Bob Avian: Dancing Man, A Life in Theater as Choreographer/Director; Tales of Collaborating with Michael Bennett in New Autobiography
By: Ellis Nassour
April 8, 2020: Dancing Man: A Broadway Choreographer’s Journey (University Press of Mississippi; Hardcover; 240 pages, including16-page B&W photo album and Index; $28; E-book available) by Tony and Olivier winner Bob Avian, expertly-guided by co-writer Tom Santopietro (Broadway general manager; author of The Sound of Music Story, Considering Doris Day) takes the reader beyond behind the scenes of the creation of such musicals as Company, A Chorus Line, Ballroom, Dreamgirls, and Miss Saigon and into the imagination of Michael Bennett, Steven Sondheim, Gower Champion, Avian himself, and numerous others – many of whom are undeservedly forgotten today.
In spite of the reviews, Michael Bennett came out of the Coco experience smelling like a rose because of the show’s three huge production numbers.
The age-old question soon arose: What do we do next?
Then, the phone rang. It was Harold Prince. He was about to begin work on a new Stephen Sondheim show called Company.
Thanks to Sondheim, Prince, and Bennett theater as we had known it was about to change forever. And so was Michael Bennett.
In Bob Avian, Dancing Man: A Broadway Choreographer’s Journey, Bob Avian emanates jolts of electricity with his recollections of Company, Follies, and A Chorus Line.
“As soon as we began pre-production, I realized I had never been a part of anything like this,” write Avian. “I was assistant choreographer — but Michael wouldn’t go anywhere alone, so I was always in the room and had the best seat in the house from which to observe. Michael had to work with the big boys and say the right things, and he usually did.” He says Bennett was very smart and so gifted creatively he could collaborate equally well with the entire team.
Avian was in awe of how Sondheim and Prince blended George Furth’s five one-acts into a single cohesive musical. “Steve would play his songs, and the complexity of his music, the brilliant, tongue-twisting, and oh-so-smart lyrics reminded me that this was exactly why I wanted to be a part of the theater. Hal was functioning as both producer and director, and proved to be first-rate as both. To be in the same room with these geniuses, functioning at the peak of their powers, was creative heaven.”
Bennett and set designer Boris Aronson “fell in artistic love with each other. Their sensibilities clicked, and Michael was fascinated envisioning the different ways he could use Boris’s set: an abstract, steel-and-glass New York cityscape that gave Michael multiple platforms to stage continuous movement.” He describes Bennett sitting in front of Aronson’s model planning movement, music counts, and onstage traffic patterns that would utilize every inch of space, including two elevators. He writes that Bennett was an extraordinary editor — distilling ideas down to their essence, figuring out what worked and what didn’t.”
Teaching the cast the opening “Company” number with all those “Bobby’s,” “Bubbi’s,” and “Baby’s” greetings from the couples was painstaking. “Steve’s score was ‘blazingly original, unlike anything previously heard in a Broadway theatre … It was so complex that initially it became downright confusing, but once the cast had the patterns imprinted in their brains, they were able to connect the jagged rhythms to the staging.”
He adds that with most of the cast non-dancers, “they worked hard, but it was never a breeze … Michael [approached] Act Two’s ‘Side by Side’ as if the characters were putting on a PTA show … the movement started to flow organically, arising out of their own strengths and weaknesses.”
Elaine Stritch was the exception. “Working with Elaine was no dream. She was a choreographer’s worse nightmare, never doing the same as the others and never doing twice what she did do. She wasn’t a team player, always consumed only with herself. She was a genuine pain in the ass.”
Her abominable behavior was at its worst at the first preview of the Boston try-out. In the lead-in to the finale Strict, playing the caustic Joanne, she began “The Ladies Who Lunch” but suddenly became hopelessly lost. Conductor Harold threw lyrics to her, but she was hopelessly lost. All she could muster were guttural sounds. She began wiping her face, smearing her make-up; then putting her hands in her mouth. Later, Sondheim confronted her: “What were you doing with your hands in your mouth?” Stritch replied, “Trying to find the goddamed words.”
When Stritch got her act together, Dean Jones, “an uptight personality who fit the role of Bobby perfectly,” became despondent as she literally stopped the show every performance. Though “he sang the role beautifully … [he] wasn’t happy being musically overshadowed.”
Avian marveled at Sondheim’s ability to write under pressure. He says things took “a quantum leap forward” when he arrived from the Shubert Theatre’s lounge with what turned out to be Jones’ showstopper, “Being Alive.”
He points out that Sondheim “likes to see the show in front of him because that inspires his unequalled gifts as a dramatist. He writes with extraordinary specificity and definition of character, which is what makes his songs so brilliantly theatrical.”
