Broadway Director and Choreographer Dead at 44
NEW YORK (AP) _ Director and choreographer Michael Bennett, the mastermind behind ″A Chorus Line,″ the longest-running musical in Broadway history, died today of lymphoma caused by AIDS, according to his lawyer. He was 44.
Attorney John F. Breglio said Bennett died at about 4:50 a.m. at his home in Tucson, Ariz. He had moved to Arizona last December, 11 months after he had been diagnosed as having acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and had been treated at the Arizona Health Science Center.
Bennett was the ultimate Broadway ″gypsy,″ a dancer in the chorus who went on to become a successful choreographer, director and producer, associated with such hit shows as ″Promises, Promises,″ ″Company,″ ″Follies,″ ″Dreamgirls″ and, of course, ″A Chorus Line.″
″I went from dancer to choreographer to director to producer to sometime writer,″ he once said. ″But I never had to deviate from my ambition, which was to work in theater.″
It was Bennett’s experience in the chorus that gave him the idea for ″A Chorus Line,″ which won nine Tony awards and the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for drama and is still running at Broadway’s Shubert Theater. It opened there on July 25, 1975.
The musical grew out of a marathon talk session Bennett held in January 1974 with a group of dancers. They talked candidly about their careers, lifestyles and childhoods. Out of some 30 hours of tape-recorded discussions, ″A Chorus Line″ was born. Marvin Hamlisch was hired to write the music, Edward Kleban wrote the lyrics and James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante reworked the script.
Joseph Papp, head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, offered his theater facilities for a workshop and the show opened May 21, 1975, at a tiny 299-seat theater before moving on to its huge Broadway success.
″He was a dear friend of mine, and obviously he will be missed,″ Hamlisch said today. ″I think that he cared a lot about characters, and about the fact that when you left the theater, that you thought about not just what you saw visually, but what you experienced emotionally.″
Choreographer Bob Fosse, in Toronto with a touring company of ″Sweet Charity,″ said when he heard of Bennett’s death, ″Years ago I knew him when he was starting out as a dancer. I admired his work tremendously. It’s just very sad.″
Bennett was born Michael Bennett DiFiglia in Buffalo. His father was a machinist in an automobile plant, while his mother worked as a secretary. Their son started dance lessons as the age of 3. As a teen-ager, Bennett studied dance during the summer in New York with such professionals as Aubrey Hitchins and Matt Maddox.
At the age of 16, he dropped out of high school to tour Europe in a production of ″West Side Story,″ directed by Jerome Robbins, one of Bennett’s dance idols. Bennett made his Broadway debut in 1961, dancing in the chorus of the musical, ″Subways Are for Sleeping.″ He followed that show with roles in other musicals such as ″Here’s Love″ and ″Bajour.″
Bennett made his debut as a choreographer in 1966 with ″A Joyful Noise.″ While the show, set against a background of country-western music, was not a hit, his dances were praised by the critics. So was his next job as choreographer for another short-running musical, ″Henry, Sweet Henry,″ based on the Peter Sellers film ″The World of Henry Orient.″
In 1968 Bennett scored his first Broadway success with the dances for ″Promises, Promises,″ the Burt Bacharach-Hal David musical based on the movie ″The Apartment.″ The following year, he did the dances for ″Coco,″ an Alan Jay Lerner-Andre Previn musical about fashion designer Coco Chanel. Katharine Hepburn starred as the inimitable couturiere.
A year later, he choreographed ″Company,″ the Stephen Sondheim musical about a footloose bachelor in New York and his friendship with five married couples. The show, directed by Harold Prince, ran for nearly 18 months.
In 1971, Bennett again worked with Prince, this time as co-director and choreographer of ″Follies.″ The innovative musical, another ambitious Sondheim show, was about the reunion of a group of aging showgirls. In it, the ghosts of these women’s past watched as the ex-Follies girls performed many of their old musical comedy numbers. Bennett won two Tony awards for his efforts.
Not wishing to be typecast as a choreographer, Bennett next directed and co-produced ″Twigs,″ a play by George Furth and starring Sada Thompson. It was a modest success on Broadway.
In 1973, Bennett was called in help salvage ″Seesaw,″ a musical version of William Gibson’s two-character play ″Two for the Seesaw.″ The show was in trouble out of town. Bennett reworked the entire production, replacing just about everything in the show, from the sets and costumes to the leading lady. The musical, which starred Michele Lee, Ken Howard and Tommy Tune, ended up with a nine-month New York run and later toured.
Bennett then went to work on ″A Chorus Line.″ The show is simply the story of two dozen dancers auditioning for a new Broadway musical. Each character talks and sings about his or her ambitions, fears and hopes, before eight are selected for jobs in the chorus.
The show became a phenomenal critical and financial success, not only on Broadway, but around the world. One company toured the United States for seven years. Grosses for the New York company alone have totaled more than $116 million.
In late 1976, Bennett married Donna McKechnie, one of the original cast members of ″A Chorus Line,″ He had worked with her previously in ″A Joyful Noise,″ ″Promises, Promises″ and ″Company.″ But the marriage floundered quickly and the couple was quietly divorced.
In 1978, Bennett invested - and lost - $2 million of his own money in ″Ballroom,″ a love story about a widow and a married man who meet in a ballroom frequented by middle-aged lonelyhearts. He produced, directed and choreographed the musical which had a three-month run.
Bennett rebounded three years later with the hit ″Dreamgirls,″ another show business musical, this time about a black vocal trio not unlike the Supremes who climb to the top of the pop charts despite replacing their lead singer. It recently returned to Broadway.
Bennett, again as director, choreographer and producer, worked closely with his production team of set designer Robin Wagner, costume designer Theoni Aldredge and lighting designer Tharon Musser to produce a fluid, fast-moving musical that captured the glitter and hype of a rhythm ‘n’ blues world. The show, which had book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger, made a star of Jennifer Holliday.
After ″Dreamgirls,″ Bennett became preoccupied with ″Scandal,″ a musical about one woman’s sexual fantasies and adventures. The show, which had music by Jimmy Webb, went through several expensive workshop productions but plans to bring it to Broadway collapsed in 1985.
Bennett then set out to direct ″Chess,″ the rock musical written by Tim Rice and the pop group ABBA, but he bowed out in January 1986 for what were then said to be heart problems. He was replaced by Trevor Nunn.
Bennett is survived by his mother, Helen DiFiglia, and by his brother, Frank. Breglio, a long-time friend of Bennett’s as well as his attorney, said a memorial service was being planned.