Broadway choreographer and dancer Michael Bennett (b. Buffalo, NY, 8 April 1943; d. Tucson, AZ, 2 July 1987) was also a theater director, producer, and writer. Most famous as the creator of the 1975 smash hit A Chorus Line, he won, over the course of his career, seven Tony Awards® and three Drama Desk Awards, either for choreography or direction of musicals, and received thirteen nominations in addition. Many of his most ambitious projects were left unfinished when he succumbed to AIDS in the mid-1980s.
Born Michael Bennett DiFiglia to a Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic father, Mickey studied dance and choreography in his early teens. He staged several musical shows at his Buffalo high school before dropping out at age sixteen to join a road company of West Side Story, playing Baby John. After touring Europe as well as most of the US, he landed a dancing gig on Broadway in the 1961 Betty Comden/Adolph Green/Jule Styne musical Subways Are for Sleeping.
In November of 1962 Bennett was serving as assistant to the choreographer of a very short-lived musical called Nowhere To Go but Up. In the cast was another aspiring dancer and choreographer, Bob Avian, who was to become his lifelong friend, his assistant, and his collaborator on nearly every important project in the coming years.
In 1963 Michael Bennett was dancing in Meredith Willson’s Here’s Love, and a year later in Bajour. In 1965 and ’66 he was a featured dancer on the NBC pop music series Hullabaloo, where he met another lifelong connection, Donna McKechnie.
Bennett began as a solo choreographer in 1966 with A Joyful Noise, which, although it lasted only twelve performances, earned him a Tony® nomination. The next four years brought increasing success, with four shows – Henry, Sweet Henry (1967), Promises, Promises (1968), Coco (1969), and Company (1970) – each of which outran the last (except for Promises, Promises which outran them all) and each of which earned Bennett yet another Tony® nomination. Finally in 1971 Bennett scored a Tony® win with Sondheim’s Follies, and shared the Tony® for direction with Hal Prince. Having worked with Prince on his last two shows, Bennett was beginning to think he was meant to direct as well as to choreograph.
In his first solo flight in 1971, he directed Sada Thompson in the four mini-shows of Twigs (with incidental music by Sondheim), and achieved a run of 289 performances. Seesaw (1973) did comparably well, but for this Coleman/Fields musical, Bennett not only directed and choreographed, but wrote the book as well. He won the 1974 Tony® for choreography, and snagged nominations for both book and direction.
Bennett had been called out on the road to “save” Seesaw six months before it was to open on Broadway, and had insisted on absolute control over the production. He was now convinced that the usual method of “developing” the Broadway musical – out-of-town tryouts, rewrites, last-minute substitutions – was counterproductive. He had a better idea: rather than start from a script, he would let the “book” evolve out of the lives and experiences of the performers. He taped hundreds of hours of interviews with dozens of Broadway chorus dancers – known as “gypsies” – and developed his show in a year of workshops at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre. Thus was born A Chorus Line. (The Public Theatre, by the way, was to benefit handsomely as one of the producers of the show; indeed, the New York Shakespeare Festival may owe its very survival to Bennett and composer Marvin Hamlisch.)
Without stars, without the customary intermission, without props or stagecraft, A Chorus Line was a shot in the dark. It debuted off-Broadway in May of 1975 and moved to Broadway in July. Not only did it sweep the 1976 Tony Awards® (with nine wins – the three more nominations were simply leftovers, as someone else from A Chorus Line won the category), but it won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, got another Tony® in 1984 for being the longest-running Broadway musical in history, and didn’t close until April 1990.
Bennett devoted the better part of the rest of his life to overseeing productions in far-flung parts of the world. But by 1985, when Richard Attenborough made A Chorus Line into a film, he had had enough and contributed next to nothing.
Bennett’s next musical, Ballroom (1978), was a disappointment, despite another Tony® win. Dreamgirls (1981), however, in which even the Plexiglas towers of the set, computerized, took part in the choreography, earned him his seventh and last Tony Award®. It ran for three and a half years.
Among the projects Bennett undertook in the early ’80s but was unable to complete were another musical, Scandal, a staging of The Children’s Crusade, and the directorship of the West End production of Chess. It was clear that he was failing, and in 1986 he sold his New York real estate and moved to Tucson. He died there in 1987.
Bennett, as opposed to his better-known contemporary Bob Fosse, did not have an immediately recognizable choreographic style. Like Jerome Robbins, whom he endeavored to emulate, he strove for unity of style within each separate work, shaped by the story and the characters in it. Thus the movement might be jazzy or balletic, romantic or angular, athletic or even a little bumbling, depending on the circumstances: even in A Chorus Line the dancers’ execution becomes progressively more polished as the “show within the show” crystallizes.
Apparently Michael Bennett was not easy to get along with. He had a number of relationships, with both men and women, but none were unaffected by his addictions to drugs and alcohol, or by his overweening compulsion to control, and none lasted for any significant period of time. He was married to Donna McKechnie for – technically – a little over two years, but they actually lived together for only a few months. James Kirkwood, one of the authors of the book of A Chorus Line, did not mince words: “Michael would do anything – anything – to get a show on. The cruelty was extensive. And not just in his professional life. He was amoral.”