For Michael Bennett, this is a difficult time. His doctors have told him to take it easy for a while, and Bennett, one of a handful of director/choreographers to whom Broadway desperately looks for salvation, has never taken it easy.
"I'm being forced to take a little sabbatical in my career, one I haven't chosen," he says. "But I'm doing very well . . . catching up on my reading. I went to see 'Out of Africa.' I'm keeping busy. I used to be happy only in rehearsal rooms."
Three months ago, Bennett was all set to direct the London premiere of "Chess," the new Tim Rice musical that insiders predict -- or at least devoutly hope -- will be the "Cats" of the latter half of the 1980s. At the last minute, however, Bennett learned that he had angina pectoris and was advised to withdraw ir,9p from the project.
"The doctors said I couldn't dance," he explains. "They didn't know if I needed a bypass operation, and until they made that recommendation, which they still haven't made, I had to be in an absolutely stress-free situation. Well, if one wants 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 I think 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."
His thoughts drift off for a second.
"The truth is," he resumes, "I was scared about my heart. Nothing had ever been wrong with me before, and all of a sudden here was something that was going to keep me from my work. I am now 43 and I do not jump as high as I once did. They used to tell me this was going to happen and I'd nod 'yes,' but I never believed it. I can be in a room with 22-year-old dancers, and they're ripping off eight pirouettes over there and I'm barely eking out three, and I still don't want to believe it. Honestly, I didn't think I'd ever change."
But it's Trevor Nunn who is now xr directing "Chess," while Bennett tries to relax and then goes off to discuss the whole problem of "growing older gracefully -- not growing old, that's too terrible-sounding -- " with his analyst.
It also happens that he is conferring with writers about future projects and reconsidering old ones and making sure that the touring production of his megahit, "A Chorus Line," is in good shape before it takes off for Japan and checking up on the road company of "Dreamgirls" that opens on Tuesday at the National Theatre and thinking that if he can't direct a musical right now, maybe he could do a straight play in September.
Which, for an avowed workaholic like Bennett, is taking it easy.
The building the theatrical trade refers to only as 890 Broadway used to be a rabbit warren of dressmakers until Bennett bought it in 1978 with his profits from "A Chorus Line," which at one point were reported to be about $100,000 a week. It now houses: the sleekest rehearsal studios in town; the offices of American Ballet Theatre, the Eliot Feld Ballet, set designer Robin Wagner and costumer Theoni Aldredge; a 299-seat theater; a restaurant; a theatrical wig maker; the workshop of Gus the Shoemaker, who crafts footwear for Broadway shows; and an airport lounge.
The airport lounge is not an airport lounge, really. It is Bennett's private office, carpeted in acres of tasteful beige and separated from the throngs -- or at least overambitious performers, looking for a break -- by a plexiglass door that locks automatically from the inside.
Lee Iaccoca would probably appear out of place in this office. Bennett certainly does. He is a slight, dark man who, despite the closely cropped beard, the tailored blazer and soberly striped tie, continues to project a dancer's air of nonchalance. He talks in a nasal twang, left over from a childhood in Buffalo; the dramatic emphases were presumably acquired later.
Bennett never intended to be a landlord, even if only to theater folk, and while he's since bought a summer house in the Hamptons, he doesn't seem to believe it. "I guess I thought it was time I had a home like other human beings," he says. "I'm getting better at adjusting to it. I was never big on the country. It's too far from what's happening. I remember being so excited when I bought my first piano, so that composers could come to my apartment and play their stuff. Now I own 18 or 19, because of this building and all the rehearsal studios. That amuses me so much.
"All I ever really cared about were the shows. Oh, I wanted a reputation, tremendously, because I have an ego. Do I have an ego! You know your earliest childhood memories? This is the truth. Mine are of being on stage and dancing. I was in a dance recital at 2 years and 1 month. I have the program -- June 5, 1945 -- and a picture. It was a Hawaiian number with 29 girls in grass skirts and me in a little bathing suit. Then when I was 3 1/2, I remember my younger brother being born, which I guess is my first memory of something like real life. So it's always been show business. Looking back, it wasn't like 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."
There are those who will tell you Bennett got his wish. His father, a mechanic at a Buffalo Chevrolet plant, and his mother, a secretary at a neighborhood Sears store, indulged his early bent for dancing. At the age of 16, fresh out of high school, he fled the nest for the role of Baby John in the 12-month European tour of "West Side Story." He feels no particular fondness for Buffalo, but he stoutly maintains that the celebrated quip in "A Chorus Line" -- "To commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant" -- is not his, but writer James Kirkwood's.
