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Bennett, Michael (1943-1987)  

James Kirkwood, co-author of A Chorus Line, lashed out at the show's creator, director, and choreographer: "Michael would do anything--anything--to get a show on. The cruelty was extensive. And not just in his professional life. He was amoral."

The charismatic Bennett was a lover of men and women; his two primary heterosexual relationships were stormy, first with wife Donna McKechnie (wed December 1976, divorced four months later) then with Sabine Cassel, whom he promised to wed but did not.

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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.

Born Michael Bennett DiFiglia in Buffalo, New York on April 8, 1943, young Mickey was a child prodigy of dance. He dropped out of high school at the age of 16 to join a touring company of Jerome Robbins' West Side Story. Robbins was to become one of his principal influences.

Bennett made his Broadway debut as a dancer in Subways Are for Sleeping (1961), but he soon realized that he had a greater talent for choreography than for dancing. Bennett's first solo assignments as a choreographer were on A Joyful Noise (1966) and Henry, Sweet Henry (1967).

His first big hit was Promises, Promises (1968), which was followed by Coco (1969). Working with Harold Prince on Stephen Sondheim's Company (1970) and Follies (1971) led him to decide that he wanted to be a director as well as a choreographer.

Bennett's dream was realized when he was called in to save Seesaw (1973). He agreed to take over the show on the condition that he would have creative control of the production. He ultimately received credit (and Tony nominations) as librettist, director and co-choreographer.

The process of taking over this ailing show on the road, just six months before it was scheduled to open, convinced Bennett that the standard way of developing musicals--rehearsals, out-of-town tryouts, previews, and opening--was no longer efficient. He came up with a better plan.

Bennett decided to do a show about the lives of dancers, but rather than commission a script he let the story-line evolve from the experiences of real dancers. After conducting hours of interviews with Broadway gypsies, Bennett began an unprecedented year of workshops at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre.

The result was A Chorus Line (1975). A risk all the way around, the show opened without stars and ran two hours and 10 minutes without an intermission. Bennett received credit as director, co-producer, co-author, and co-choreographer.

After a few months at the Public Theatre, A Chorus Line moved to Broadway on July 25, 1975, where it remained at the Schubert Theatre for the next 15 years. The breakthrough musical won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Tony Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, among many other honors. When the show closed on April 28, 1990, it had run for 6,137 performances, still a record for a Broadway musical written by Americans.

While Applause (1970) is considered the first Broadway musical to introduce an openly gay character, Bennett is responsible for the second and third appearances of homosexual characters. Seesaw features David, a gay choreographer, and A Chorus Line introduced audiences to Paul and Greg, gay dancers. Many have criticized the bisexual Bennett for the fact that neither character is finally chosen for the chorus line, thus maintaining the myth that all working actors are heterosexual.

The winner of eight Tony Awards, Bennett's legacy to musical theater is undoubtedly his fluid, cinematic style of choreography and staging, which reached its ultimate realization in Dreamgirls (1981), where even the computerized towers of the set were choreographed into the action of the play. Like Robbins, he did more than choreograph steps; he put the entire show into motion.

Inadvertently, Bennett's other great benefaction was to provide the New York Shakespeare Festival with the bulk of its income for many years. As one of the producers of A Chorus Line, the Public Theatre earned approximately $37,800,000 from Bennett's landmark production.

In January 1985 Bennett abandoned the almost completed musical Scandal, which he had been evolving through an extended series of workshops. Many observers felt this to be Bennett's strongest work, with few understanding the toll that alcohol, drugs, and a weakened immune system had taken on this genius of the theater.

When Michael Bennett died on July 2, 1987 at the age of 44 of AIDS-related lymphoma, he left a sizable portion of his estate to funding research to fight the AIDS epidemic.

Bud Coleman

     

    
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   Related Entries
  
arts >> Overview:  Dance

Artistic dance has proven to be a haven for glbtq people, who have made significant contributions in almost every area, including as choreographers, performers, and teachers.

arts >> Overview:  Musical Theater and Film

The musical has been a significant aspect of American gay male culture, manifesting itself both in diva worship and, more recently, in the presentation of openly gay characters and shows written by gay writers primarily for gay audiences.

literature >> Overview:  Musical Theater

There has always been homosexual involvement in American musical theatre and a homosexual sensibility even in straight musicals, and recently the Broadway musical has welcomed openly homosexual themes and situations.

arts >> Barrowman, John

Accomplished actor and singer John Barrowman has won plaudits as a musical theater star, as well as for his roles in film and television.

arts >> Kirkwood, James

Co-author of the book of the celebrated musical A Chorus Line, James Kirkwood also wrote five popular novels and two nonfiction books.

arts >> Robbins, Jerome

Bisexual choreographer and director Jerome Robbins was both a great choreographer of classical ballet and a Broadway innovator, but he was fearful that he might be outed.

arts >> Sondheim, Stephen

One of the most innovative talents of the musical theater in the second half of the twentieth century, Stephen Sondheim has only indirectly reflected his homosexuality in his work.

arts >> Tune, Tommy

The first person to have won Tonys in four different categories, dancer, director, and choreographer Tommy Tune is known for his choreographic sense of humor and for his celebration of the chorus line.


    Bibliography
   

Flinn, Denny Martin. What They Did for Love: The Untold Story Behind the Making of "A Chorus Line." New York: Bantam Books, 1989.

Kelly, Kevin. One Singular Sensation: The Michael Bennett Story. New York: Zebra Books, 1990.

Mandelbaum, Ken. "A Chorus Line" and the Musicals of Michael Bennett. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Rothstein, Mervyn. "'A Chorus Line,' Broadway Giant, Closing at Age 15." New York Times (February 22, 1990): B1, B4.

Viagas, Robert, Baayork Lee, and Thommie Walsh. On The Line: The Creation of "A Chorus Line." New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Coleman, Bud  
    Entry Title: Bennett, Michael  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 21, 2004  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/bennett_m.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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