Bennett choreographed Promises, Promises, Follies and Company. In 1976, he won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical and the Tony Award for Best Choreography for the Pulitzer Prize–winning phenomenon A Chorus Line. Bennett, under the aegis of producer Joseph Papp, created A Chorus Line based on a precedent-setting workshop process which he pioneered. He also directed and co-choreographed Dreamgirls with Michael Peters. (
Bennett was born Michael Bennett DiFiglia in Buffalo, New York, the son of Helen (Ternoff), a secretary, and Salvatore Joseph DiFiglia, a factory worker. His father was Roman Catholic and his mother was Jewish. He studied dance and choreography in his teens and staged a number of shows in his local high school before dropping out to accept the role of Baby John in the US and European tours of West Side Story.
(back row, left to right) Ed Kleban, Marvin Hamlisch, (front row, left to right) James Kirkwood, Michael Bennet, Nicholas Dante)
Michael Bennett was an American musical theater director, writer, choreographer, and dancer. The charismatic Bennett was a lover of men and women; his two primary heterosexual relationships were stormy, first with wife Donna McKechnie then with Sabine Cassel, whom he promised to wed but did not. His relationships with men were less publicized, but they included long relationships with dancers Larry Fuller, Scott Pearson, Richard Christopher, and Gene Pruitt, his last lover.
Bennett's career as a Broadway dancer began in the 1961 Betty Comden–Adolph Green–Jule Styne musical Subways Are For Sleeping, after which he appeared in Meredith Willson's Here's Love and the short-lived Bajour. In the mid-1960s he was a featured dancer on the NBC pop music series Hullabaloo, where he met fellow dancer Donna McKechnie
Bennett made his choreographic debut with A Joyful Noise (1966), which lasted only twelve performances, and in 1967 followed it with another failure, Henry, Sweet Henry (based on the Peter Sellers film The World of Henry Orient). Success finally arrived in 1968, when he choreographed the hit musical Promises, Promises on Broadway. With a contemporary pop score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, a wisecracking book by Neil Simon and Bennett's well-received production numbers, including "Turkey Lurkey Time", the show ran for 1,281 performances. Over the next few years, he earned praise for his work on the straight play Twigs with Sada Thompson and the musical Coco with Katharine Hepburn. These were followed by two Stephen Sondheim productions, Company and Follies co-directed with Hal Prince.
In 1973, Bennett was asked by producers Joseph Kipness and Larry Kasha to take over the ailing Cy Coleman–Dorothy Fields musical Seesaw. In replacing the director Ed Sherin and choreographer Grover Dale, he asked for absolute control over the production as director and choreographer and received credit as "having written, directed, and choreographed" the show.
Bennett's next project was A Chorus Line. The musical was formed out of hundreds of hours of taped sessions with Broadway dancers. Bennett was invited to the sessions originally as an observer but soon took charge. He co-choreographed and directed the production, which debuted in May 1975 off-Broadway. It won nine Tony Awards and the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He later claimed that the worldwide success of A Chorus Line became a hindrance, as the many international companies of that musical demanded his full-time attention. Bennett would later become a creative consultant for the 1985 film version of the musical but left due to creative differences. He always sought creative control over his projects, but Hollywood producers were unwilling to give him the influence he demanded.
Although the film version was but a pale imitation of the original, there are some filmed records which testify to the show's initial power. Television talk-show host Phil Donahue devoted an entire program to the original cast, during which they reminisce and recreate some of the musical numbers. The 2008 feature-length documentary "Every Little Step" chronicles the casting process of A Chorus Line's 2006 revival, with re-created choreography by Bennett's long-time associate Baayork Lee, and, in the course of the film, the saga of the original production is re-told as well, through the use of old film clips and revealing interviews from the original collaborators, including Lee, Bob Avian (who was the show's original co-choreographer with Bennett and the director of the revival), composer Marvin Hamlisch and the original's leading lady, Donna McKechnie.
Bennett's next musical was an admired project about late-life romance called Ballroom. Although financially unsuccessful, it garnered 7 Tony Award nominations, and Michael won one for Best Choreography. He admitted that any project that followed A Chorus Line was bound to be an anti-climax. Bennett had another hit in 1981 with Dreamgirls, a backstage epic about a girl-group like The Supremes and the expropriation of black music by a white recording industry. In the early 1980s, Bennett worked on various projects, one of which was titled The Children's Crusade based on a legendary story Children's Crusade, but none of them reached the stage.
