Sunday, April 08, 2018

Born Today In 1943, 7-Time Tony-Winning Director and Choreographer Michael Bennett

Michael Bennett was born today, April 8, in 1943. He was a musical theatre director, writer, choreographer, and dancer. He won seven Tony Awards for his choreography and direction of Broadway shows and was nominated for an additional 11.

Bennett choreographed Promises, Promises, Follies and Company. In 1976, he won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical and the Tony Award for Best Choreography for the musical A Chorus Line. Bennett, under the aegis of producer Joseph Papp, created A Chorus Line based on a workshop process that he pioneered. He also directed and co-choreographed Dreamgirls with Michael Peters.

Bennett was born Michael Bennett DiFiglia in Buffalo, New York. He studied dance and choreography in his teens and staged a number of shows in his local high school before dropping out to accept the role of Baby John in the U.S. and European tours of West Side Story.

Bennett's career as a Broadway dancer began in the 1961 Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Jule Styne musical Subways Are for Sleeping, after which he appeared in Meredith Willson's Here's Love and the short-lived Bajour. In the mid-1960s he was a featured dancer on the NBC pop music series Hullabaloo, where he met fellow dancer Donna McKechnie.

Bennett made his choreographic debut with A Joyful Noise (1966), which lasted only 12 performances, and in 1967 followed it with another failure, Henry, Sweet Henry (based on the Peter Sellers film The World of Henry Orient). Success finally arrived in 1968, when he choreographed the hit musical Promises, Promises on Broadway. With a contemporary pop score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, a wisecracking book by Neil Simon and Bennett's well-received production numbers, including "Turkey Lurkey Time;" the show ran for 1,281 performances. Over the next few years, he earned praise for his work on the straight play Twigs with Sada Thompson and the musical Coco with Katharine Hepburn. These were followed by two Stephen Sondheim productions, Company and Follies co-directed with Hal Prince.

In 1973, Bennett was asked by producers Joseph Kipness and Larry Kasha to take over the ailing Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields musical Seesaw. In replacing the director Ed Sherin and choreographer Grover Dale, he asked for absolute control over the production as director and choreographer and received credit as "having written, directed, and choreographed" the show.

Bennett's next project was a little show called A Chorus Line. The musical was formed out of hundreds of hours of taped sessions with Broadway dancers. Bennett was invited to the sessions originally as an observer but soon took charge. He co-choreographed and directed the production, which debuted in July 1975 off-Broadway. It won nine Tony Awards and the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He later claimed that the worldwide success of A Chorus Line became a hindrance, as the many international companies of that musical demanded his full-time attention. Bennett would later become a creative consultant for the 1985 film version of the musical but left due to creative differences. He always sought creative control over his projects, but Hollywood producers were unwilling to give him the influence he demanded.

There are some filmed records which testify to the show's initial power. Television talk-show host Phil Donahue devoted an entire program to the original cast, during which they reminisce and recreate some of the musical numbers. The 2008 feature-length documentary "Every Little Step" chronicles the casting process of A Chorus Line's 2006 revival, with re-created choreography by Bennett's long-time associate Baayork Lee, and, in the course of the film, the saga of the original production is re-told as well, through the use of old film clips and revealing interviews from the original collaborators, including Lee, Bob Avian (who was the show's original co-choreographer with Bennett and the director of the revival--pictured with Bennett who is holding one of his Tony awards), composer Marvin Hamlisch and the original's leading lady, Donna McKechnie.

Bennett's next musical was a project about late-life romance called Ballroom. Although financially unsuccessful, it garnered seven Tony Award nominations, and Bennett won one for Best Choreography. He admitted that any project that followed A Chorus Line was bound to be an anti-climax. Bennett had another hit in 1981 with Dreamgirls, a backstage epic about a girl group (very similar to The Supremes) and the expropriation of black music by a white recording industry. 

In 1985, Bennett abandoned the nearly completed musical Scandal, by writer Treva Silverman and songwriter Jimmy Webb, which had been developing for nearly 5 years through a series of workshop productions. The show was sexually daring, but the conservative climate and the growing AIDS panic made it unlikely commercial material. He was then signed to direct the West End production of Chess but had to withdraw in January 1986 due to his failing health, leaving Trevor Nunn to complete the production using Bennett's already commissioned sets.

Bennett was bisexual. He had numerous affairs with both men and women. In his younger days, Bennett had a relationship with Larry Fuller, a dancer, choreographer and director. He had a long professional and personal relationship with the virtuoso dancer Donna McKechnie, who danced his work in both Promises, Promises and Company and won the 1976 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical in the role he had created for her in A Chorus Line. They married on December 4, 1976, but after only a few months they separated and eventually divorced in 1979.

In the late 1970s he began an affair with Sabine Cassel, the then-wife of French actor Jean-Pierre Cassel. She left her family in Paris to live with Bennett in Manhattan, but the relationship soured.

Bennett's addictions to alcohol and drugs, notably cocaine and quaaludes, severely affected his ability to work and affected many of his professional and personal relationships. His paranoia grew as his dependency did. Worried by his celebrity and his father's Italian background, he began to suspect he might fall victim to a Mafia hit.

Bennett's last lover was Gene Pruitt. In 1986 both Pruitt and friend Bob Herr lived with Bennett for the last 8 months of his life in Tucson, Arizona, where he received care at the Arizona Medical Center. Bennett died from AIDS-related lymphoma at the age of 44. He left a portion of his estate to fund research to fight the pandemic. Bennett's memorial service took place at the Shubert Theatre in New York City (the home at that time of A Chorus Line) on September 29, 1987.

1 comment:

Raybeard said...

I think this must be the guy who, for on his passing, the New York cast of 'A Chorus Line' in tribute changed the female pronoun in the lyrics of 'One' to 'He'. I've heard that unique, one-off recording a couple of times and even the memory of it still makes me choke back the tears. At least I THINK this is the 'He' to whom it referred.