April 8, 1943 – I have appeared as a performer in over 100 stage musicals, but I am what directors & 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, early 1976. I just wanted a touch of show biz history.
I did not speak to the intense looking Michael Bennett at that audition, but I looked at him as he sat with assistants as I did a terrific time-step, but I was cut at the double pirouette, & then had to wait for hours as my boyfriend, a professional dancer, continued to make the cut with each more difficult level of choreography. I stood in the back of the room & watched until it was sternly suggested I wait in a hallway with the other cattle.
James Kirkwood, co-author of A Chorus Line:
“Michael would do anything… anything to get a show on. The cruelty was extensive, & not just in his professional life. He was amoral.”
Born Michael Bennett DiFiglia in Buffalo, Bennett 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.
In 1968, he moved up to choreographer & created the cool dancing the hit musical Promises, Promises on Broadway. With a pop score by Burt Bacharach, the show was a hit & ran for 1,281 performances. As a director or choreographer, Bennett produced first class work & even strong reviews for the play, Twigs & the musical, Coco, with Katharine Hepburn. These were followed by his groundbreaking work in a pair of early 1970s Stephen Sondheim shows: Company & Follies co-directed with Hal Prince.
In 1973, Bennett was asked by the producers to take over the troubled Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields musical Seesaw, which I saw opening week & adored. When Bennett replaced director Ed Sherin & choreographer Grover Dale, he asked for absolute control over the production as director & choreographer, & he received additional credit as “having written, directed, & choreographed” the musical.
The work involved in taking charge the troubled Seesaw on the road by usual way of developing musicals: rehearsals, out-of-town tryouts, previews, & then a Broadway opening, was seen by Bennett as not efficient & he came up with a better way of putting together a new musical.
Bennett devised a show about the lives of chorus boys & 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 & frustrations about their careers. Hours of audio tapes eventually led to the creation of musical theatre landmark & 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 ecstatic. The musical transferred to Broadway’s Shubert Theater where it would run for 15 years. It won 9 Tony Awards, the NY Drama Critics’ Circle Award, & the Pulitzer Prize for Drama & kept the Public Theatre running on the black.
In the early 1980s, Bennett worked on various projects, but except for the hit musical Dreamgirls, none of them reached the stage. His addictions to booze, cocaine & Quaaludes (my favorite drug in the 1970s) affected his work & brought havoc to his relationships, personal & professional.
Donna McKechnie & Bennett married in December 1976 & divorced 4 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 took his final curtain call on July 2, 1987, gone of HIV related illness at just 44 years old. Bennett left most of his estate to funding research to fight the AIDS epidemic.
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.