He always collaborated with his assistant Bob Avian, who was a lifelong friend.
In 1985, Bennett abandoned the nearly-completed musical Scandal, by writer Treva Silverman and songwriter Jimmy Webb, which had been developing for nearly five years through a series of workshop productions. The show was sexually daring, and apparently Bennett's best work, but the conservative climate and the growing AIDS panic made it unlikely commercial material. He was then signed to direct the West End production of Chess but had to withdraw in January 1986 due to his failing health, leaving Trevor Nunn to complete the production using Bennett's already commissioned sets.
Unlike his more famous contemporary Bob Fosse, Bennett was not known for a particular choreographic style. Instead, Bennett's choreography was motivated by the form of the musical involved, or the distinct characters interpreted.
In Act 2 of Company, Bennett defied the usual choreographic expectations by deliberately taking the polish off the standard Broadway production number. The company stumbled through the steps of a hat and cane routine ("Side By Side") and thus revealed to the audience the physical limitations of the characters' singing and dancing. Bennett made the audience aware that this group had been flung together to perform, and that they were in over their heads. He intended the number to be not about the routine, but rather the characters behind it.
The song "One" from A Chorus Line functions in a different way. The various phases of construction/rehearsal of the number are shown, and because the show is about professional dancers, the last performance of the song-and-dance routine has all the gloss and polish expected of Broadway production values. Bennett's choreography also reveals the cost of the number to the people behind it.
Bennett was influenced by the work of Jerome Robbins. "What Michael Bennett perceived early in Robbins' work was totality, all the sums of a given piece adding to a unified whole". In Dreamgirls, Bennett's musical staging was described as a "mesmerizing sense of movement":
The most thrilling breakthrough of the extraordinary show is that whereas in A Chorus Line Michael Bennett choreographed the cast, in Dreamgirls he has choreographed the set.... Bennett's use of [the plexiglass towers that dominated the set] was revolutionary. The towers moved to create constantly changing perspectives and space, like an automated ballet.... They energized the action, driving it forcefully along. It's why there were no set-piece dance routines in the show: Dance and movement were organic to the entire action. But Bennett had made the mechanical set his dancers."In his younger days, Bennett had a relationship with Larry Fuller, a dancer, choreographer and director.
He had a long professional and personal relationship with the virtuoso dancer Donna McKechnie, who danced his work in both Promises, Promises and Company and finally won the 1976 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical in the role he had created for her in A Chorus Line. They got married on December 4, 1976, but after only a few months they separated and eventually divorced in 1979.
In the late 1970s he began an affair with Sabine Cassel, the then-wife of French actor Jean-Pierre Cassel. She left her family in Paris to live with Bennett in Manhattan, but the relationship soured.
Bennett's addictions to alcohol and drugs, notably cocaine and quaaludes, severely affected his ability to work and affected many of his professional and personal relationships. His paranoia grew as his dependency did. Worried by his celebrity and his father's Italian background, he began to suspect he might fall victim to a Mafia hit.
Bennett's last lover was Gene Pruitt. In 1986 both Pruitt and friend Bob Herr lived with Bennett for the last eight months of his life in Tucson, Arizona, where he received care at the Arizona Medical Center. Bennett died from AIDS-related lymphoma at the age of 44. He left a portion of his estate to fund research to fight the epidemic. Bennett's memorial service took place at the Shubert Theatre in New York (the home at that time of A Chorus Line) on September 29, 1987.
