He was a slender little kid from Buffalo who just wanted to dance in a Broadway show. But he ended up staging and choreographing what may be the quintessential Broadway musical -- "A Chorus Line."
"A Chorus Line" has been playing for more than 12 years now, having long since dethroned "Fiddler on the Roof" as Broadway's longest-running musical. But Michael Bennett is dead at 44 from AIDS-related lymphoma.
He had acquired a near-mythic stature in a profession that dearly loves its myths. "A Chorus Line" wasn't simply a supercolossal hit; it came along at a time when Broadway itself was suffering from the accumulated urban woes of the 1970s. Attendance was down, crime was up and the fabled glamor of the Great White Way seemed a thing of the past.
The morning after "A Chorus Line" opened, people suddenly started looking at Broadway with fresh eyes. The magic was still there. It just took someone with show business in his blood, an enduring capacity for hard work and a lifelong love affair with the musical to point it out.
Bennett had a reputation for saving shows -- most notably "Seesaw," a musical adaptation of "Two for the Seesaw," which seemed doomed to go under during its pre-Broadway tryout. Stepping in at the last minute, Bennett demanded total artistic control, got it, undertook a major overhaul in a matter of weeks and produced a winner. Up to then he had been known primarily as a choreographer. Thereafter, his job description was "director/choreographer" -- the top dog in Broadway's spangled hierarchy. And it was naturally assumed that he could work miracles.
With "A Chorus Line," he did. "It was such a phenomenon -- a business phenomenon -- in that it rescued an industry that was seemingly dead, as Broadway looks to be all over again," he mused last year. "I don't know if one show can rescue an industry anymore. I really don't know how it happened the first time. I was just doing what I do -- my work."
It was always dazzling, inventive work -- rooted in the romance and grit and glitter of the theater. Bennett had come up through the ranks -- leaving home at 16 to appear as Baby John in a European tour of "West Side Story." For years, he was one of the "gypsies," those tireless dancers who go from musical to musical and whose unheralded status he championed so vividly in "A Chorus Line." His was no starry-eyed view of the profession, though. He recognized its callousness, its cruelty, its heartache. But for him there was no higher calling than putting on a show.
For musical performers, there was no greater aspiration than appearing in a Bennett-directed musical. When ill health forced him to relinquish the directorial reins of "Chess" 18 months ago in London, the disappointment in the trade was acute. Bennett felt it and knew that some would accuse him of letting the theater down.
"The doctors said I couldn't dance," he explained at the time. "They didn't know if I needed a bypass operation and until they made that recommendation, I had to be in an absolutely stress-free situation. Well, if one wishes to be stress-free, one does not direct a $7 million musical in London with a cast of 46 people and a second act that has problems, although they may have fixed that by now. And how does one choreograph if one can't dance? I've always done it by dancing myself and I don't want to do it by waving my hands. When I'm 80, maybe."
"Chess," which was staged instead by Trevor Nunn, opened to tepid reviews and an American production was postponed indefinitely. The disappointments Bennett could raise by not doing a show were merely the flip side of the high expectations he fueled whenever he undertook one.
He was, after all, one of those who helped remake a form that was still obeying the formulas of Rodgers and Hammerstein when he started his career. Musicals then tended to follow a linear story line that made way periodically for the songs and dance interludes. The choreographer was usually the last person to be hired and his job consisted of intervening at preordained moments with appropriately rousing dances.
"I remember for 'Promises, Promises,' " Bennett once recalled, "I was handed the completed script and there was all this dialogue and then it said, 'The guys go out for the night to the Playboy Club. Dance number.' And I said, 'Old men and bunnies and all that stuff? Why can't I do a dance number that has something to do with the plot?' I really had to fight my way into the writing of shows."
The great American musicals that would emerge in the 1970s -- many of which Bennett helped shape -- would no longer be governed strictly by narrative. Increasingly, all the elements -- the songs, dances, lighting and lyrics -- would be fused into an indivisible whole. The numbers no longer illustrated particular moments in the show. They were the show.
Musicals like "Company" and "Follies" (which Bennett brilliantly choreographed) weren't out to tell a tale. The former explored the notions of marriage and commitment in a cold, urban world; the latter took a look at the disenchantments of middle age and, contrasting them with the giddy innocence of youth, made a bitter statement about time and its erosions. There was a cinematic fluidity to those productions, a metaphorical audacity and, above all, a bold shattering of traditional narrative that would change the musical forever.
Indeed, in "A Chorus Line," an audition for Broadway dancers is both the premise for the musical and the musical itself. It grew out of a freewheeling, tape-recorded bull session, during which Bennett and some of his fellow gypsies hashed over their professional hopes and personal yearnings. Bennett then brought in writers Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood and composer Marvin Hamlisch. But he remained the mastermind, probably pouring more of his soul into that show than any other. What emerged, after months of labor, was an astonishing work that at the same time broke the typical chorus line down into its individual components and celebrated its collective anonymity.
