THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MICHAEL BENNETT
July 2, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
On this date 31 years ago, Michael Bennett died in Tucson, Arizona, from complications caused by AIDS. He was forty-four years old. His legacy includes the choreography for Follies (1971), that he also co-directed with Harold Prince, and two shows he directed himself — A Chorus Line (1975) and Dreamgirls (1980) — which featured new levels of stagecraft and storytelling devices that dazzled critics and theatregoers alike. These three shows alone put him in the top ranks of those who contributed invaluably to the 20th century American musical. His death was a blow, not only because he was so damn young, but for how it effected those who loved his work so much. It puts to mind what was said between Billy Wilder and William Wyler upon leaving the funeral of their friend, the esteemed film writer-director Ernst Lubitsch. “Well, no more Lubitsch,” said Wilder. “Worse than that,” Wyler replied. “No more Lubitsch pictures.”
When I opened up the New York Times on the morning of July 3, 1987, Bennett’s obit was on the front page. Its headline: “Michael Bennett, Theatre Innovator, Dies at 44.” I had heard that he was dying, but nothing prepared me for seeing it in print; the finality of it. It was devastating. He had given me so many memorable days and nights in the theatre that I felt like I had lost someone close to me. His work was so much a part of the thrill I associate with what being in a theatre is all about. From the moment he started as a young choreographer at age twenty-three, he made people stand up and pay notice. As stated in the obit: “From the 1966 A Joyful Noise through the December 1981 opening of Dreamgirls, he received Tony Award nominations for every musical with which he was associated, and won seven.”
Born Michael Bennett DiFiglia, he grew up in Buffalo, New York, where he studied dance as a teenager and choreographed his high school musicals. He quit school at sixteen when he was cast as Baby John in a tour of West Side Story across the U.S. and Europe. At eighteen, he made his Broadway debut in the chorus of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s Subways Are for Sleeping (1961) A year later, he assisted choreographer Ron Field on the one-week run of Nowhere to Go But Up, followed by dancing in the choruses of two minor musicals: Here’s Love (1963) and Bajour (1964). He even managed to squeeze in time in Los Angeles, where he appeared on the TV dance series Hullabaloo, which is where he met the dancer who would become his muse, Donna McKechnie.
In 1966, the first Broadway musical to feature the credit “Choreography by Michael Bennett” was A Joyful Noise, a folksy musical that starred John Raitt. It closed after twelve forgettable performances. But Bennett wasn’t forgotten at Tony time, when he received his first nomination for choreography. How Now Dow Jones and Henry, Sweet, Henry came next, and Bennett’s dances scored successfully, even if the shows didn’t. It was only with 1968’s Promises Promises that he had his first hit, and the first time he was able to showcase Donna McKechnie. “Turkey Lurkey Time” was a high-voltage number that audiences remembered long after they left the theatre. The song also featured Baayork Lee, who would go on to have a role in A Chorus Line, crafted to her specific talents (and life story), just like McKechnie.
That number is all the evidence necessary that Michael Bennett was not your average everyday choreographer. Also, I dare you to try watching the clip again and NOT watch Donna McKechnie.
1970 brought Company, where Bennett was able to work with collaborators who, like him, were at the top of their game: Stephen Sondheim, George Furth, Harold Prince and Boris Aronson. No one had ever seen anything like Company before, and it was immediately recognized for its groundbreaking production and non-linear story telling (even by those critics who didn’t care for it, like Walter Kerr in the New York Times who wrote, “I left feeling rather cool and queasy.”). All those mentioned above took home Tonys for Company, but not Bennett, whose dances were a bit more brilliant in style and substance than for what he got credit. What he did with a cast of mostly non-dancers was ingenious, and the show moved with a fluidity that Bennett steadily improved upon with Follies, A Chorus Line and finally Dreamgirls, where his integration of lighting, scenery and actors flowed seamlessly.
Co-directing Follies put Bennett on equal footing with Harold Prince, at the time, the most respected director in the musical theatre. But it proved their final collaboration, as from then on it was “The Michael Bennett Show.” He desperately needed to live the lyrics Jerry Herman came up with and become “his own special creation.” Sadly, enhanced by the use of alcohol and drugs, Bennett drove himself relentlessly (and others as well). He took over Seesaw, an ailing musical while in its 1973 try out, and managed the rare feat of successfully overhauling it (firing so many people in the process, that those left standing felt like wounded war vets). Winning a third Tony Award (for choreographing Seesaw) was nice, but Bennett wanted more. Much more. So he buckled down and launched something he would eventually have to call his own (much to his collaborators anger and confusion). Exercising complete creative control was his goal, and he achieved it with A Chorus Line.
Much has been written about A Chorus Line and how it not only changed the American musical, but changed the fortunes of the American Theatre. Many Broadway houses were dark when it literally lit up West 44th Street (and the rest of the theatre district, too), becoming the Shubert’s then-unheard of sole tenant for fifteen years. It changed the fortunes of Joe Papp’s Public Theatre as well, since by providing the workshops that made the show possible, it allowed the Public to share in A Chorus Line’s profits, keeping it solvent for years to come. It also changed Bennett immeasurably, and not for the better. He became a multi-millionaire, and with that came power and paranoia (unquestionably linked to his drug use). He began to alienate people left and right, some of them his closest associates.
Ballroom, Bennett’s next musical was in the unenviable position of having to follow A Chorus Line, so it almost had to fail (and it didn’t help that it was subtle and understated). I attended its opening night and found it charming, dynamic and even a bit thrilling, but the critics had their knives out and literally killed it. Undeterred, Bennett came roaring back four years later with Dreamgirls, a monumental achievement by anybody’s standards. But that success was relatively short-lived, when an original musical titled Scandal, one that Bennett had workshopped for over a year beginning in 1984, had its plug pulled by Bennett, prior to an announced Broadway opening, with little to no explanation. Then in 1986, he mysteriously dropped out of his next directing assignment, Andersson and Ulvaeus’s Chess. A heart ailment was the story used to explain why he couldn’t proceed, when it was actually his AIDS diagnosis, which he kept hidden from nearly everyone.
He died alone in Tucson, refusing to see those he had once been close to; a sad and lonely end for a man who thrived on the company of his fellow showmen (and women), the only people with whom he felt most at home.
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