In his debut piece for 10YA, Cubbinsian theatre artist Jon Lutyens thinks back to his days working in New York theatre—“living the cattle call life”—in his re-view of Every Little Step, the James D. Stern/Adam Del Deo documentary on casting the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line.
Watching a documentary about a topic you are interested in is different than watching a documentary about a world you know (or knew), and both are different than watching a documentary about your neighbors a few blocks away, or the village down the road. Rewatching Every Little Step proved to put me a strange state… Is there a word for being nostalgic for the present?
When this film was released, it was very much a story of the present state of Broadway theatre as viewed through the lens of an audition process. A decade out, has it changed? The audition process has stayed very much the same, the conversations in the room have stayed very much the same, the emotions and truths about the work have stayed very much the same. What has changed? What makes my reaction nostalgic about something that hasn’t gone away? I think in some way, it’s me. (Sorry, this might be one of those reviews.)
The audition process for this revival of A Chorus Line started a year after I left New York. When the first shots of the hundreds of actors and dancers waiting in the rain to be seen that day rolled, I knew I must have met several of them at other auditions while I was there. And the first time I saw the film, I was greatly relieved to not be living the cattle call life any longer. “I just moved here on Monday!” No more waiting for hours for 90 seconds in a room with no second chances. “I got here yesterday!” No more jostling on the subway coming in from Queens earlier than anyone needs to be awake and waiting until they type you out after one glance, without even singing a note or dance a step. “They just made a cut and I’m still here, so I survived!” This sense of relief has tempered a bit over the years, but still rose up. “They made a cut. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it, but they’re gonna keep dancing.” The energy in those audition hallways and holding rooms stays with you, but it moves toward increasing hope for every one of those brave folks with every passing year.
The near-reality-show (without the manufactured drama) structure of this documentary lets us see several people whose auditions were successful and many whose were not. We get to see actors and dancers with a rawness of performance, being recorded by a single microphone and camera, without filters or mixing, just their vocal and physical instruments and their work. We get to compare and contrast their auditions for ourselves. I had forgotten since my first viewing about how many career Broadway performers were in those rooms but did not get cast in the revival. Was that Amy Spanger? Wait, “Rick”? That’s Rick Faugno! I saw him in the Wonderful Town revival three times! Both of them are terrific dancers and actors! And yet…neither of them booked this show. Seeing these people with whom I shared a city for a short time, presumably never meeting in person but walking the same steep and very narrow stairways, brought back a wave of camaraderie with those fellow troupers I would see in hallways every week.
Since that time, my theatre career has afforded me more time on the “other side of the table” in the audition room, as director, music director, etc. I remembered that the documentary captured Jason Tam’s heartfelt audition for Paul, but I had forgotten (or not noticed the first time) that the director and his team were all but weeping as he wrapped up, and they said simply, “Okay, wait outside.” Jason walked back out into that hallway full of other people’s erratic energy still carrying his own immense vulnerability. And as much as a smile spreads across my heart as each actor receives their “Yes” call, I now see the passing moments when the directors made their decisions, some easier or swifter than others. Their efficient dismissal of a headshot with “I don’t remember her” now evokes a pang at the same time as a fuller understanding of that moment and its need for professional concision.
I would never have been at those specific auditions myself because, god, I’m not a dancer, but having shared the city with almost all of them a year earlier, my original viewing of this film made me feel both an insider and an outsider. Now so many aspects of it resonate still, and many more resonate with newer experiences. I feel more nostalgically distant from that past and yet somehow closer to the core journey of the artists whose stories we are watching. How quickly our present becomes our past, but how poignantly our past can color our present when they sit down together.
Socially, there have been a few perspective shifts in the last decade. The director repeatedly says “Good girl” when female actors have finished their pieces. It is received innocuously and seems to be genuinely congratulatory, but the phrase now reaches the ear with a slight tone of condescension. The piece calls for specific roles to be of specific ethnic backgrounds, but where possible, the casting process invited actors outside of previously cast types. A Latina actor was one of the final two candidates for the role of Cassie, the role of Sheila was cast with a black actor, etc. My color-conscious casting brain newly registered the moment when Deidre Goodwin, reading for Sheila, is told by the character of Zach to “bring down her attitude” with much greater awareness of the reality of women of color being told similar things.
In the end, the overarching emotional impact of the film has not changed, but I notice and hear different realities in the same narrative. I still feel like an outsider and an insider. And I still found myself waiting through the credits for the final moment of Jason Tam turning away from the camera with his backpack and walking toward home at the end of a long day. That is the opposite of the opening shots of hundreds of people waiting and waiting; it’s one person having finished a job well done and setting off through the city toward the space they call home. It’s a poetic and genuine bookend that I needed to see again. On first viewing, that moment gave me the exact opposite reaction than the opening. It made me want to live in New York again. For many reasons, I am glad I don’t, but to reference another 1970s Broadway musical, the road you didn’t take sometimes comes to mind.
This film tells a story about people telling a story about people telling a story about people telling a story. Why? Because if a story is worth telling, it’s worth telling again. Hope doesn’t change. The hope from the original 1975 cast hasn’t changed; it’s carried by the actors we see auditioning to play them. The hope from 2004-2006 hasn’t changed; it’s carried forward by actors getting up today and every morning doing what they do for love. Hope doesn’t change, and stories of hope are worth telling again. Tell the stories again.
— Jon Lutyens