He was at heart a choreographer with a keen sense of show biz. But his star ascended just as Broadway was turning to choreographers as directors of musicals. And, at a time when the Great White Way was in the doldrums, Michael Bennett (born Michael Di Figlia) dazzled Broadway with a breakthrough hit that sent the box office soaring and became one of the longest running shows ever. In fact, it's still frequently revived and remains a modern day classic.
Broadway choreographer and dancer Michael Bennett was a theater director, producer, and writer. Most famous as the creator of the 1975 mega 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 all. Many of his most ambitious projects were left unfinished when he succumbed to AIDS in the mid-1980s.
Mickey, as he was known as a youngster, studied dance and choreography in his early teens. He showed a natural talent right from the start. 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. From there on, he certainly paid his dues and earned his place on Broadway marques.
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 these outran the last, except for Promises, Promises which outran them all. Finally in 1971 Bennett scored a Tony win with Stephen 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.
For the musical Seesaw in 1973 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 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. This experiment turned out to be A Chorus Line.
Without stars, without the customary intermission, without props or stagecraft, A Chorus Line was truly audacious. 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 but it won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama 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.
Bennett’s next musical, Ballroom (1978), was a disappointment, despite another Tony win. Dreamgirls (1981), however earned him his seventh and last Tony Award. It ran for three and a half years.
Bennett's mark on the musical stage is indelible and his presence shimmer to this day. In his relatively short life Bennett left us with artistic creations that have lived on and attained deeper meaning and resonance through the decades.