Theatre yesterday and today



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Michael Bennett (1943–1987).

On this date 34 years ago, Michael Bennett died in Tucson, Arizona, from complications caused by AIDS. He was forty-four years old. Among his many credits are the multi-faceted stylings of his choreography for Follies (1971), that he 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 of it coming at such a young age, but for how it effected those who unequivocally loved his work. It puts to mind what was said between Billy Wilder and William Wyler upon leaving the funeral of their friend, the esteemed writer-director Ernst Lubitsch. “Well, no more Lubitsch,” said Wilder. “Worse than that,” Wyler replied. “No more Lubitsch pictures.”

When I picked 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 through the grapevine that he was dying, but nothing prepared me for seeing the finality of it in print. It was devastating. He had provided me with 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 made his Broadway debut as a startlingly young choreographer, 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,” an extraordinary statistic.

Jeremy Gerard’s obit from the front page of the New York Times.

Born Michael Bennett DiFiglia on April 8, 1943, 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 middling Broadway musicals: Here’s Love (1963) and Bajour (1964). He even managed to squeeze in time in Los Angeles, appearing on the TV dance series Hullabaloo, which is where he met the dancer who would become his muse (and for a brief moment his wife), the peerless 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 and closed after twelve performances. However, a few months later, voters remember Bennett’s work and he received his first Tony nomination at age twenty-four. 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 Margo Sappington, who would later choreograph the nude revue Oh! Calcutta!, as well as 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.

The number is all the evidence necessary that Michael Bennett was not your average everyday choreographer. Also, I dare you to try watching this clip and NOT watch Donna McKechnie (p.s. this is not Sappington on the right, but her understudy Julane Stites).

Baayork Lee, Donna McKechnie and Julane Stites strutting their stuff at the 1969 Tony Awards.

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 (and again, Bennett made sure to show off McKechnie’s unique brand of movement in the show-stopping “Tick Tock”). No one had ever seen anything like Company before, 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 how he left the theatre “feeling rather cool and queasy.”). All his male collaborators mentioned above took home Tonys for Company, but not Bennett, whose crafty stylings were a bit too subtle for the average theatregoer. 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.