Company received mixed reviews: from “Brilliant” to “The songs are for the most part undistinguished” and “It’s for ladies’ matinees, homos, and misogynists.” Many audience members found the show “dark, bitter, and anti-marriage … [there] were walkouts, we just didn’t care. We loved the show.”
Avian has high praise for Prince: “It was a real education watching Hal work. He was extraordinarily effective as both producer and director, and his wearing those two hats simplified the process: what he said was the final word. There was no need to clear permissions with anyone else. He knew how to get a musical working on the stage and was fearless in his approach … Hal and Steve were working at the peak of their powers, both intellectually and creatively. They were exposing us to a new form of musical theatre in terms of format, concept, and darkness of material—here was a musical for adults.”
Opening in April 1970 on Broadway, reviews were great – with some calling the musical groundbreaking. Avian feels the show was ahead of its time “and not to everyone’s taste — many tourists didn’t respond at all, I found it brilliant. Every time I listened to the music I found something new.”
Dean, a strange casting choice to begin with, coming from a slew of Disney’s clichéd, hackneyed, comic movies, where he was always the affable good guy, became bothered by the show’s dark tones and many asking whether Bobby was gay. No sooner than the cast album was done, Dean asked to be let go. All manner of reasons were floated: his belief the show was too nihilistic or that he was distracted by divorce proceedings from wife Mae.
The show settled in for a solid. Avian was entrusted with running brush-up rehearsals. When Bennett came into one of the first, “he became so angry he picked up a chair to throw at either Elaine or Barbara Barrie (portraying Sarah). Instead, he threw the chair into the orchestra pit and said, “Bobby this is yours (to clean up).”
Company received 12 Tony nominations, winning five, including Best Musical, Score, Book, Director, and Scenic Design. Bennett received his fourth nomination as Best Choreographer, “which particularly pleased him, given the fact that while the show contained a great deal of musical staging, it was not, aside from ‘Tick Tock,’ a major dance show.” Dean departed the show before the nominators were invited. In a landmark decision, the American Theatre Wing decided his replacement Larry Kert (Tony, original West Side Story) would get the Best Actor nod. Strict shared a Best Actress nomination with Susan Browning (who played April).
Prince wanted to work with Bennett again. He met with him on a project titled The Girls Upstairs, a murder mystery by James Goldman, music and lyrics by Sondheim. Bennett agreed – only if he co-direct with Prince, who readily agreed. According to Avian, the original script was incomprehensible. “Through draft after draft, it completely changed. Inspired by a photo of film legend Gloria Swanson standing in the rubble of the Roxy Theatre (across from Radio City Music Hall) as another magnificent showplace was destroyed. No more murder mystery, it became the story of unhappily-married Follies showgirls returning one last time to their old haunt.
“Follies was one complicated, ambitious musical,” states Avian, “and it’s not an exaggeration to call it Proustian in scope … The [book] would jump back and forth between past and present, the former showgirls shadowed by ghosts of their younger selves.” Auditions began, but Sondheim had only written about half of his score. They attracted the Who’s Who of Broadway and Hollywood.
Exotic Yvonne de Carlo auditioned to portray icy Phyllis, but the team decided she’d make a better Carlotta, the faded Hollywood glamour girl. Dorothy Collins, a star of TV mega hit Your Hit Parade, auditioned for unhappy Phoenix housewife Sally and the team immediately fell in love with her. Recalls Avian, “Film star Alexis Smith, tall and regal, came in to audition. We were all intrigued. I had done Wonderful Town with her in summer stock and when Michael asked me: ‘Can she dance?’ I replied: ‘Enough.’ [Movie musicals song and dance man] Gene Nelson gave a terrific audition. He was kind of like Buddy Plummer, the salesman who could never satisfy wife Sally.” He would eventually stop the show with an ingeniously choreographed routine done to “The Right Girl.” John McMartin, who was featured opposite Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity, was cast as Phyllis’ rich, but empty husband, businessman Ben Stone.
Boris Aronson designed a stunning scenic concept of the once majestic theatre, with moving units and multi-level platforms, and a stunningly colorful fantasy Loveland. “Michael spent hours and hours with Boris’s model, figuring out how the 22 numbers were going to be staged. [It was] a gargantuan physical production — one for the record books … There was nothing usual about Follies.”
Avian describes how Bennett created dazzling production numbers for tunes “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” and “Who’s That Woman,” where the principals sang in tandem and counterpoint with their younger ghosts. Florence Klotz designed authentic costumes Ziegfeld would envy for the six-foot-tall showgirls who glided the stage as ghostly apparitions.
There were challenges for the older and young cast members. Sondheim’s songs were complicated “in terms of rhythm and syncopation, with Alexis, Dorothy, Gene, and John trying to keep his about to swirling melodies.” Avian pointed out the difficulty they had learning number “only added to the past/present theme of the show, and further contributed to the drama.”
