FLASH FRIDAY: A Michael Bennett Musical Birthday (with Company!)
On this very day in 1943, Michael DiFiglia was born in Buffalo, New York, and the world of Broadway would simply never be the same. Cutting his teeth with the accomplished choreography for A JOYFUL NOISE, PROMISES, PROMISES, SEESAW and COCO was merely the beginning of a career that would virtually rewrite and revolutionize the ways and means by which a director could yield ultimate control over a project. With COMPANY and FOLLIES, the later co-directing with Hal Prince, Bennett solidified himself as one of the most talented and brilliant choreographers of his generation and, shortly thereafter, proved with A CHORUS LINE that he was a master theatrical engineer with few, if any, peers. Worldwide success, Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize were just the gravy. Who else but Michael Bennett would then, or ever, receive - or should I say, earn - the credit "Entire Production Conceived, Produced and Directed by," besides him? While BALLROOM failed to live up to A CHORUS LINE in mostly every way, he soon after reinvented the wheel yet again with DREAMGIRLS in 1981. We never got to see his productions of CHESS and SCANDAL, both of which he was in the latter stages of developing at the time of his death in 1988. Broadway has never been the same since he's been gone. So, today, on the day following a glittering new production of COMPANY at Lincoln Center - with the complete dance sequence "Tick Tock" fully restored, now with five dancers - we take a tip of the top hat to the tops in taps, temerity and truthfulness onstage - the one and only Michael Bennett.
He's The One
Perhaps no one was more of a choreographic chameleon in his career than Michael Bennett, who, along with collaborator and co-choreographer Bob Avian, created many of the most memorable dances in modern musical theatre history. But, before "Turkey Lurkey Time" and "The Grapes of Roth" in PROMISES, PROMISES; before "Tick Tock" and "Side By Side By Side" in COMPANY; before "Who's That Woman" and "Loveland" in FOLLIES; before "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" and "One Night Only" in DREAMGIRLS; before even A JOYFUL NOISE and SEESAW and COCO; there is the dazzling variety show material that he both choreographed and (sometimes) performed.
For example, check out this rare 1965 clip from THE Dean Martin SHOW to see Joey Heatherton enact the most super-sixties-swingin'-est version of "I've Got Your Number" you are likely to ever experience, from the mind of a mid-twenties Michael Bennett, before he even made his first splash on Broadway with A JOYFUL NOISE.
From the same year, be sure to sample the sizzling moves and slinky style of this clip from HULLABALOO featuring Michael Bennett himself, as well as his future muse, wife and CHORUS LINE leading Donna McKechnie, introduced by David Winters (aka A-rab) of WEST SIDE STORY.
Though it lasted less than two weeks following its opening night on December 15, 1966 - closing on Christmas Eve - A JOYFUL NOISE introduced the choreography of Michael Bennett to Broadway and for that, and if only for that alone, it is worth revisiting. In the cast were a number of individuals who would work with Bennett on future shows, among them: Baayork Lee (who also participates in the Dancers Over 40: A JOYFUL NOISE discussion below) and Tommy Tune, who would go on to be one of the greatest director/choreographers of his generation in his own rite in the 1980s with NINE, THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS, GRAND HOTEL and, later, THE Will Rogers FOLLIES. This brilliant and breathtaking performance of "Clog Dance" is taken from a television performance by the cast on The Ed Sullivan Show and even with rudimentary camera angles and production accoutrement, it clearly exhibits Bennett's burgeoning genius about to burst into full bloom with the series of masterpieces that followed.
Now that that clip has whetted your appetite, without further ado I welcome you to dig into this absolutely thrilling, endlessly informative and richly rewarding roundtable discussion of participants from last year's Dancers Over 40 benefit honoring Michael Bennett. Some rare clips are shown, and there are some surprise appearances, but the thrill that comes with the treat of hearing these stories from the lips of those who were there is something cherishable and worthwhile to experience for any theatre fan or aspiring performer out there. I could not recommend this enough, and please don't let the sporadic sound issues of the 16-part video put you off in the slightest from digging into this dish of delectable delight served up by Bob Avian, Baayork Lee, Margo Sappington, Harvey Evans, and the others Bennett regulars here. Enjoy!
