For the first time the actual audition process for a Broadway show, from initial casting calls to final selection, has been documented on film in “Every Little Step.” The show is the 2006 revival of Michael Bennett’s classic 1975 musical “A Chorus Line,” which is itself about the audition process, directed by Bob Avian, the co-choreographer of the original, and choreographed by Baayork Lee, a star of the first production. Adam Del Deo, co-director of the film, visited Dallas recently to discuss how the project came about and evolved.
“I have a directing partner, Jim Stern, who created the film with me,” Del Deo explained. “John Breglio—he’s the executive producer—was also the producer of the Broadway revival and the executor of Michael Bennett’s estate. He knew Jim because Jim is a Broadway insider—he’s produced sixteen shows on Broadway, and they had a relationship. And John called Jim and said he was going to revive ‘A Chorus Line’ and there may be an opportunity for you to do a documentary on it. Jim called me—we were finishing our previous film, a political documentary called ‘So Goes the Nation,’ and previous to that we’d directed a film on Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball player—and I said to him that we’d been working back-to-back and it had been a kind of crazy four years, and were we sure we wanted to jump into this. And Jim said, ‘Listen, this is a big deal.’ I knew the iconic nature of the show, and we talked about it.
“Actors Equity…had never allowed in the history of Broadway cameras to come into the room and follow an audition process. The film is historic in that way. And so when John had an initial conversation with Equity…they got it and saw creating a show about a show…could be good for Broadway. It’s a very good union, very sensitive to the way they’re portrayed, and they want to make sure all their members are really looked after, rightfully so. There was a series of dialogues and conversations that went on for months, just to make sure that they felt that the project would be good for them. It all worked out. The other thing is that the dancers had the right not to participate in the film.
“What was really so fascinating to me is that we had the opportunity to follow thousands of dancers in New York trying to get a job on ‘A Chorus Line.’ That in itself was an interesting idea. But what made it very special was that Michael Bennett had created a show where he’d examined dancers in New York struggling, trying to get a job on the chorus line. So…we would create a film that would mirror the creation of the original show itself. It was almost like Fellini’s ‘8 ½.’ Some great elements were in place to create an interesting docu-film.
“Above and beyond that, John Breglio had access to Michael Bennett’s original audiotapes [of the workshops, which served as the basis for the book], which were locked up in a safe-deposit box. No one had ever really heard them; they knew of them. Since Michael gave them to John to lock up, they hadn’t been taken out. So John didn’t know whether the tapes had decayed or be working. They transferred them, and luckily for us they were all there, and that was extraordinary.
“We didn’t know how we were going to use them. We had to listen to them and transcribe them. But trying to draw parallels from the taped sessions of the original show into our audition process we knew was kind of connecting the dots and layering the film. We thought it would be kind of cerebral but not too on-point.
“Our archival footage came from a lot of different sources. In terms of the original production, that we were able to access through the Lincoln Center Public Library…probably the premier Broadway historical archive.
“We strongly debated getting the metric right—of putting the right amount of the audition process and the dancers’ lives, against the historical footage, especially the audio tapes, and how we’d weave it all together. We had eight cameras every day shooting everything we’d need, and we had probably seventy-five to a hundred different pretty comprehensive storylines. But we weren’t following every character from the show—we were focusing on the iconic characters that people really knew. The character of Sheila, the character of Paul—those are the characters that kind of resonate more strongly. The one character that we don’t have in the movie that we did follow that everyone knows was Morales. In the end, she’d wrapped that role up so early in the process that it wasn’t very dramatic. Same thing with Paul—that monologue was so dramatic, but he didn’t get hired until the final day, the final callback.
“You get a character like Connie Wong. Connie Wong was created from the taped sessions by Baayork Lee. Her narrative created that role. She ended up playing the role on Broadway in the original cast. Cut to over thirty years later, and she’s now hired as the choreographer of the show, part of the key creative team casting and shaping the show. And she’s literally sitting in audition sessions with Bob Avian and John Breglio and everyone, looking at actresses coming in for Connie, and she’s getting into debates over who’s to play her life. That I just love. She has very good idea of who this character is, who she is, and others aren’t seeing her in the same way. A lot of interesting moments like that in the film [make for] that multi-layered aspect of creating about dancers in New York trying to get a job on Broadway in a show about dancers in New York trying to get a job on Broadway. But to have members that helped create the original and performed the original now a part of the audition process—the thought of how to connect all these dots was [challenging].
“I know that there’s nineteen or twenty roles—even with the understudies, twenty-something jobs available. Three thousand plus dancers [auditioned]. And even if they get the part they’re not going to be paid very well. So what really was very special was to be able to view the inside of this process. These are really professional performers, they take it dead seriously. Any extra money they have, they’d rather give up a meal than not spend the money on a voice lesson or a dance lesson or an acting lesson. They really have to do that to feel that their life is meaningful. [You have] tremendous respect for these performers that gave everything, laid it on the line, worked their butts off…it was awesome to see people putting themselves out there every day.
“If you look at the effect of this show, what it’s had on modern pop culture and modern media, it’s really important. And I’m thankful that I’ve been able to direct [this film about it] with Jim.”