Broadway Knight Michael Bennett

Michael Bennett rehearses with Bob Avian (left) and Margo Sappington (right).

A dancer’s ornamentally unfurling arms and catlike spine develop under a spotlight. Alone in a dark, empty space, she watches her haloed dancing figure in a mirrored triptych, whose three panels resemble a church altar painting. In this iconic “Music and the Mirror” number of A Chorus Line, director Michael Bennett revealed a dancer’s private sanctuary: the dance studio.

In the longest-running Broadway show of its time, Bennett exposed the courageous plight of dancers through pathos-infused monologues and plaintive song—without sexing up or satirizing their lives. The musical’s intimate subject—what it feels like to put oneself on the line—was revolutionary. Though Bennett directed and choreographed 10 musicals (and earned seven Tony Awards for best choreography or direction), it was through A Chorus Line that he changed musical theater history.

Bennett believed Broadway audiences deserved more than fairy tales and high production values, and with A Chorus Line, he created the first musical vérité, a documentary-style production based on 24 hours of recorded conversations of dancers frankly discussing their lives. He modeled himself after Jerome Robbins, crafting historically and psychologically realistic characters, using existing dance styles to reflect an individual’s world. He gave a new generation of dancers valuable work that resonated with their own experiences.

Michael “Bennett” DiFiglia was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. His mother enrolled him, at age 2, in dance classes, and at age 11, he saw his first Broadway show, Bob Fosse’s The Pajama Game. He went pro five years later, playing Baby John in the touring production of Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story. Dropping out of Bennett High that year, the newly christened Bennett told reporters his name change was recompense for never finishing school.

Bennett landed his first Broadway gig as a dancer in Subways Are for Sleeping, but his real knack was for creation. At 20, he served as choreographic assistant to Ron Field in Nowhere to Go But Up, and it was in that period that he met Robert Avian, who would become his longtime collaborator. The duo first teamed up to choreograph Henry Sweet Henry in 1967, which, although it was a flop, earned a Tony nomination for best choreography.

“Our styles ended up playing off each other,” said Avian, “my training in classical and ballet, his in jazz and tap.” Their sentiments were also complementary: Bennett could be cutting with dancers; Avian knew how to salvage relationships. The pair worked together on nine subsequent Broadway productions, including Tony winners Promises, Promises, Company, Follies, Seesaw, A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls.

Despite Bennett’s successes, the Broadway scene of the early 1970s was floundering. In January 1974, Broadway dancer Michon Peacock invited Bennett to a rap session that she organized along with dance veteran Tony Stevens. They felt dancers were being taken advantage of by directors and producers. “We decided we had to do something to change the status of dancers,” says Peacock. She and Stevens wanted to form a Broadway dancer-based repertory company, and they used Bennett’s star power to attract participants.

“Michael Bennett is going to be there and we’re going to dance,” Stevens told the dancers. “It’s going to be a marathon. We’re going to stay up all night, talk about life and what it’s like to be a dancer.” After Stevens led a dance jam, Bennett initiated the conversation. He also brought a tape recorder.

These workshops were originally called “The Dancer Project,” and with New York Shakespeare Festival director Joe Papp’s backing of $100 a week for each dancer and the use of a black box theater, Bennett continued rehearsals. He brought Marvin Hamlisch, an Oscar Award–winning composer, on board.

As the workshop evolved, the 19 dancers (10 from the original session) were stretched to their psychological limits. “Can you imagine people auditioning for their own life stories?” says A Chorus Line original Cassie (and briefly Bennett’s wife) Donna McKechnie. Bennett didn’t just create a musical about an audition; he made rehearsals into nearly constant auditions for dancers whose parts were based on their lives. The musical’s story, lyrics, design and choreography were created through exhaustive revisions and collaborations through what is now called the workshop production.

When A Chorus Line premiered in the 299-seat black box theater, it became an immediate sensation and moved to Broadway. Its message of determination and triumph resonated not only with dancers in the audience, but also with the general population, says dancer Leslie Woodies, who played Cassie in the New York Shakespeare Festival production. “I remember people would wait 30 or more minutes by the stage door to tell us their stories,” she says. “Even years later, when I was in On Your Toes, a woman who read Cassie in my bio waited to tell me that after watching A Chorus Line, she found the courage to leave an abusive husband. The production presented such a broad range of human experience.”

