus Line, may reveal his humanity sometimes as he interrogates the dancers. But he sends most of them home jobless. Similarly, the judges of TV reality contests are the heavies, even when their harshness is justified.


In Every Little Step, there are no heavies. Avian, who worked with Bennett on the choreography, deliberates over each performer’s routine, even tearing up as one young actor delivers a devastating account of the show’s most emotional monologue. Watching him, we see not the cruelty of the audition process but its difficulty. Hard as it is on the perfor­mers—and Every Little Step doesn’t shrink away from showing how beat-up they feel when they are cut—auditioning also takes its toll on the auditioners. They get my vote, not just because they’re tackling a tough job but because they’ve agreed do it in public. And now that I’ve watched auditions three times, it’s enough—I hope they all get it.


Sylviane Gold writes on theater for
The New York Times.


Photo: Paul Kolnik, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics