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The Chorus Kid Who Gave Musicals A Kick

July 04, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

"My private life is a mess," Michael Bennett, who died Thursday at 44, once said. "But I don't let anybody fool around with my shows."

There were scarcely a dozen Michael Bennett musicals and only the last three were pure Bennett--"Dreamgirls," "Ballroom" and, his singular sensation, "A Chorus Line."

But every show that he touched seems, in memory, to have had the Michael Bennett look . Think of the ghostly showgirls in "Follies." Or the secretaries doing the frug at the office party in "Promises, Promises." Or Bobby soft-shoeing with his married friends in "Company." All Bennett ideas.

He had started out as a chorus kid in "Subways Are for Sleeping," and there was a tendency among some of his collaborators to regard him as a Broadway gypsy who had gotten above himself.

Certainly he loved the flash and the heat of show biz. The Shuberts let him add a Las Vegas number to the L.A. production of "Dreamgirls" and it looked so terrific that he decided to put the number into the Broadway version, too. Sure, the show was already a hit. But this made it move better.

He also saw through show biz. That was why so many ordinary people could identify with "A Chorus Line." It wasn't just about the pain of losing out on a job that you absolutely deserved to get. It was also about the pain of getting that dream job, and finding yourself as automated as anybody on an assembly line--5,6,7,8.

As somebody says in the show: "It's about work." Bennett was a demon worker. As a choreographer he derived from the whiplash school of Bob Fosse; he didn't move dancers around with all that much originality. His genius was the way that he got the whole show to move in one inexorable line from the first image to the last. Suddenly other musicals, even as hip a one as "Cabaret," looked clunky and old-fashioned.

But Bennett wasn't just a stager, someone who moves bodies around. "I can think of only one choreographer who can direct book as well as stage dances," said librettist-director Arthur Laurents, "and that's Michael Bennett."

"I've always worked with dancers as actors," Bennett explained. "Which is probably why I have been able to get so much out of people who usually can't dance. Choreography is much more than doing 'steps.' "

In fact, he did a play without a dance step in it: "Twigs." Then he devised "A Chorus Line," first in his own living room, then at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre.

It looked like a simple show, and at heart it was, but it took advantage of all the theater technology that had come along in the 1970s, particularly in computerized lighting. A million decisions went into the show, and Bennett gloried in the opportunity to work them out without fighting an opening-night deadline.

Later, with some of his "A Chorus Line" money, he bought a building in SoHo and rented low-cost workshop space to other dancers and theater people. The building was recently sold, and the new owner has promised to keep the rents affordable.

"Ballroom" came out of that building, a show that Bennett felt that he didn't get right--or the public didn't. He was also disappointed not to get the film of "A Chorus Line." He surely would have come closer to the mark than the people who did get it.

I remember Bennett coming out to Los Angeles to cast the national companies of "A Chorus Line." For days he and his partner, Bob Avian, put squads of auditioners through exactly the drill that the characters in the show undergo: Let's see your turnout. Do you tap?

Then they had to sing. Then they had to read. Bennett would hear them one at a time, sitting in a folding chair on the edge of the stage, like a priest hearing confessions.

"Just talk."

"Well, I started dancing lessons when I was 6. My father didn't like it. After high school I got this summer theater job in Iowa. And I got this call from my father that he heard I was getting too, uh, close, to this guy in the company. And I kind of collapsed. . . ."

Bennett stopped the kid, gave him a marked script, told him to come back Saturday, and walked him off the stage with his arm around his shoulder, exactly like Zach and Paul in the show. Returning to his chair, he sighed: "They'll tell you anything." Then, to the stage manager: "Next person?"

"Dreamgirls" returned to Broadway just a couple of days before Bennett died. It was only a cut-down road version, but everyone was bucked up to see it again, a reminder of the grit of the American musical, in a season when the cup had temporarily gone over to the British. I hope he saw the reviews.

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