After A Chorus Line, reviews of Bennett’s next musical, Ballroom, were mixed, but Dreamgirls (1981) was a hit. It brought the subject of race to Broadway through a tale about three black backup singers. And in 1985 Bennett pushed Broadway’s culturally conservative envelope further with the musical Scandal. But when Bennett was diagnosed with AIDS, he stopped production, telling the writer Treva Silverman, “What will the critics say about a show about sex whose director is dying of AIDS?”

When Bennett died two years later at the age of 44, “he left a Grand Canyon–sized gap in the musical theater community,” says Woodies. The night of Bennett’s death, the cast of A Chorus Line changed the pronoun of the final song from “She” to “He’s the…One!” Broadway was forever changed. Choreographers today, including Jerry Mitchell, credit Bennett as their greatest influence, and one can only imagine what he could have accomplished. “He was incredibly smart,” says Peacock. “You never knew what Michael was going to do next; he was endlessly creative.” DT

Did you know?

* When A Chorus Line premiered at The Public Theater in New York, Henry Fonda, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Diana Ross attended.

* With the success of A Chorus Line, Bennett purchased the NYC building at 890 Broadway in 1978. Today, it’s home to production and dance companies, including American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Tech.

* Bennett received the 1976 Dance Magazine Award; for A Chorus Line, he won two Tonys, two Drama Desk Awards and the 1976 Pulitzer Prize.

* A Chorus Line has been produced and staged in six languages.

* Bennett bequeathed 15 percent of his estate to AIDS research.

 

Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives.

Thinkstock

With Thanksgiving approaching, we're all ruminating on the things we are most thankful for in the world. Of course, as dance teachers, our students are always at the top of our list. They make us laugh, they make us cry and sometimes they make us want to pull our hair out, but at the end of the day, they are the reason for everything we do in the studio each day. To get you thinking about how much you love your dancers, here are five videos of kids dancing that are sure to make your heart happy! We want to see the dancers you're thankful for this season, too, so share your favorite videos on social media, tag us and include #gratitudedance in the caption. Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

No matter how hard I work to change it, I'm often told that I have a shallow plié. Is there any hope for improving the depth of my plié through special stretches to make it juicier? I'm doing a lot of exercises, but I don't seem to getting any results. Looking forward to reading your advice. Thanks!

Keep reading... Show less
Videos

When New York City–based dancer Dan Lai began choreographing Figure 8, he had a specific vision in mind. Inspired by a song by FKA Twigs, he wanted the movement to represent the music's "dark and twisted vibe." "My thought process was to make shapes and phrases that were abstract and unique that complimented the intricate beats of the music," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Buzz
Thinkstock

Science has proven again, again that dancing is just, well, good for you. And not even in moderation. Like drinking water or laughing, there's no such thing as too much dancing. So, let's rejoice for this new dance perk to add to the list.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
To make dancers stronger and less injury-prone, Burns Wilson suggest adding floor barre or conditioning classes. Photo courtesy of Burns Wilson

With a career spanning 30-plus years in the dance field, Anneliese Burns Wilson has cultivated a unique perspective on health and injury prevention for dancers. From teaching ballet to teaching anatomy, she then founded ABC for Dance, which publishes dance-teaching materials. Now through research for her next book, which will focus on training the female adolescent dancer, she's delving even deeper into topics many dance teachers have overlooked.

Keep reading... Show less
Erdmann (left) on set for Hairspray Live. Courtesy of Erdmann

When Wicked ensemble member Kelli Erdman was training at Westlake Dance Center in Seattle, her teacher Kirsten Cooper taught her that focused transitions would be pivotal to her success as a dancer. Now as a professional, Erdmann applies this advice to her daily performances, asserting that she will never let the details of her dancing get blurry.

Keep reading... Show less
How-To
Photo by Nancy Adler, courtesy of Maria Hanley

When a principal, teacher, or parent walks into a room and sees 20 children rolling around on the floor and then leaping for the sky (learning about level changes), or jumping about like frogs (in a role-playing improvisation activity), they might not always understand what's going on. That's why Deborah Damast, clinical assistant professor and artistic advisor of the dance education program at NYU Steinhardt, offered up several responses as to why this type of movement—often a precursor to formal ballet/tap/jazz classes—is so very important.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored