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Michael Bennett 1943-1987
 


Country : Buffalo, New York
Profession : Choreographer, Dancer, Director
Date of birth : 1943-04-08
Date of death : 1987-07-02
Cause of Death : AIDS

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Michael Bennett (April 8, 1943 - July 2, 1987) was an American musical theater director, writer, choreographer, and dancer. He won seven Tony Awards for his choreography and direction of Broadway shows and was nominated for an additional eleven.

Bennett choreographed and sometimes directed some of the best-known Broadway shows from the late 1960s to the early 1980s including Promises, Promises, Follies, Company, A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls.

Biography

Born Michael Bennett DiFiglia to a Roman Catholic father and a Jewish mother in Buffalo, New York, 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.

Early career

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.

A Chorus Line and the 1980s

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 July 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.

Bennett's next musical was the unsuccessful Ballroom. 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. In the early 1980s, Bennett worked on various projects, one of which was titled The 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 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.

Analysis

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."

Personal life

In his younger days, Bennett had a relationship with Larry Fuller, a dancer, choreographer and director. He married Donna McKechnie on December 4, 1976, but after only a few months they separated and eventually divorced in 1979.

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 8 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 forty-four. 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.

Awards and nominations

Awards

  • 1971 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Choreography - Follies
  • 1971 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director - Follies
  • 1972 Tony Award for Best Choreography - Follies
  • 1972 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical - Follies
  • 1974 Tony Award for Best Choreography - Seesaw
  • 1976 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Choreography - A Chorus Line
  • 1976 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Musical - A Chorus Line
  • 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama - A Chorus Line
  • 1976 Tony Award for Best Choreography - A Chorus Line
  • 1976 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical - A Chorus Line
  • 1979 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Choreography - Ballroom
  • 1979 Tony Award for Best Choreography - Ballroom
  • 1982 Tony Award for Best Choreography - Dreamgirls
  • 1984 Drama Desk Award Special Award - A Chorus Line 3,389th performance

Nominations

  • 1967 Tony Award for Best Choreography - A Joyful Noise
  • 1968 Tony Award for Best Choreography - Henry, Sweet Henry
  • 1969 Tony Award for Best Choreography - Promises, Promises
  • 1970 Tony Award for Best Choreography - Coco
  • 1971 Tony Award for Best Choreography - Company
  • 1974 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical - Seesaw
  • 1974 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical - Seesaw
  • 1979 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Musical - Ballroom
  • 1979 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical - Ballroom
  • 1979 Tony Award for Best Musical - Ballroom
  • 1982 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Musical - Dreamgirls
  • 1982 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical - Dreamgirls
  • 1983 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Play - Third Street

Other media

A Class Act - A Musical About Musicals (2001). Bennett and lyricist Ed Kleban are portrayed in this partly ficionalised life story of Kleban, using some of Kleban's unpublished songs. A Chorus Line's number "One" is included in this musical.

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