Bob Avian: Dancing Man, A Life in Theater as Choreographer/Director; Tales of Collaborating with Michael Bennett in New Autobiography
By: Ellis Nassour
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, takes the reader beyond behind the scenes of the creation of such musicals as Company, Follies, Dreamgirls, A Chorus Line, Ballroom, and Miss Saigon and into the imagination and genius of Michael Bennett; and later, Miss Saigon.
Following Company and Follies, Bob Avian states that Michael Bennett was at the top of his game. He was always by his side, not only as a loyal friend, but also now his partner in creating choreography.
Bennett had big plans. Fortunately, 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 and if he could bring Donna McKechnie, who he’d become inseparable with [and would briefly be wed to], and a tape recorder. And the ever-faithful Avian was there taking extensive notes.
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.
“The flow was slow,” informs Avian, “until Michael talked about his childhood and his sexuality. Suddenly the doors were open. Everyone in the circle took their turn talking not only about their background, but also about their desires and dreams. And as the early morning hours headed towards daybreak, the dancers became more and more candid about their heartbreak and neuroses.”
Bennett eventually had over 10 hours of tapes. A later gathering with six dancers, including Avian and Baayork Lee followed. Then, Bennett had 20 hours of tape, “and one overarching thought: he knew he wanted to turn the raw material into a musical called A Chorus Line.”
Dancer Nick Dante, “who had delivered the most potent story of all: his experience dancing in drag at the [famous East Village] Jewel Box Revue, was hired to take a first stab at a script … [His] startlingly raw confession eventually found its way into the script as Paul’s monologue.”
Bennett, Avian, and Dante nailed down a basic concept and began naming the characters. States Avian, “I kept telling Michael, ‘This should be set at an audition — we can make the audition confrontational between the dancers and the director.’ He was hesitant … [knowing] that a real audition would never include these sorts of soul-baring confessionals. At the same time, he realized that the director, now called Zach, could be given lines explaining why he wanted to hear these personal stories.”
A fan of actor and writer James Kirkwood (The semi-autobiographical There Must Be a Pony, P.S. Your Cat is Dead [also a play], Some Kind of Hero, and [later] the play Legends! and autobiography Diary of a Mad Playwright) to flesh out the storylines. “The assumption has been made that Cassie’s story is synonymous with Donna’s personal story,” notes Avian, “[but] her story was primarily that of Maggie … Cassie’s story was based on a dancer we knew who had been plucked out of the chorus to go to Hollywood for work on a Warren Beatty film Hollywood soon discovered that she couldn’t really act … [she] headed back to New York to begin auditioning for jobs in the chorus.” The dancer auditioned for an industrial the duo directed, but Bennett didn’t hire her. He told Avian, “How can I hire her for a job in the chorus … [when] she was in Hollywood starring in a Warren Beatty film?”
With their friend Marvin Hamlisch, with Oscars for The Way We Were and The Sting, aboard as composer and Ed Kleban as lyricist, rehearsals began with Papp paying the bills and the actor/dancers $100 a week. And the rest, including McKechnie’s “The Music and the Mirror,” as they say, is history.
In 1975, A Chorus Line, totally different from anything Broadway had seen, found great favor. In fact, it made history. Not only did it win nine Tony Awards – Musical, Director, Book, Original Score (Hamlisch, Kleban), Choreography (Bennett, Avian), Actress (McKechnie), Featured Actor (Sammy Williams; Robert LuPone also was nominated, Featured Actress (Carole Bishop, a.k.a Kelly Bishop, the name she changed to during the run, who played the sassy Shelia)-; Priscilla Lopez was also nominated), and Lighting (Tharon Musser) – but also the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The show became, for its time, Broadway’s longest-running musical.
To this day, Avian continues the legacy of the groundbreaking musical by building each production of A Chorus Line the same as the original.
How in the world do you follow A Chorus Line? How about a film adaptation? Bennett and Avian went to Hollywood. Bennett was a big wheel on Broadway, but at Universal Studios, he and Avian were virtually ignored — which resulted in their return to New York.
Avian states that he and Bennett became closer than ever, but “the global success of A Chorus Line was difficult to manage and exhausting.” There were constant rehearsals and casting sessions … I missed the days of climbing the mountain, when the journey itself was the reward, and the prospects and horizons seemed limitless. The failure of their follow-up, 1978’s Ballroom, starring Dorothy Loudon and Vincent Gardenia, directed by Bennett and choreographed by the duo, with music by Billy Goldenberg, lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and book by Jerome Kass, was a bitter pill to swallow. There was interference from the Shuberts, and the creatives often butted heads. It ran 116 performances.
Problems became harder to deal with, “but the entire scene was magnified to a near breaking point when the AIDS crisis hit in the early 80s. So many bright, talented, handsome dancers and singers succumbed. Those years were all about funerals.” In Avian’s close circle of friends, which he numbered at 10, eight died.
Bennett, under unbelievable pressure from his incredible success, didn’t always handle it well As he tried to escape, “he sometimes succumbed to drugs, alcohol, and had bouts of paranoia.” Avian says he would also have to plead guilty. “Michael, however, flew particularly high and too close to the sun.”
The duo took care in choosing their next project – about two years. There were brilliant ideas that appealed to Bennett, endless meetings with various creatives, book problems; then, after months it would be put on hold – never to be heard of again. A Chorus Line kept them busy. It took about two years before they plunged into developing what would be another classic musical.
