April 8, 1943 –Michael Bennett
I have appeared as a performer in over 100 stage musicals, but I am what directors and choreographers label: An Actor/Singer who “moves well”, which is quite distinctive from a dancer. So, I had no business showing up with my rather pedestrian dance skills for the audition for the first West Coast production of A Chorus Line in LA, sometime in early 1976. But, you know, I just wanted to touch a bit of showbiz history.
I did not speak to the intense looking Michael Bennett at that audition, but I studied him as he sat whispering with his assistants after I did a terrific time-step, but I was cut at the double pirouette. Then I had to wait for hours as my boyfriend, a professional dancer, continued to make the cut with each increasingly difficult level of choreography. I stood in the back of the theatre and watched until it was sternly suggested I wait in a hallway with the other cattle.
James Kirkwood, co-writer of A Chorus Line:
“Michael would do anything… anything to get a show on. The cruelty was extensive, and not just in his professional life. He was truly amoral.”
Yet, Bennett did it all. He was a director, producer, writer, choreographer, and a dancer.
Born Michael Bennett DiFiglia in Buffalo, he started dance lessons when he was three-years old. By the time he was 12-years-old, he was well-versed in Tap, Ballet, Modern and Folk Dancing. Just before he graduated from high school, he was cast in a company of West Side Story directed by his idol Jerome Robbins, who had staged the original Broadway production. He spent a year touring in Europe with the show.
Back in the USA in 1961, Bennett danced in the chorus in Subways Are For Sleeping, Here’s Love and Bajour, none of them hits. In 1967 he helped stage numbers, without credit, for How Now, Dow Jones on Broadway and Your Own Thing Off-Broadway.
Bennett did receive billing as choreographer for A Joyful Noise (1966), but it closed after just 12 performances. Henry, Sweet Henry (1967), a delightful musical based on the film The World of Henry Orient (1964) was also a flop, but it earned Bennett his second Tony nomination.
His biggest influence as a choreographer and director was the city of New York where he was surrounded by the arts and he could feed off the energy of the city. Originally, Bennett’s biggest strength was tap dancing, but he seemed to be a natural at all genres of dance and he had an unavoidable gift for performance.
Bennett especially admired the work of Robbins, and adopted the same aggressive choreography in his own jazz-style dances. His choreography and staging was always thrilling and spirited, but Bennett’s work was distinguished by focusing on the plot and characters of the production. He did not have one distinct style of dance; he was noted for his phenomenal ways of staging a production, using innovative slants, twists and intersections in the movements, plus props like hats and mirrors in never-before-seen ways. Bennett used intriguing tactics in the creation of his shows.
Bennett knew the life of a Broadway dancer. He performed in the chorus of Broadway musicals beginning in 1961. In the mid-1960s he was a featured dancer on the NBC pop music series Hullabaloo, where he met fellow dancer Donna McKechnie, who became his partner and muse. They would work together many times and she continues to protect his legacy.
After choreographing a couple of duds, Bennett persisted and he staged three successful productions, including his fabulous original choreography for Promises, Promises in 1968, based on Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment (1960). With a pop score by Burt Bacharach, the show was a hit and ran for 1,281 performances.
In 1969, Bennett choreographed the Andre Previn/Alan Jay Lerner musical Coco, with a game Katharine Hepburn as fashion designer Coco Chanel. The show opened with what was, at the time, the largest advance sale in Broadway history. It ran more than 300 performances before moving on to Los Angeles. It brought Bennett another Tony nomination, but it lost money and is considered another flop.
Yet, Bennett had already moved on. He collaborated with Hal Prince on Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s landmark musical Company in 1970. Bennett:
”What I did in Company was to choreograph the characters. I think that a lot more of the show was choreographed than most people who saw it realized. I believe that one of the best things I’ve ever done was the opening number. It was heightened reality. I don’t think anyone has demanded of nondancers as much movement as I did in Company.”
Company earned him his fifth Tony Award nomination. A year later Bennett won his first two Tonys, as choreographer and co-director for Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies. It ran for over a year. It is one of my top musicals and it continues to have a cult following; but it was a commercial failure.
In 1973, Bennett was asked by the producers to take over the troubled Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields musical Seesaw, which I saw in its opening week and just adored. Bennett replaced director Ed Sherin and choreographer Grover Dale, demanding absolute control over the production, plus he received additional credit in the program as “having written, directed, and choreographed” the musical.
The work involved taking the troubled Seesaw on the road by the usual way of developing musicals: rehearsals, out-of-town tryouts, previews, and then a Broadway opening. All this was seen by Bennett as not efficient and he came up with a better, more organic, way of putting together a brand-new musical.
Bennett devised a show about the lives of chorus boys and girls, but rather than commission a script, he let the story come together from a series of group therapy style workshops in which the dancers shared their feelings and frustrations about their careers. Hours of audio tapes eventually led to the creation of a musical theatre landmark and Bennett’s most personal triumph, A Chorus Line, which opened downtown at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre in 1975. The reviews were over the top, the audiences were ecstatic. The musical transferred to Broadway where it would run for 15 years. It won nine Tony Awards (two for Bennett), the NY Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. It kept the Public Theatre running on the black.
In the early 1980s, Bennett worked on various projects, but except for the beautiful, heartbreaking musical Dreamgirls (1982) none of them reached the stage. Bennett seemed to have been especially gifted at making magic out of backstage musicals like Dreamgirls, Follies and A Chorus Line. For this show, Bennett shared his Tony for choreography, his eighth, with Michael Peters.
Riding high professionally, Bennett’s addictions to booze, cocaine and Quaaludes (my own favorite drug in the 1970s) began to interfere with his work and brought havoc to his relationships, personal and professional.
McKechnie and Bennett had married in December 1976 and then divorced four months later. His relationships with men included affairs with several noted dancers.
In 1986, in failing health, Bennett moved to Arizona with his final boyfriend, dancer Gene Pruitt, so he could receive treatment for that new disease. He gave his final curtain call on July 2, 1987, taken by HIV related illness at just 44-years-old. Bennett left most of his estate to funding research to fight the plague.
He performed in, choreographed, or directed 20 Broadway musicals in his short time on our pretty spinning blue orb. I have it on good authority that Michael Bennett was a real son-of-a-bitch… but a genius son-of-a-bitch.