BWW Exclusive: ALL EYES ON: Bob Avian- Richard Jay-Alexander Talks to the 'Dancing Man' About His Decades in the Biz
Bob Avian is not a household name. But, in our orbit he is a God, a King, a Prince ... choose your favorite. And, yet, one of the most down to earth, affable likeable guys you could ever hope to meet, work with, talk to or learn from. Oh, and talented!
Bob has a new book just released, titled DANCING MAN: A Broadway Choreographer's Journey, written with Tom Santopietro, no lightweight himself, a member of our industry and a longtime friend. And, as you'll learn, Peter Pileski, Avian's husband and partner for 35 years, right there, with guidance, support and plenty of suggestions.
The book is fantastic! I devoured it in three sittings and burned through the pages and the photos and learned plenty! I was continually fascinated and the book is plenty juicy, but never salacious .... and I'm not sure how that was accomplished so skillfully. As a director, I am weary of the words "journey" and "arc", but, in THIS CASE, Bob Avian's life, career and ascendance totally qualifies the "Journey" of the title.
After finishing the book, I wanted more and reached out to see if Bob would be interested in chatting about it. The disclaimer here is that we are friends and first met as early as 1987, while he was preparing Cameron Mackintosh's production of FOLLIES, with Mike Ockrent directing, in London's West End. That stated, it in no way colors how I felt about his book, which I feel is essential reading to anyone interested in theatre, dance or a career in the arts, when you cannot possibly see or understand what may be ahead of you and defining your future. It is only in hindsight that one can reflect and put the story together. And what a story it is!
Just a quick "breeze through" of the INDEX and I guarantee you will be panting or getting ahead of yourself by jumping to your favorites. Try not to do it. Start at the beginning, and go for the ride. The shows that Mr. Avian has been a part of are staggering, as are the stars he's worked with and all his personal friends and collaborators in "the business." I, for one, had NO IDEA, over all these years, that he was in FUNNY GIRL on Broadway, as a replacement swing ("an understudy for every chorus member") and to be in the crowd scenes as well. He also had a line: "You were great, Fanny" to Barbra Streisand, in Fanny Brice's dressing room. Yes, my jaw dropped. But I was charmed to death when he describes his first night going on in one of the "tracks" of a chorus boy named Bud, who was out with the flu.
In the "Henry Street" number, one by one, the boys take Barbra in their arms for a waltz. Now remember ... this is his FIRST TIME on. He takes Barbra in his arms, she does a double take and says, "Oy-who are you?" He replies, "I'm the new boy." The innocence and the language and comradery in this book with fellow dancers and thespians is clearly of another time. One that anyone who has worked on Broadway would kill to have been a part of.
Bob's career is amazing for many reasons, each as unique as the next, but the time during which he came to Broadway was the outer cusp of the Golden Age and the dawn of a new, exciting, hip, sexy change in Broadway musicals, where there was still room for a HELLO, DOLLY!
The book is full of stories and adventures and, of course, the lows are there, too. But the language and vernacular are breathtaking and, as an avid reader, having read plenty of theatre books, biographies and autobiographies, the excitement I felt while reading this was akin to when I was in college and found my way to SONDHEIM & Co, by Craig Zadan or Hal Prince's CONTRADICTIONS: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre, back in the '70s.
Without giving away the candy store, because you should have already purchased the book or downloaded it by now, is a pretty cool piece of video laying out the architecture of it.
By the way, I truly can't think of a better time in life than right now, to read a delicious book like this one, where you can give it your full attention because we HAVE the time. It must be very frustrating for everyone involved to have a book released in the midst of what is going on in the world...yet can provide the perfect escape. Shortly after the book was available for purchase, Bob was scheduled for appearances, readings and book signings, all of which, obviously, had to be canceled. Dispiriting, for sure, but at the time of our talk the health crisis was not yet in full bloom.
After our initial "hellos" on the phone, I could hear how honestly moved Bob was when I told him how I felt the book and why. It was a very nice reunion, as I hadn't seen or spoken with him in some time. Now, for those of you who know him or know about him, you know he's a pretty private guy and not very self-promotional, so I was surprised to hear he wrote a book and that I hadn't even heard about it in the pipeline ... and that's how we began. I called and the phone rang and rang and then an outgoing message began ... Then, "Hi, I'm here." Me: "What is that? Seriously ... Do you still have an answering machine?!" We laughed. He didn't answer the question, but I believe Bob Avian & Peter Pileski still have an "old school" answering machine. I will follow-up on that, for sure!
