Michael Bennett was born in 1943 under the full name of Michael Bennett DiFiglia. He was devoted to the theater and over the course of his life was a dancer, choreographer and director; before succumbing to AIDS complications at 44 years old. His unique style was his legacy to Broadway -- particularly regarding Musical Theater.
Musical theater has a rich and storied history; dating back centuries. First conceived as "narration with song and dance incorporated"; it was meant to glorify beautiful females, dancers, singers and the occasional comedian (Reynolds, 882). Broadway Musicals were not always successful; but dance continued to be integral and professionals of all genres fell under the purview of the choreographer (Reynolds 693).
By the 1970s the cost of staging a Broadway show was exorbitant. It was often decided to pare back dancing and choreography as a means of saving money (Clark). Many credit Michael Bennett's entrance into the Broadway scene with reviving Musical Theater. Bennett was a choreographic genius recognized for creating fluidity and continuity from mindless movement. It would not be an exaggeration to state that Bennett revolutionized musical theater; revered for the staging and production of award-winning shows. The purpose of this essay is to provide insight into the combination of factors that made Bennett a masterful Broadway tour-de-force.
Michael Bennett, the Dancer, Choreographer, Director
Bennett was proficient in all dance genres. Long opined that Bennett patterned his performance and choreography styles after Jerome Robbins; having no distinct style of his own. Rather, Bennett was known for his unmatched staging (24). He began the learning process as an anonymous lad in West Wide Story and traveled through the ranks of assistant choreographer all the way to producer and director.
Two of his Tony Award wins included Follies in 1972 and Dreamgirlsin 1981 (Cohen). But Chorus Line was by far his crowning achievement; credited with reinvigorating musical theater itself while creating wholly new guidelines for musical theater production. It was the use of the 'workshop process' -- a decades old process -- that was returned as an essential component to mounting a Broadway musical. Bennett harnessed this tool throughout the staging and production of a show; providing the audience with an entirely new theater experience.
Bennett's Contributions to Broadway
Bennett's choreography style was all his own; as were the great forerunners Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins; and in a short period of time he had redone many of the iconic musicals of the previous fifty years. He tailored a fresh choreographic view to each show (Derezinski 2-3). For example, he applied a sort of cinematic staging to A Chorius Line; sophisticated moves that mirrored film production techniques such as wipes, dissolves and montages. Derezinski offered that Bennett's creativity was dramatic and unparalleled.
Too, he never failed to deliver an exciting and lively work; peppered with multiple dance styles. Even his use of props was singular and enhanced the staging of a production (Derezinski 13-15). Reynolds (703) noted in his biographical piece on Bennett that he had used a workshop to surreptitiously record dancers as they mused about their lives and then incorporated these into the actual production of A Chorus Line.
The dancers thus became actors; once again taking center stage (Cohen). At the heart of Bennett's work was always the 'workshop process' which he boasted was the answer to creating an exclusive product shaped from opportunities to recreate the work leaving out mistakes (Shewey). Surprisingly, the workshop format helped to reduce the overall cost of a production; and created an atmosphere of collaboration among all stakeholders.
Concept & Backstage musicals
Bennett is also credited with the idea of 'backstage musicals', defined as 'putting on musicals, so the plot is about the means of its own production (McMillin 102); or 'concept musicls' (Weinman 2012). It is a show in which all components are woven seamlessly into a tapestry performance (Gottfried 2011); some even about the lives of dancers (Mandelbaum).
Likened to today's reality shows - the dancers played themselves (BBC 2012); dancers performing according to their personality (Mandelbaum 173) and becoming one with their part. It could be considered theater innovation and alone helped to revive a flagging Broadway that before A Chorus Line was staged appeared to be all but dead (Mandelbaum 289).
Bennett's influence was "the externalization of honestly felt inner impulses -- that which makes art" (Renolds 675). Concept musicals were adept at connecting with audiences; often by speaking to social issues (Mandelbaum 1989, p. 176); the experience almost magical (Everett and Laird, 2003, p. 23). Certainly the ending of Chorus Line alone was shocking (Mandelbaum 1989); the blending of people that forever altered the way in which a chorus would be viewed (Mandelbaum 1989, p. 172).
Industry professionals and Bennett -- a contrast/comparison
Bennett was undoubtedly a force all his own; as evidenced when he is contrasted and compared to his peers. Gussow (1) said he would stop at nothing to realize his vision; not like Fosse (Greenaway 3) who limited himself to a specific choreographic style and learned his trade through burlesque and nightclubs. Bennett's style was shaped to the performers and therefore more dynamic; and his chameleon-like ability to adapt to the breadth of musical styles was equally unique. Both Bennett and Fosse carved out a special place in Broadway theater to be sure.
Certainly one of the most exciting contributions to Broadway was cinematic staging that gave a play the feel of a movie through the use of film techniques (Mandelbaum 60). One example was Dreamgirlsthat was a fluid presentation of a complex tale of show business (Clark 2012). Audiences were captivated by its feel of immediate improvisation; as well as the absence of curtain closings (Mandelbaum 46); unconventional and cinematic in quality wrote a New York Times critic of this application to A Chorus Line (Gerard, 1987).
Michael Bennet's Choreography: a comparative Analysis
It is difficult to pinpoint Bennett's greatest talent; there were so many. But no doubt he shined as a choreographer. Dances were poetry in motions; ideas set to movement; conveying a message to the audience (Mandelbaum, 1989, 38-39). Some called them electric (Dietz, 2010, p. 86). Perhaps it was his ability to surprise the audience -- never allowing them to suspect what style to expect -- yet in each instance the dance was harmonized to the production. The result was something experimental and gratifying at once (Suskin 416). Below we compare and contrast Bennet's choreography style with that of Fosse and Robbins.
Fosse was a choreographer with various achievements and a very innovative mind. The idea of subtext was utilized by Fosse and it provided his dancers with things to think about while performing their numbers. Jack Colewho is also known as the father of theatrical jazz dance, was a major source of inspiration for Fosse for the Damn Yankees. Redhead was the first musical that Fosse choreographed as well as directed and it was in this piece that a ballet sequence was utilized by Fosse which had five various dancing styles such as a gypsy dance, Fosse's jazz, and an conventional English music number, a march and a cancan. It was Fosse who started making use of light in order to direct the attention of the audience to something specific on the stage. Michael Joosten once told that Fosse believed, "it is the time when one's emotional energy is too strong to speak that you should sing and when your emotional energy is too high to just sing it is at that time that you should dance."
Bennett didn't have a specific choreographic style like Bob Fosse. Rather it was the kind of musical instruments that were used or the particular characters which motivated Bennett's choreography.
Bennett deliberately defied the typical choreographic expectations in the Act 2 of Company by taking off the typical Broadway production number. The physical limitation of the characters with regards to singing and dancing were revealed to the audience as, the company stumbled and lurched through the steps of a cane and hat routine ("Side By Side"). Bennett wanted the number to be about the characters rather than the routine that they were performing. Through the performance the audience were made aware of the fact that the group has been thrown together in order to perform.
Jerome Robbins work inspired Bennett as; he believed that there was a totality in the earlier work done by Robbins. The musical staging of the play Dream girls that was done by Bennett was said to be a "mesmerizing sense of movement." The sets in Dream girls were choreographed by Micheal Bennett.
There is a lot of variety found in Robbins's work. Dance has been integrated by him in a lot of musicals; not just in the music, but also the characters. Movements have often been closely matched by Robbins to the music like piano pieces In the Night or Dances at a Gathering. He has also worked without music (Moves, 1959) as well…