THE OTHER HOPEFUL DEVELOPMENT in the spring of 1986 was an announcement from the National Cancer Institute that a new drug called azidothymidine, or AZT, seemed to help some AIDS patients. Encouraging signs included "fewer fevers, the disappearance of infections, improved appetite and weight gain." In years to come the drug's effectiveness-and toxicity-would be fiercely debated within the gay community, but when AZT was first introduced, it was the only medical treatment that provided any optimism at all. Roy Cohn and the Broadway choreographer Michael Bennett were two of the first AIDS patients to be treated with it. --Charles Kaiser. The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America (Kindle Locations 4616-4620). Kindle Edition.Further Readings:
Putting It on by Alan Strachan
Hardcover: 416 pages
Publisher: Duckworth & Co (September 28, 2010)
Amazon: Putting It on
Michael Codron is undoubtedly the leading producer of postwar British theatre. Still active after an astonishing half-century in the industry - he is 80 this year - every major British dramatist of the period has had a production under the Codron banner: Alan Ayckbourn, Alan Bennett, Michael Frayn, Simon Gray, David Hare, Joe Orton, John Mortimer, Harold Pinter and Patrick Marber, to name just a few. Describing himself as 'A man of vulgar taste with an impeccable streak', he has had many hits with lighter entertainment as well as serious plays. Aware of his own homosexuality from an early age, Codron grew up in an era of prejudice and intolerance; his experiences parallel the enormous shifts in metropolitan gay life since the 1950's. In "Putting It On" he talks frankly of the most important relationships of his life, from early flings with older, sophisticated figures like David Hicks to David Sutton, the main love of his life and his business partner for over twenty-five years. Codron's CV reads like a concise history of the post-war stage, and the book examines the sea-changes in the commercial sector and the rise of the subsidised theatre, revealing, too, what it was like working with the greatest actors of our time, including Alec Guiness, John Gielgud, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay, Richard Briers, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg, Felicity Kendall, Penelope Keith, Julie Waters and Victoria Wood. A fascinating insight into the victorious ups and hair-raising downs of the theatre, "Putting it On" is a testament to an extraordinary career, dramatic in every sense of the word, and unlikely to be parallelled in our time.
Dirty Poole: A Sensual Memoir by Wakefield Poole
Paperback: 290 pages
Publisher: Lethe Press; New edition (April 22, 2011)
Amazon: Dirty Poole: A Sensual Memoir
Filmmaker Wakefield Poole wrote the rules for living on the edge with no safety net and no apologies. How a respected Broadway dancer, choreographer, and director became the infamous creator of beautiful, wildly successful gay porn is just part of a gripping story that takes us on a whirlwind tour of the early days of the sexual revolution, when "anything goes" was a way of life. While rubbing shoulders with the theatrical elite of the day, including Noel Coward, Marlene Deitrich, Richard Rodgers, Liza Minelli and Stephen Sondheim, Poole created Boys in the Sand, the film that would revolutionize pornography and gay film, start the "porno chic" trend of the 1970s, and serve as the ruler by which all adult entertainment is measured. This new edition of Poole's memoir is an honest and entertaining look at life in the worlds of theater and gay porn, the perils and joys of success, the horrors of drug addiction, and the resilient spirit of a man who continually re-invented himself and survived it all.
Performance in America: Contemporary U.S. Culture and the Performing Arts by David Román
Paperback: 376 pages
Publisher: Duke University Press Books (November 23, 2005)
Amazon: Performance in America: Contemporary U.S. Culture and the Performing Arts
Performance in America demonstrates the vital importance of the performing arts to contemporary U.S. culture. Looking at a series of specific performances mounted between 1994 and 2004, well-known performance studies scholar David Román challenges the belief that theatre, dance, and live music are marginal art forms in the United States. He describes the crucial role that the performing arts play in local, regional, and national communities, emphasizing the power of live performance, particularly its immediacy and capacity to create a dialogue between artists and audiences. Román draws attention to the ways that the performing arts provide unique perspectives on many of the most pressing concerns within American studies: questions about history and politics, citizenship and society, and culture and nation.
The performances that Román analyzes range from localized community-based arts events to full-scale Broadway productions and from the controversial works of established artists such as Tony Kushner to those of emerging artists. Román considers dances produced by the choreographers Bill T. Jones and Neil Greenberg in the mid-1990s as new aids treatments became available and the aids crisis was reconfigured; a production of the Asian American playwright Chay Yew’s A Beautiful Country in a high-school auditorium in Los Angeles’s Chinatown; and Latino performer John Leguizamo’s one-man Broadway show Freak. He examines the revival of theatrical legacies by female impersonators and the resurgence of cabaret in New York City. Román also looks at how the performing arts have responded to 9/11, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and the second war in Iraq. Including more than eighty illustrations, Performance in America highlights the dynamic relationships among performance, history, and contemporary culture through which the past is revisited and the future reimagined.
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