The idea started 3 or 4 years ago. He and Tom Santopietro are very good friends and Tom said to Bob that he really thought it was time to address his story and to start writing it down. And, so, it began. I asked what actually forced him to press the GO button and he admitted that he and Peter had earlier made an attempt to do it themselves, but realized they didn't have the technique ... or the patience. The work was intermittent, in between jobs, stagings, even spine surgeries.
Avian gives Santopietro total credit for the writing and credits partner/husband Peter with suggestions and editing skills. I laughed out loud hearing Bob say, "Tom actually wrote the book. I just sat there and yacked all the time." "And Peter, my husband, was a great editor." Then I fell over, "Peter would say stuff like, 'This is not interesting' or 'We could cut from here ....' Etc. Peter has a background in television and, of course loves theatre and worked on many A CHORUS LINE. But to hear Bob tell it was so self-effacing, so beautiful and truly collaborative. For example, Peter pushed for more of the DREAMGIRLS story.
Of course, everyone knows about Avian's legendary collaboration with the late, great Michael Bennett, but his story is so much bigger and the latter chapters of his career a surprise to everyone, including himself. I told him I remember when he didn't want to work anymore, as far back as the '90s. We laughed, but, in my mind, I can hear HIM sing, "I'm Still Here" and KILLING IT!
They had a bit a of hard time finding a publisher and it turned out to be a blessing that their book agent found University Press Of Mississippi/Jackson, all of whom loved the book. When they asked Bob to send out a couple of books to professional friends, to see what they thought, gold came back from Cameron Mackintosh and Patti LuPone:
"Bob Avian is far more than a Dancing Man-he is one of the savviest, most intuitive, inventive and no bullshit talents the musical theater has ever produced. Bob danced in every type of show from burlesque to West Side Story and learned from many of the giant choreographers of the twentieth century. He was also an integral part of the reinvention of the American musical in the 1970s, working with Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, and Michael Bennett on legendary shows such as Company, Follies, and A Chorus Line, as well as producing the smash hit musical Dreamgirls. It was my great fortune to have had Bob begin his solo choreography career with the London premiere production of Follies followed by Miss Saigon. This wonderfully honest and candid autobiography gives the reader a unique, unvarnished place in the many rooms where it happened, as magic was created-and sometimes not! For anyone starting out in the musical theater, this really is how shows come together, and Bob Avian is certainly a key figure in that magical world."
"When I read Bob's autobiography I was astonished by the breadth of his life on stage. I don't think there's anyone who has done as much in every aspect of our field. It's mind-blowing. His demeanor is a model for all directors and choreographers. Not only is he supremely talented, he has the wisdom of the great creators in our business. His life in the theater was a page-turner, and his knowledge makes me think I haven't even touched the surface. I have even more respect and admiration for my dear friend. What a life. What a talent."
As I was trying to figure out how to wrap up this piece, I decided to call Baayork Lee and chat with her about Bob, some of her memories and how she perceived him. They share a very rich history that includes musicals like HENRY, SWEET HENRY, PROMISES, PROMISES, SEESAW, A CHORUS LINE among them. He and Peter are also stalwart supporters of Baayork's organization, NAAP, (National Asian Artists Project), for which she was recognized in 2017 with the Isabelle Stevenson TONY AWARD. We talked about the book and she loves it as much as I do. Her warmth in talking about him made me feel like I missed out on a very special time. She also shared a funny story about when Bob had to "lift" her in a show ... dragging her on his back, across the stage. On matinee days of HENRY, SWEET HENRY, Baayork would go home, downtown to Chinatown, for dinner between shows and eat with her family. (Of NOTE: her father owned WO HOP.) At one point, Bob (politely) asked her to please not eat between shows because it made a difference for him in the lifts. We howled. Hopefully, you will, too, Bob, while reading this. But, now, the love comes. I asked her to sum up her thoughts and it just flowed out of her, "He was the glue that kept everything together." And when asked to "Rorschach" Bob Avian in THREE WORDS, they were, "FRIENDSHIP, COLLABORATION and TRUST."
Now, isn't that somebody you want to know? Read this book. And, Bob, I look forward to when we next see each other because I'm going to ask you to sign my copy!
I can also share with you that Bob told me that the Spanish production of A CHORUS LINE which was co-directed by Baayork Lee and Antonio Banderas will definitely be making its way to New York City. It debuted at the Teatro del Soho CaixaBank in 2019.
For more information and to purchase the new book, click here.
Follies - Olivier Awards
Julie Andrews - Putting it Together
This footage recently found its way to YouTube and is a compilation of video press clippings.