Dancer Rachelle Rak climbs "up a steep and very narrow stairway" to a dressing room at the Broadhurst Theatre to await the worst news of her professional life: She will not be getting the role of Sheila in the Broadway revival of "A Chorus Line," an ambition she has poured her whole life into, not to mention the rigorous eight months of the audition itself. "It's all good," she gamely tells Jay Binder, the casting director, as she fumbles for her dance bag, only too aware that cameras are recording every humiliating moment.
Indeed, those cameras recorded more than 500 hours of the audition process for the revival of the landmark musical created by the late Michael Bennett. The result is the new documentary "Every Little Step," which opens Friday. The $2-million movie about actors auditioning for a musical is a multilayered, fugue-like celebration not only of what it means to be a professional dancer on Broadway but also of the iconic musical that captured it so well.
"I thought to myself at the time, 'Why did I ever sign that waiver?' " recalls Rak, looking back to January 2006 and commenting on the fact that the Actors' Equity union had given permission for cameras to film auditions for the first time ever. "But now I think: Why not? If the audience is able to see all the joy, passion and heart that I put into the audition, then why not the pain and disappointment too. That's all part of the story."
As delineated in "Every Little Step," that "story" started on a snowy night in January 1974 when Bennett gathered 22 dancers for an all-night soul-baring session that would become the basis for the longest-running American musical in history. The documentary kinetically interweaves the casting of the revival -- winnowed from 3,000 applicants -- with rare archival footage and interviews with the original creators, including star Donna McKechnie, composer Marvin Hamlisch, and Bennett associate and friend Bob Avian.
'Idol'? Forget it
The voyeurism of watching a table of professionals assessing the relative merits and flaws of those auditioning may bear a superficial similarity to the omnipresent TV reality shows. But James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, the creators of the documentary, are quick to paint their film as the "anti-'American Idol.' "
"We were careful to keep a dignity to the process, careful not to take potshots," says Stern, a veteran Broadway and film producer and documentarian. "We concentrated on the absolutely rigid and disciplined process."
Says Del Deo, "It wasn't about people coming out of nowhere to land a recording contract or get into the pages of People magazine. These were people who dedicated their lives day in and day out to something they loved. On one level, the film, like the musical itself, is just about getting a job. And who can't relate to that in today's economic climate?"
Coming up with a movie that would both satisfy the proprietary interest of those who adored the musical while piquing the interest of those who'd never heard of "A Chorus Line" was a tall order, one that came from John Breglio, lead producer of the revival, as well as the executive producer of the documentary. The noted Broadway lawyer was also Bennett's longtime friend and the executor of his estate. So when he dusted off the original reel-to-reel tapes and listened to them for the first time in more than three decades, Breglio felt "a chill going down my spine." There was Bennett, over cheap wine, entreating the chorus dancers -- "gypsies" in the vernacular -- to share their stories for a show that, in his own words, " . . . would be called 'A Chorus Line.' "
Hearing his friend's ghostly voice galvanized Breglio to ensure that the documentary would capture the essential integrity and emotionalism of the musical itself, something the disappointing 1985 film, by Richard Attenborough, never managed to do. "Michael always said that if any film would serve the musical well, it'd probably be a documentary," says Breglio of his friend, who died of HIV-related illness in 1987 at 44.
The producer initially hoped the documentary would be released to coincide with the revival's Broadway run, which ended last year. (It is now on a national tour.) But it took six months of negotiations to get Equity's cooperation. (As part of the agreement, actors are being paid an undisclosed sum.) Then Breglio ran into a creative dead-end with HBO, his original collaborators, before turning to Stern and Del Deo, the team behind the 2006 documentary ". . . So Goes the Nation," about Ohio's role in the presidential elec- tion.
Breglio worked closely with Stern and Del Deo as they telescoped the 500 hours of film into a 90-minute piece that closely mirrors the musical itself, largely following the funny, heart-stopping, nerve-racking experiences of actors vying for the prized slots of the characters of busty Val, failed Hollywood hopeful Cassie, troubled Paul, the vertically challenged Connie, and the flinty "can-the-adults-smoke" Sheila.
As one actress says, it's bad enough trying out for an iconic role. Then, referring to the presence of Baayork Lee, the original Connie, at the casting table, she adds, "I was really nervous at the audition because she is Connie."
"It's not for the faint of heart," says Natascia Diaz, a Cassie hopeful, in one of the documentary's biggest understatements. Adds Rak, "What if you came in every day [to your job] and said, 'Am I OK? Am I tall enough, pretty enough, good enough?' . . . You better like yourself because there are going to be 100 nos to every yes." If they're lucky.
Although "Every Little Step" is a cautionary tale -- "If anyone can discourage you from becoming an actor, let them," says Breglio -- it also captures the exuberant joy of performers doing what they do best and love most. There are also the minor miracles -- Jason Tam's pitch-perfect audition for Paul -- and the human rituals as performers psych themselves up to go into the audition room. "That's my party in there, not theirs," boasts the cocky Tyce D'Orio, up for the role of cocky ("I can do that") Mike. "23's a good number for me, that's today, Jan. 23," Diaz says. "I asked my father to say a prayer for me," says Chryssie Whitehead, up for the perky Kristine.
Where they are now
Whether prayers were answered or fell on deaf ears, the documentary captures the sweat equity as well as the cruel whimsy of fate. The intervening months since the filming finished and the release of the movie offer the added bonus of seeing how some of those rejected have since fared. Andy Blankenbuehler, an early "no," has since won a Tony as choreographer of "In the Heights." Another reject, Amy Spanger, is currently starring in "Rock of Ages" on Broadway.
After watching the documentary that brought back such painful memories, Rak says she's still glad it exists. "I have a friend who's a nurse, who always asks me about my life. And I tell her about the auditions and the callbacks. And I know that she doesn't get it, what it is I do. But seeing this movie, I know she's going to get it now. She'll know who I am."