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Michael Bennett: A Singular Sensation

By Darryl Kent Clark

The creation of the landmark musical A Chorus Line reads like folklore. And the short yet dazzlingly brilliant life of its main creator Michael Bennett is equally folkloric. Bennett was born Michael Bennett DiFiglia to Salvatore and Helen DiFiglia on April 8, 1943 in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo, at World War II’s midpoint, was far from a cultural mecca. It was very much a working class city, which sat on the western side of the state and gathered its economic strength from being at the starting point of the Erie Canal and its pugnacious character from the mercurial weather fronts that bedevil upstate New York. 

Michael (called Mickey by his mother Helen) began dance classes at a very early age. His talent revealed itself and he was the talk of Buffalo as a child performer. Many of his routines paid homage to the great dancing stars of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, but he also sang on local radio shows and acted in theater productions in Buffalo. Once he reached his early teen years, Michael was not only performing extensively at a variety of public functions, he was also beginning to teach and choreograph local productions as well. The direction his life was going was at odds with the life of the average teen boy in western New York. Most were content to enter a vocational school and join an assembly line straightaway after receiving a diploma. This would not be the road Michael Bennett would walk. Close to his graduation date, Michael met a theatrical agent by the name of Jack Lenny. Lenny was casting a European tour company of West Side Story and needed to fill the role of Baby John. Bennett, looking quite a bit younger than his then seventeen years, got the job, shortened his professional name to Michael Bennett and took off to pursue his dream of becoming a Broadway dancer a few months shy of receiving a high school diploma.

Not only did this performance gig give Bennett a lifelong friend and ally in Lenny, it introduced him to his longtime creative partner Robert Avian. Avian was a seasoned Broadway “gypsy” dancer of twenty-two at the time. When they met, Avian extended a friendly hand to Bennett and, as the years went along, he would become one of Michael Bennett’s closest friends and chief collaborators.  After the two returned from the European tour of West Side Story, they immediately set themselves to finding work dancing on Broadway, and succeeded with apparent ease. Bennett's first shot was in 1964's Nowhere To Go But Up; it closed after twelve performances. His next show was a little more successful and set in motion a sub-theme of career (working on successful stage musical adaptations of classic Hollywood non-musical films); it was Here's Love!, the musical version of the time-honored holiday film favorite Miracle on 34th Street. He convinced Michael Kidd, the show's nominal choreographer, to let him create a solo spot for himself—the “Rag Doll” number.  After Love closed, Bennett went on to Bajour and became one of the dance ensemble on NBC's Hullaballoo. The dance ensemble on this show had some of Broadway's best burning through the high-powered choreography of David Winters. One dancer in particular would come to be as close to Bennett as Bob Avian: her name was Donna McKechnie.

Bennett's experience with Here's Love! fueled his choreographic fire. He sought out and obtained work as a choreographer in regional theater; he also got the opportunity to stage a few dance numbers for Hullaballoo. At the age of twenty-three, Bennett made his debut as a choreographer on Broadway, supplying dances for A Joyful Noise. He also nabbed his first of many nominations for a Tony award but lost to established choreographer Ron Field for his work on the 1966 smash hit Cabaret. With an uncanny drive, and the desire to be a famed choreographer, he went to work on two shows based in part on successful 1960s films. The first was Henry, Sweet Henry, inspired by The World of Henry Orient, and the other Promises, Promises!, based on the multi-award winning The Apartment. Each of these brought him closer to attaining the coveted Tony and likewise brought him in contact with the best and most successful producers on Broadway.

After creating a set of dazzling dances and ensembles for the Katharine Hepburn vehicle Coco, Bennett was employed by Harold Prince on his new concept work Company. Company's book was created by George Furth; its songs were the creation of Stephen Sondheim.  Bennett scored a major hit with his ensembles for this production; he had been set the challenge of creating ensembles that would feature non-dancers (save Donna McKechnie, who was now his leading muse) and his efforts far exceeded the expectations of his creative team members. The next piece the triumvirate of Bennett/Prince/Sondheim would create was the elegant, theatrical, and hauntingly cynical Follies. It was during this period of his creative life that Bennett began to exhibit certain tendencies that would (at times) eclipse his rapidly growing fame as a choreographer. Bennett's personal life would be crowded with an unending stream of loves, both male and female; his professional demeanor would begin to show an exacting, almost dictatorial underside, which was formidable to some and enticing to others.