If YouTube hadn't been invented by now, some entrepreneurial tech-savvy Broadway baby would have found a way to get this clip out there. It's just that good. By many accounts the greatest Tony Awards performance of all time, with full-out singing, full-throttle dancing and about thirty throat-fuls shrieking gibberish lyrics courtesy of Hal David (music by Burt Bacharach), "Turkey Lurkey Time" from PROMISES, PROMISES is pure, unadulterated theatrical crack cocaine - somewhat pointless, maybe but unquestionably addictive. See why. Then, see it again. And, again…
As a special bonus while we close out the variety show-centric section of today's discussion, check out this clip from the 1966 season of HULLABALOO in which the cast performs an idiosyncratically Bennett-esque version of the TV theme to BATMAN. Could that short guy be Bennett himself dancing in the back?
With his first chance to really show his genius in full, Bennett went positively all-out with the "Always Mademoiselle" sequence in Andre Previn's COCO starring Katharine Hepburn. That staircase! The costumes! The revolve! There's a lot more to Michael Bennett than music and mirrors, that's for sure - though there is quite a bit of both you can spot here, as well.
Here is what many consider to be one of Bennett's crowning achievements and some of his very best work in even the stunningly well-crafted shows he worked on in his later career, post-COCO, with the Prologue sequence from Stephen Sondheim's 1972 FOLLIES.
The overall choreographic centerpiece of the showbiz-heavy FOLLIES was the ghostly chorus that was always just out of the spotlight, lurking in The Shadows of Boris Aronson's ingenious set of ordered rubble, and Bennett brought the concept to full fruition in this mind-blowing production number known alternatively as "The Mirror Song", "Mirror, Mirror" and, officially, "Who's That Woman". It definitely gives new meaning to "smash" hit!
And, now, in a word: Loveland. See why Broadway babies are still talking about this sequence forty years (!) after it first premiered - and why it took two directors to pull it off!
Taken from the a videotape of the original Off-Broadway production of A CHORUS LINE at The Public Theater, check out the complete "The Music & The Mirror" sequence from A CHORUS LINE performed inimitably by Broadway legend Donna McKechnie. Dancing doesn't get any better than this - on Broadway or anywhere else on Planet Earth! Or, in this galaxy, for that matter. The perfect marriage of music and lyrics and dialogue and dance - as well as that of a master magician and his oh-so magical muse.
Now, check out the unforgettable finale of A CHORUS LINE as performed at the 1976 Tony Awards right after it swept virtually every award of the evening, including Best Actress, Best Director and, of course, Best Musical. Note that Bennett himself directed the camera angles for both this and the opening sequence.
From the 1976 Tony Awards, here is the thrilling opening sequence. A 5, 6, 7, 8...
Now, believe this one or not, check out Liza Minnelli and Mikhail Baryshnikov performing an expanded version of "One" from A CHORUS LINE, specifically adapted by Bennett and Avian for the 1980 television spectacular BARYSHNIKOV ON BROADWAY. If only the film version was half this well-filmed and exciting!
Watch Donna McKechnie recreate the near-impossible (for anyone but Donna, that is) choreography for "Tick Tock" from COMPANY over twenty years after she originally performed the song in the original production of the show in 1970. Like fine wine, some works of art - and some performers - just get better and better with age!
Lastly, we have Tony Randall introducing Jennifer Holliday and the rest of the original Broadway cast of DREAMGIRLS performing a truncated version of "It's All Over" leading into the blistering Act One Finale to top all Act One Finales, "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" from the 1982 Tony Awards.
As a special bonus befitting of Bennett's birthday, here is the 1978 Kennedy Center Honors with the cast of A CHORUS LINE saluting the dancing icon Fred Astaire with a command performance of "One".
One thing is crystal clear after considering all of these choreographic milestones - and all these clips - there was, is, and only will be one Michael Bennett.