As Avian looks back at his staging of some numbers, he ruminates that while he was being entrusted to stage major musical numbers, “I still didn’t think of myself as a choreographer. I was now being asked to do shows on my own, but would think: ‘I’m going to leave Michael Bennett, Hal Prince, and Stephen Sondheim, for some questionable show on my own? I don’t think so.’”
As the show proceeded to opening its dry run in Boston, numbers were staged, restaged, dropped or restaged and sometimes put back in with new music constantly coming in from Sondheim. There were challenges through closing night. “Much of the audience was expecting No, No, Nanette [a revival of which was on the boards that season], and this sure wasn’t that light frothy skip down memory lane.”
There were times when Bennett grew frustrated, even though Avian felt his work was wonderful. “He thought the show wasn’t fully working. Michael said: ‘I wish we could musicalize the entire show,’ thereby shortcutting our way through the downbeat book, but Hal wouldn’t consider that. Hal and Michael had great respect for each other, but it was tough to have two directors — the bloom was off the rose. They had two different visions for the show and that made the working relationship far more difficult than it had been on Company.
During previews inNew York in late March 1971, the team was still back and forth regarding an intermission. “We played both with and without a break.” Reports Avian, “Two-plus hours was a long time for audiences to sit, but there was no logical place to insert the intermission. With or without intermission, audience reaction continued to be all over the map. Some audience members stood in approval, others stood to walk out. There were no happy endings in this musical. His thoughts were that those who hated it didn’t care about the characters’ regretting their empty lives.
The April 4 opening brought mixed reviews: raves and pans. Walter Kerr’s review in the Sunday New York Times was headlined: “Yes, Yes, Alexis!—No, No Follies!” However, it was gifted with 11 Tony nominations, including Best Musical. It won seven: Director [shared with Bennett], Score, Choreography, Costume Design, Lighting Design, and Actress – Smith, who by that time was the toast of New York.
However, the show struggled at the box office. There were weeks when the gross was only $35,000. Prince had the clout to keep the show running, but,” but explains Avian, “our survival was hurt when we lost the Tony as Best Musical to Two Gentlemen of Verona. When we closed on July 1, 1972, the house was filled with the obsessive fans that had seen the show over and over. The ovations were so thunderous it was like being at a football game. I was sad that a musical so ambitious and so original just didn’t fly commercially.”
As Bennett’s fame grew, especially after his two wins for Follies, so did his ego and ambition – and stubbornness. Avian says Bennett was blessed with incredible talent and imagination. “Michael was incredibly driven. He had been on the move ever since, at age 16, he dropped out of high school and joined the European tour of West Side Story …[He] had low self-esteem in some ways … he was uncomfortable with his looks … He channeled those feelings into an all-consuming professional ambition.”
And it wasn’t just for musicals. Bennett wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to flex his muscles and direct a play. In 1971, George Furth (Company) submitted a script, consisting of four one-acts. “George was a clever writer. Michael sparked to the material, but not the title, A Chorus Line.” He told Furth: ““That’s the wrong title for this play, but somewhere down the line I’d like you to give me that title for another show.” It became Twigs. Bennett not only wanted to direct, but wanted his production company to be executive producer.
Avian wasn’t overly enthusiastic. “You could have summed up my reaction in one word: ‘Why?’ — why Michael wanted to lavish time and attention on this potentially entertaining but rather slim play … All I could think was ‘Where’s the orchestra? When does the scenery move? Where’s the dancing?’ … But, my job was to support Michael. I was billed as ‘production assistant’—that’s theater talk for ‘gofer.’”
Starring was the brilliant Sada Thompson. “I learned more about acting by watching Sada than from any other experience in my career … She was so thorough, so painstaking in her analysis of character and motivation … I grew to understand exactly how it is that the best actors examine and flesh out their characterizations. Sada would explain, George would rewrite, and the play would improve … It was like being a student in a master class.”
The play received mixed reviews, with nothing but accolades and a Tony Award for Thompson. It ran for eight months.
Bennett was at the top of his game, with Bob Avian always at his side. He had a strong champion in Bernard Jacobs, Number 2 at the Shubert Organization, who considered him a high-achieving near-son to the point of having dozens of framed photos of Bennett at his home. In 1975, Bennett heard of gypsies meeting to dance and discuss their lives and careers. He asked if he could join the group. It wasn’t long before he had a revelation that those meetings would actually make a musical. Jacobs and the Shuberts backed him, and he was about to have another major theatrical player opening doors for him. And he was about to make history – again.
END OF PART TWO
Want the scoop on A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls, and Chess? Tune in Friday.