Bennett's sense of adventure in the theater brought him to directing a selection of non-musical plays. The most successful of these was the first, a play titled Twigs, written by friend and Company collaborator George Furth. The others included Neil Simon's God's Favorite and Herb Gardner's Thieves, neither of which was well-received or enjoyed substantial runs on Broadway.  Bennett returned to musical theater when he was asked to “doctor” a stage musical version of William Gibson's Two for the Seesaw, titled Seesaw. Once he secured the director's seat on the show, he began to dramatically alter the product at hand. The first, and (to some) the most despotic act was the firing of Lainie Kazan, the show's lead. Kazan saw this show as her big chance to become a Broadway headliner. Losing it sent her in to a professional tailspin that took a few years to shake off. He also dismissed a number of dancers from the chorus and replaced them with his friends Baayork Lee and Thommie Walsh. He also kept a too watchful eye on the relationship his friend McKechnie was having with Seesaw cast member Ken Howard. Despite creating more backstage turmoil, he managed to save Seesaw. Once it came in from its tour and set up in the Uris Theatre, it became a hit of the 1974 theater season, captured two Tony awards and turned a decent profit.

Seesaw's success was no easy feat during the mid-1970s. Musicals were generally more expensive to produce than in the past, no matter the size or scope of the show. And a show's most expendable element was always dancing and choreography. As a result, many dancers were chronically fighting for work and growing more and more upset about not being able to get it. One dancer, Michon Peacock, and her dancer friend Tony Stevens, were moved to get a group of dancers together to talk out the situation in hopes of finding a solution to their problems. Bennett heard of the unrest that was growing and invited Peacock to see him at his office (In the late 1960s, Bennett had the foresight to incorporate and establish his only production unit, called Plum Productions). Twelve days after this New Year’s Day meeting in 1974, Peacock invited her friends to join her at a spa that could hold a good sized group of dancers and told them Bennett would be there. Bennett supplied food, beverages, a nice quantity of marijuana to keep the conversation going and—most importantly—a tape recorder. When the weekend was over, Bennett had in his possession these tapes of an event that had been alternately kinetic and cathartic. And he had an idea of what to do with them. These tapes would provide the backbone of something.

Bennett invited his friend, former dancer Nicholas Dante, to listen to the resulting tapes. Dante wanted to transition to a career as a writer and saw this as an opportunity to create a play or even the libretto to a musical. Bennett was on his wavelength, yet was not willing to let him help write the show. He did, however, want rights to the extended revelation Dante made about how he negotiated his coming into his career as a dancer and, concurrently, his coming out as a gay man. He also wanted to excise Michon Peacock and Tony Stevens from whatever this project would be. Somehow, Dante managed to stay close to this project. His thoughts were shaped into a lengthy monologue that would become part of the heart of this project, a show that was titled simply “Chorus Line.”

Many people who had worked with Bennett during his Broadway years like McKechnie, Baayork Lee, and Thommie Walsh would stay close to “Chorus Line.” When the time came, composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban were invited into the enterprise, as was playwright James Kirkwood.  As Bennett controlled the creative input for this project, he kept a certain control over the creation of the piece as well and managed to revolutionize the process by which musicals were created. His process would be adopted by his one-time friend and eventual rival Tommy Tune and would be known as the workshop process. Bennett aligned himself with theater producer Joseph Papp, who had created the famed and respected New York Shakespeare Festival. Papp influenced the shape of the show by recommending reliance on the session tapes for lines of dialogue and lyrics; he also offered up a rehearsal space for the show and a theater for the fully realized product.