Slinging a dance bag over his shoulder, as he does to this day, he went from the chorus of one Broadway musical to another until he landed his big break as choreographer of the 1968 musical "Promises, Promises." His frisky depiction of a tipsy office Christmas party, "Turkey-Lurkey Time," stopped the show nightly; it also threw a spotlight on dancer Donna McKechnie, who would eventually become Mrs. Michael Bennett, although for scarcely longer than the blink of an eye.
His dazzlingly conceived footwork for such subsequent shows as "Coco," "Company" and "Follies" clinched his reputation for lending new luster to Broadway dancing. Then, in 1973, six weeks before the show was to open in New York, Bennett was called in to overhaul "Seesaw," a musical version of "Two for the Seesaw" that was dying on the road. Bennett demanded total artistic control, got it, pulled another hit out of the hat and instantly acquired Broadway's most prestigious job title -- director-choreographer.
It was "A Chorus Line," however, that gave him his near-mythic stature. A freewheeling tape-recorded bull session, in the course of which Bennett and some of his fellow gypsies (chorus dancers) hashed over their lives and yearnings, was the seed. What emerged, after months of workshops, was "the finest piece of musical theater ever in my opinion," according to Bernard Jacobs, president of the powerful Shubert organization and also, in the eyes of many, Bennett's surrogate father.
The show opened in 1975 and single-handedly restored a sense of excitement to a near-derelict Broadway. On Sept. 29, 1983, it passed "Fiddler on the Roof" as the all-time long-run champ. There is no letup in sight. "It's like the Statue of Liberty. It's an indestructible show," says Bennett. "It's outlived the stock and amateur rights and it's outlived the movie version -- two things no Broadway musical has ever done. 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. I don't know if one show can rescue an industry any more. I really don't know how it happened the first time. I was just doing what I do -- my work."
Bennett is asked what is it like to have such a landmark in one's past. He laughs, takes a swig of the cranberry juice that has replaced coffee in his diet, and says, "Well, you try not to have it ruin your life. Really, people don't understand that with phenomenal success come certain problems -- like chasing your tail for the rest of your life. Even on '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? I felt that. Fortunately -- or unfortunately -- I didn't do anything next, because I had to direct so many companies of 'A Chorus Line.' There's an expression: The only thing worse than a flop is a hit, because that means the work never stops. You have to take care of a hit show, maintain it. Then you have the road company and that makes two. Then there's three . . "
For almost five years, in fact, Bennett was absorbed by the continuing fortunes and multiple editions of the show. "Just last week, I watched it again -- the Japanese company," he says. "Can you believe it? Half the cast had never worked for me before and they were petrified. I had to stop the rehearsal and touch them and say, 'Look, it's okay, you're doing fine. Just concentrate on the play.' For a long period of time, I found that whenever I got close to actors I made them so nervous their brains short-circuited. I mean, they were talking to Michael Bennett in quotes. They didn't hear me. I had to learn to say everything three times."
For a while, it was thought that Bennett would move on to Hollywood. Set to direct the movie of "A Chorus Line," as part of a four-film package for Universal, he realized that he was expected simply to transfer the stage show to film. "I was interested in doing it totally differently, but they wanted what they had bought [for $5.5 million]. And frankly I didn't think I could tell one more Sheila how to read that line -- any line!" (The movie would be made nearly a decade later by Richard Attenborough.) Bennett shifted his focus onto the screenplay for "Road Show," the saga of a theatrical bus and truck company on the road.
"I wrote it for Bette Midler," he says. "It was supposed to be her first movie. And then they told me, 'Streisand wants it.' I said, 'I don't want Streisand. It's for Bette Midler.' And they said, 'You can't not want Streisand. Nobody doesn't want Barbra Streisand.' So I said, 'Well, I just won't make the movie, then.' Anyway, I didn't like closing one eye and looking through a lens. It took away dimensions." The Hollywood career was over.
Bennett was back on Broadway in 1978 with "Ballroom," which told the story of a lonely widow who finds love and happiness among the middle-aged patrons of a dance palace in the Bronx. The ballroom choreography was terrific; the show wasn't. "Dreamgirls," the 1981 musical about a wildly successful singing group not unlike the Supremes, finally gave him the high-voltage hit he was looking for. It also won eight Tonys, ran 1,522 performances and made a star out of Jennifer Holliday, as the heavyset rhythm-and-blues performer (read Florence Ballard), who is bumped from the trio in favor of a sexier, svelter lead singer (read Diana Ross).
Bennett likes to say "A Chorus Line" is his musical about dancers and "Dreamgirls" is his musical about singers. But he has bowed to popular demand, by inserting more dance numbers in the road version of "Dreamgirls," even though he says that while the original contained very little "bust-out dancing," every move in the show was actually meticulously choreographed.
