The film begins with snatches of a 1974 reel-to-reel tape recording that captures the show's co-creator/choreographer Michael Bennett coaxing a group of dancers to speak about their life stories. "I think we're all pretty interesting," he says, expressing a touching populist belief about performers and creators that may help explain the show's enormous financial and critical success. But both the musical and the movie know that some performers are more interesting than others, and that's the chief conflict in both the original musical and Del Deo and Stern's work, which could be subtitled "Anatomy of a Tryout."
Mercifully, the audition process is not a geek show offering audiences the chance to jeer at pigeon-footed rubes; the hopefuls are either hardworking, talented individuals seeking their big break or established dancers whose identification with the play verges on the spiritual. For these actors, desperation, ambition, self-doubt, and self-delusion are part of the vital mix that keeps them on their toes and propels them into the air.
If Every Little Step had only focused on these potential cast members, that alone would have been worth seeing. The craft of stage acting is fascinating enough for several features: How do these people endure the endless waiting and rehearsals without losing the spontaneity and freshness with which they earned their call-backs? But the film also explores the mystery of talent selection. As the auditions continue, revival director Bob Avian, revival choreographer Baayork Lee, and others invoke gut feelings, memories, and the almost preconscious shock of "first impressions" as much as they use their technical training to find the right men and women. In one instance, Lee — an original Broadway cast member — questions a Japanese actor seeking to play "her" role because she moved to America when she was 8 and, unlike Lee, never had to fight for a seat on the F train. The aspirants seem to know that they're also competing against the collective memory of the first cast, which is reinforced when several auditions and songs are intercut with grainy black-and-white footage of the show's original stars.
Unlike the shrill, glib goon squads who preside over American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance?, the casting directors of Every Little Step perform their difficult jobs as skillfully as they can. Notwithstanding the moment early in the film when a casting assistant thins the herd of leotarded flesh by announcing, "You've been cut. Can you please ... get out," the dominant tone of the film is life-affirming rather than condescending.