As workshops continued on “Chorus Line,” many changes both large and small would set the show up for its eventual success. Among these would be Marvin Hamlisch's breakout success as a composer (he won three Academy awards that year), the continued decline in the success of stage musicals, and the change of Bennett's show title from “Chorus Line” to A Chorus Line. The show would play successfully in previews and transfer from Papp's Newman Theater to the Shubert Theatre on Broadway and open on July 25, 1975.

From its opening night until its last performance of the original run, A Chorus Line and its success would set the bar high for both musicals and non-musicals. The show would capture nearly every Tony award it was nominated for (including three for Bennett as choreographer, director, and co-writer); it joined the short list of musicals that would win the Pulitzer prize for theater, and the final tally of its performances would number 6,137. The show would play Toronto, London's West End, Tokyo, and tour the United States throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Equally impressive is the amount of time between Bennett's start as a choreographer and the success of A Chorus Line. In twelve relatively short years, Bennett revolutionized one form of entertainment, musical theater, by informing it with the characteristics of other types of entertainment such as film and social dance. And lastly, in what would continue to be the most controversial aspect of the show, Bennett culled the personal narratives of his friends and colleagues that resonated with his own life and created a piece of total theater that spoke to the heart of its audience.

Though he would try his best, the projects Bennett worked on as the master of the concept musical would not eclipse the success of A Chorus Line. In many ways, they further developed certain aspects of A Chorus Line. Ballroom would be one of the most humane musicals created during the beginning of the “Me” decade (the narrative was based on the bittersweet television film Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, about a middle aged widow and her affair with a married man), and Dreamgirls would employ a continuously fluid and almost unbroken use of motion and sound in its telling of a tale of life, love, loss, and victory in show business. Bennett would not complete Scandal, the final show he conceived. The residuals he was earning from A Chorus Line allowed for him to provide for his mother, Helen, and to live the last few years of his life in reasonable comfort. He quietly succumbed to AIDS on July 2, 1987.

If Michael Bennett had only been the creative mastermind behind A Chorus Line, it would have been more than enough to establish his place in musical theater. The presence of the show and its story, about the desire to succeed to validate the belief in what you love most, not only revitalized and changed the American musical, but helped start the revitalization of New York City and promoted the idea that it was a place where dreams could come true for a hard-working, passionate individual. But Bennett, with his unique kinetic sense and multifaceted dance talent, gave jazz dance a distinct streamlined look infused with the lyricism and elegance he gained from working with a dancer like Donna McKechnie, his eagerness to mix that elegance with the vitality of the social dance steps of his time, and the vision to let it all swirl and whip like the wind before an audience's eager eyes.


Darryl Kent Clark, BA, Columbia College, MFA, SUNY College at Brockport, is a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan. He debuted as a dancer in Chicago in 1981, where he danced in the works of many nationally known choreographers. His interests as a performing artist expanded to include work as a dancer with Princess Cruises, Vee Corporation, film work with choreographers Otis Sallid, Neisha Folkes and Quinnie Sacks and work as an actor with First Folio Shakespeare Festival of Oak Brook IL, Rochester, NY’s Geva Theater, Chicago’s Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theater and Pegasus Players, to name a few. Mr. Clark is also an emerging choreographer, with favorable reviews of his works in Dance Magazine and the recipient of fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council and the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music. He has also been of the faculty of many dance studios in the USA and has been a featured teacher of jazz, tap and modern dance at many studios and universities in the USA and the Netherlands. Mr. Clark is currently Assistant Professor, Dance, at Missouri State University.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Kantor, Michael and Maslon, Laurence. Broadway: The American Musical. New York: Applause Books, 2010.

Kelly, Kevin. One Singular Sensation: The Michael Bennett Story. New York: Zebra Books, 1990.

McKechnie, Donna. Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.

Moving Image

Every Little Step. Adam Del Deo and James L. Stern. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2008.

Broadway: The Golden Age. Rick McKay. RCA Victor Broadway, 2004.