Bennett, Michael

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BENNETT, MICHAEL (1943–1987), U.S. producer, writer, choreographer, director, performer. Michael Bennett Di Figlia, whose mother was Jewish, was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and became the most influential director and choreographer of his generation as the creator in 1975 of A Chorus Line, once the longest-running show in Broadway history. In a career that spanned more than two decades, he received Tony Award nominations for every musical with which he was associated, and won eight.

A former chorus dancer, Bennett's talent emerged in the 1970s, first in his collaborations with Hal *Prince and then on his own as Broadway and Off Broadway director, choreographer, and producer. The dances in Company, Follies, A Chorus Line, Ballroom, and Dreamgirls flowed from the action of the plays and the motivations of their characters, and that seamlessness marked Bennett's work.

Bennett had started dance lessons at three and by 12 he was versed in tap, ballet, modern, and folk dancing. Just before he was to graduate from high school, he joined a company of West Side Story and spent a year in Europe with the show. When the tour ended, he went to New York and danced in the choruses of Subways Are for Sleeping, Here's Love, and Bajour. He participated in several commercial failures but with Neil *Simon's Promises, Promises, in 1968, his career took off. It was also his first work with Donna McKechnie, a dancer to whom he was briefly married and who became a noted actress and choreographer after stopping the show in A Chorus Line. In 1969 Bennett choreographed Andre *Previn and Alan Jay *Lerner's musical Coco, starring Katharine Hepburn as the fashion designer Coco Chanel. The play ran for more than 300 performances but was a commercial failure. By 1970, Bennett was collaborating with Prince on Stephen *Sondheim and George Furth's Company, which became a signature musical of the decade. A year later, Bennett won the first of his two Tony Awards, as choreographer and co-director, with Prince, of Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies, a homage to the Ziegfeld era and the first backstage musical Bennett came to be identified with. As one of Broadway's most celebrated show doctors, he took over the Cy *Coleman–Dorothy*Fields musical Seesaw and changed every element, from the choreography to the sets, costumes, and lighting. The show opened in 1973 and won for Bennett his second choreography Tony.

In 1974 Bennett held a late-night session with a group of dancers with whom he had worked, talking about the experience of being a Broadway gypsy. Discerning the potential of a show about Broadway's most-overworked and least heralded performers, Bennett persuaded Joseph *Papp, the theatrical Pied Piper, to finance a workshop to develop the material. Bennett hired Marvin *Hamlisch to compose the music, Ed Kleban to write the lyrics, and James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante to write the book. After two five-week workshops at Papp's Public Theater, the show, A Chorus Line, inaugurated Lincoln Center's Newman Theater and moved to the Shubert Theater on Broadway a few months later. The show won nine Tony Awards, including best direction and choreography for Bennett and best musical, as well as the Pulitzer Prize, which Bennett shared, and the New York Drama Critics Circle award. The final number in A Chorus Line, "One," became Bennett's signature: a company of disparate individuals emerging into a triumphant whole.

In 1981 Bennett won wide acclaim for Dreamgirls, a musical based loosely on the careers of the Supremes, a group of black women singers. "When Broadway history is being made, you can feel it," wrote Frank Rich, chief theater critic of the New York Times. "What you feel is a seismic jolt that sends the audience, as one, right out of its wits. Broadway history was made at the end of Michael Bennett's beautiful and heartbreaking new musical."

Bennett's death at 44 was attributed to lymphoma, a form of cancer, as a result of aids.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]

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