"I love 'Dreamgirls,' " he says, "because it's a show business musical and show business musicals are my favorites. It's just that it's easier to do a musical about singers and dancers, as characters, than it is to do a musical about dentists. 'Coco' was a difficult musical to do -- I mean to make Coco Chanel sing and dance! And then there was Katharine Hepburn, who was fabulous and wonderful, but also so tough on herself that she'd go crazy and no one wanted to deal with her, which left me! And I was 26 at the time! I don't like to fight, but she taught me how to do it very well, incidentally.
"But what I really like are happy, uplifting endings. That's the important thing. They help musicals tremendously. That was the trouble -- one of the troubles -- with 'Follies.' Bleak! 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 another surprise! But I believe in the possibility of great periods of happiness. I guess it comes from my parents, who fought a lot in their marriage, but had such a wonderful time doing it. And they loved making up! I mean, they were very hot, my parents. I'm quite serious."
"Dreamgirls" wasn't the home run "A Chorus Line" was, but it qualified as a solid triple, and although Bennett doesn't like to say so, it lifted some of the mounting pressure on him to top himself. Each time word gets out that he's got a new show in workshop, expectations in the trade invariably soar. But when, for example, he chose after four workshop productions to table "Scandal," a musical about a couple reawakening sexually to each other while they are going through a divorce, his decision was greeted in some quarters as high treason: How dare Bennett let Broadway down like that?
(Even his father once showed up on his doorstep and said, "I want to be your manager -- not that being Michael Bennett's father isn't wonderful. But being his manager would be terrific." Bennett informed him he'd have to settle for being his father.)
"What makes me angry is that no one gives me credit for working if I don't happen to have a show on the stage," he says. "It's like Broadway is dying and I'm being lazy. I've been working my butt off! But, basically, I like to start projects from the beginning. That takes a lot longer than just staging a show, which requires six weeks to cast, six weeks to rehearse and two weeks of previews.
"When you work from scratch with writers, you're talking a three- or four-year commitment. I guess it stems back to when I was just a choreographer, who is always the last person hired on a show. I remember in 'Promises, Promises,' I was handed the completed script and there's all this dialogue and then it says, '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. Now I just find it preferable to be involved in them right from the conception."
In the enforced idleness imposed by his doctors, Bennett spends a lot of time thinking about shows. He was recently named to Broadway's Theatrical Hall of Fame -- in recognition of more than 25 years of accomplishments, which at least makes the hiatus in his career slightly more bearable.
He lights up one of the eight cigarettes he permits himself daily (down from four packs). "There was a period when I really wanted to change the world," he says. "I was a real crusader. To an extent I still am. But I never knew what to do when I wasn't working. I don't know if this temporary retirement is a good thing or a bad thing. But it's happened. And I've mellowed.
"Growing up, I was successful at putting on shows -- garage shows, puppet shows, high school shows -- and when you're successful at something, that's what you do. I always knew who I was when I was doing a show and in that context I felt I had the right to tell others what to do. But basically, I'm a shy person, pretty passsive. The only people I know are in show business. I have friends who go back 20 years, from the time we all danced together in the chorus. Those relationships don't change. But any other kind of social life is a bore."
In the heady days of "A Chorus Line," Bennett bought himself a white Rolls-Royce and pulled into the fast lane for a spell. He has long since sold the car. "That was a joke," he says now. "Donna and I were getting married, and she said, 'Oh, look at that pretty white Rolls.' And I said, 'Anything you want, honey!' Then we got into this funny car and I felt as if we should be waving to the crowd, like royalty. Here I was in my dance clothes and I had to get dressed 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, who I wouldn't let wear a uniform. Anything to make it look like I was a rock 'n' roll act or something. I couldn't handle it.
"We were living in a fishbowl. And we fell into the classic trap of playing house because we were married. It was too late for us to do that. We were truly like out of a B movie. We're very good friends now, but it was a very hard time."
And now it's another kind of hard time that Bennett is determined to weather. He enjoys talking about the new musical he's working on with pop and country-western composer Jimmy Webb. Called "The Children's Crusade," it will have a cast of 300 children and will feature movable sets and rolling platforms, reminiscent of Italian street theater, and will be so enormous that it will have to be done in an armory. As he describes it, you can see his eyes catch fire.
"But," he concedes, "I don't want to go back to work, until I can go back with no fear. I've seen what that fear of not being good enough can do to people, how it makes them so much less than they really are. I want to go back into a rehearsal room, knowing I can fly around and not have to worry at all. I've never held back on anything in my life. And I don't want to start now."