For millions of theatergoers, "A Chorus Line" was more than a colorful peek at the exotic backstage world of Broadway. It stood for all of life's contests and captured the courage, the fear and gallantry of anybody who ever put himself on the line. Pure, undiluted show business has rarely achieved such wide resonance.
It earned Bennett a fortune that allowed him to purchase an old rabbit warren of a building in New York at 890 Broadway. With his profits, which at one point were said to run $100,000 a week, he turned the building into the city's sleekest rehearsal halls and studios. 890 Broadway became a nerve center for New York theater, and it was not only appropriate, but somehow symbolic, that Bennett maintained a sumptuous suite of offices there.
He had his flirtations with excess and conspicuous consumption. He loved to stay up until the wee hours, drinking with friends and talking about theater. Once on a whim, he bought himself a white Rolls-Royce, hired a chauffeur and pulled out into society's fast lane for a spell. But that paled after a while. "It was a joke," he admitted later. "I had to get dressed up to go anywhere. I had to shave every day. It was awful. I never got in the back seat. I'd ride up front with the driver. Anything to make it look like I was a rock 'n' roll act or something."
On Broadway, he exercised considerable clout, and the powerful Shubert Organization was ready and eager to bankroll any show he chose to direct. Outside of the rehearsal hall, however, he professed to be "a shy person, pretty passive." To the end he continued to carry his possessions in a dancer's bag, slung over his shoulder, as he did when he first hit New York.
Predictably, Hollywood summoned him west after "A Chorus Line," which he was expected to bring to the screen. It didn't work out. (Filmed nearly a decade later by Richard Attenborough, the film flopped.) Nor did an original screenplay Bennett wrote for Bette Midler. Hollwood was not for him. "I didn't like closing one eye and looking through a lens," he said. "It took away dimensions."
He was, as one of the songs in "Follies" has it, a "Broadway Baby." And he gave Broadway some of its most indelible show stoppers -- Donna McKechnie (who would become, briefly, Mrs. Michael Bennett) gyrating friskily on a table top to "Turkey Lurkey Time" in "Promises, Promises"; the mirror image tap dance "Who's That Woman?" in "Follies," in which a group of aging beauties were shadowed by the ghostly incarnation of their younger selves; the silver lame' kick line, "One," which brings "A Chorus Line" to its transcendent conclusion.
Even as "A Chorus Line" rocketed him to unimaginable heights, Bennett was aware of the downside of fame and his wry sense of humor served to keep hubris in check. Asked what it was like to have such a titanic hit in his past, he replied, with jocularity, "Well, you try not to have it ruin your life. People don't realize that with phenomenal success come certain problems, like chasing your tail for the rest of your life. On 'A Chorus Line's' opening night, I remember, people would say, 'It's the most wonderful thing I've ever seen and what are you going to do next?' In the same sentence! What do you do next?"
Bennett didn't come up with an answer until 1978. It was "Ballroom," a musical about a lonely widow who finds love and happiness among the middle-aged denizens of a dance palace in the Bronx. The elegant ballroom choreography, performed by a cast of old-timers, was terrific. The rest of the show wasn't. It bombed.
Bennett was back in top form three years later, however, with "Dreamgirls," the dark and glittery fable of a singing group not unlike the Supremes. A high-voltage hit, it ran 1,522 performances and won eight Tonys. It was a measure of his reputation by then that the show -- written by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger -- was billed as "Michael Bennett's 'Dreamgirls.' Earlier this week, it reopened for a limited engagement on Broadway in a scaled down, bus-and-truck version. Nonetheless, it was hailed by New York Times critic Frank Rich, who confessed to being "knocked out all over again by what is still the most exciting staging of a Broadway musical in this decade."
The review could only have gladdened the heart of Bennett, who a year ago had retired from the profession to the home in Tucson where he died yesterday. "What I really like," he once said, "are happy, uplifting endings. That's the important thing. They help musicals tremendously. I've never been a cynic. I've always been a romantic. I don't know if I believe in happy endings in life. After all, around every corner is a surprise. But I believe in the possibility of great periods of happiness."
Broadway gave him that happiness and he returned the favor. Or perhaps it was the other way around.
Show business was certainly all Bennett ever cared for, growing up in Buffalo, where his father worked at the Chevrolet plant and his mother earned a living as a secretary at the neighborhood Sears. He claimed that his earliest childhood memories were of performing a Hawaiian number in a dance recital at the age of 2 years 1 month, and to prove it, he could produce a picture of himself in a bathing suit, surrounded by 29 girls in grass skirts.
"Looking back," he said, "it wasn't as if I ever had a choice. Or even wanted a choice. All I wanted was to be like Jerome Robbins, who is number one for me and always will be."
He got his wish.