NEW YORK, SEPT. 29 -- They came, one by one, and stood on the long white line on the stage at the Shubert Theatre -- the line that is the focal point of the late Michael Bennett's greatest hit, "A Chorus Line," the line from which the dancers come forward, one by one, to tell their dreams and fears.
But today it was friends, family and colleagues who came forward, to pay tribute to Bennett, a man who had devoted his life to the Broadway theater and who died of AIDS on July 2 at age 44. Outside the theater, people passed out literature about the disease, while inside an audience that included some of Broadway's biggest names gathered.
It was an afternoon of tears and laughter, music and dance, as the memories of a charismatic, demanding, creative, opinionated man flowed.
Composer Marvin Hamlisch began it by playing "What I Did for Love," one of the hits from "Chorus Line," Broadway's longest-running musical. Meanwhile, a home movie showed Bennett as a boy, twirling and dancing for an early audience.
Bob Avian, choreographer, producer and longtime friend of Bennett's, recalled their meeting when he was 17, then told the crowd, "He's still kicking as long as we are."
Producer Marvin Krauss, who first worked with Bennett in 1966 on "A Joyful Noise," Bennett's choreographic debut, told of an interview his 11-year-old son had done of Bennett for a class project. "If you could be anyone, who would you be and what would you do?" his son had asked. And Bennett answered, "I would be me and I would do what I'm doing." Said Krauss, "He was a giant, he was a genius, he will be missed."
The most emotional moment of the afternoon came when songwriter Stephen Sondheim came out to play and sing "Move On," a song he wrote for "Sunday in the Park With George." Bennett had cried the first time he heard it, and in this rare performance, Sondheim too wept openly.
Bennett's attorney John Breglio told of how four days before he died, as the revival of "Dreamgirls" was about to open on Broadway, Bennett threw a party at his Tucson home for all the doctors and nurses who had cared for him. When Breglio asked Bennett what he wanted people to know after he died, Bennett said, "Tell them, 'No show runs forever.' " Breglio added, to laughter, "I don't think he was talking about 'A Chorus Line.' "
Bennett's brother Frank DiFiglia, a stage manager, said, "I've always wanted to stand on Michael's white line," and made a plea for people to help "overcome this terrible disease that has taken my brother." He read a statement from his mother Helen DiFiglia: "You knew him as an adult, but I have the greatest memories because I knew him as a talented child ... he would always say, 'Let's go to a musical.' "
There were tributes from Bernie Jacobs, of the Shubert organization, who remembered Bennett's habit of making phone calls just to chat at "2, 3 and 4 a.m."; Donna McKechnie, his former wife, now starring in "Sweet Charity" at Washington's National Theatre, who remembered how they met in 1965 when they were both dancers on TV's "Hullabaloo"; and gossip columnist Liz Smith, who told the crowd, "There are a lot of people in this theater today who are rich and famous because of Michael. I just hope you are as loyal to him as he was to you."
And when the last speaker was through, the stage went dark, except for a light along the long white line. Eighteen dancers came strutting out in the stunning "Chorus Line" finale. The orchestra played "One" and the dancers, clad in their gold costumes, went through the motions that dancers have gone through more than 5,000 times since the show opened in 1975. Then the huge panels of mirrors rotated one more time, and in their place was a photo of a grinning Michael Bennett, arms outstretched. The dancers exited, the light still shining on the white line. The orchestra thundered on, the audience rose, and Michael Bennett got one final ovation.