Then, one day in late 1980, as Avian was walking down the street, he ran into playwright Tom Eyen, who, thinking Avian was Bennett, exclaimed he had a project for him. It was the story of three ultra competitive African-American singers on the rise and the problems they faced. Avian rushed to tell Bennett it sounded fantastic: “It has music and glamour.” The fact that it seemed to have parallels to the Supremes made it even more interesting.
Bennett was quite taken by surprise as, unbeknownst to Avian, Berry Gordy of Motown had offered him his entire catalog and he was mulling over how to approach it. Avian was quite enthusiast – enough so for Bennett to meet with Eyen, the lyrist, and composer Henry Krieger. There was an audition featuring Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine as Deena and Lorrell, and Ramona Brooks playing other characters At the end, Bennett said, “We’ll produce a workshop. Tom will direct and write.” Along with the Shubert Organization, Avian would be a producer.
Eyen was eager to bring in 20-year-old Jennifer Holliday, featured in Vinnette Carroll’s gospel musical Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. When Holliday, short and stout, met with them, she didn’t appear to fit the role of a glamorous leading lady, but possessed “a voice that was a gift from heaven.” She was aboard.
Bennett soon added up-and-coming choreographer Michael Peters to stage the musical numbers. Various titles came and went, as did scenes. “It was slow going,” notes Avian, “because Eyen was writing and directing. He wasn’t one to sit at home, write a scene, and come in with the new material the next day. He let the actors improvise, feeding off their energy and attitudes as a means of inspiring him to write another scene.” Brooks sort of cut her own throat. When she complained a song she was to sing didn’t make sense where it was being placed, it was cut and she headed for the door.
Holliday wasted no time being a prima donna. When a decision to have a second workshop was being mulled over, she quit. Avian: “Her character was the most interesting, and everyone was in love with her singing. She was so young yet held so much pain and emotion in her face and voice that she lifted the piece to an entirely different level.”
By the end of the second workshop, with cast and story changes, Bennett announced, “I’m going to take over the show as director and co-choreographer.” Eyen was relieved, as he could now concentrate on the book and lyrics. “We had a long way to go,” writes Avian, and that included a third workshop.
As the fourth workshop approached, Bennett begged and flattered Holliday to the point she simply couldn’t refuse. At the conclusion, it was decided to present the show to the prospective financial backers: the Shubert’s Bernard Jacobs and Gerry Schoenfeld, David Geffen, and others. Just when things were shaping up, Holliday up and quit again. She stated her unhappiness with the material and how she was treated. Amazing since they did everything but spoon feed her and rock her to sleep.
”We had one week to find a new Effie and prepare the presentation,” reports Avian. Alana Reed graciously stepped in and learned the role in a week. There was no staging, just a table read and sing. The investors agreed to fund the show. “Great news,” says Avian, “but we realized we could now either quit or be fired. We were no longer in absolute control.” And there one thing still missing: Jennifer Holliday.
Bennett again pursued her and convinced her to return. “When she did, “ points out Avian, “Jennifer was in a much better mood and proved cooperative, providing key input regarding the arrangements of her songs.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing. Avian tells how bombastic disagreement and yelling. “Bernie Jacobs would yell at general manager Marvin Krauss, who’d yell at me … and sometimes I would yell at Michael. Even after all the years I had worked with Michael, I realized I still had to learn exactly when to approach him about problems … [especially] issues about money. For Michael to feel stifled over artistic decisions because of money concerns drove him crazy … Did we get mad? Yes. But it never developed into a verbal fight … [we] never lost sight of our decades-long friendship.”
The title became Dreamgirls, and casting began. The Chorus Line design trio of Wagner, Musser, and Theoni V. Aldredge (costumes) were submitting ideas to Bennett, who didn’t want anything traditional. “He wanted fluid set pieces which could be quickly moved to suggest multiple locations. The brilliant Robin Wagner came up with six skeletal towers. Michael loved the idea and sat in front of the models for hours, planning the show from start to finish. He wanted the show to move at such a quick pace the audience would feel like they were watching a movie, complete with wipes and dissolves. At Michael’s request, Robin began designing towers with the capability of turning, a refinement which increased both the fluidity and the number of possible locations.”
Bennett worked tirelessly with Holiday on her acting. “She possessed the raw talent,” writes Avian, “but very little experience, so Michael explained various approaches to the role that would help.”
August 24, 1981 full company rehearsals began. Avian says Bennett was the true captain of the ship. He was everywhere: blocking musical numbers and discovering the full essence of the book. The show grew bigger and bigger. Creatives, cast, music staff totaled 105.
Even though he wasn’t choreographing the show with Bennett, Avian helped build many of the numbers. There was camaraderie and mutual respect all around,” states Avian. “I had fallen in love with every aspect of the show: the design, the cast, the story, and the music … The disappointment if the show is a failure could kill me … The only other time I had felt this strongly about a show was A Chorus Line.”
Sad to say, Holliday “was always on the verge of being difficult. It seemed to be a form of self-protection, and I was constantly building her up … Her talent was so deep and extraordinary I felt this show could make her a true star. She was vulnerable, tough, ambitious, smart, and touched by the gods musically She was untrained technically and felt her lack of acting experience keenly, telling me she was merely parroting what Michael told her to do … There was something endearing about her insecurity, but at the same time she was very career-oriented; well aware of all the talented people who had screwed up their careers with dumb decisions, she was determined not to join their ranks.”
In October, the show moved to Boston and the Shubert. Soon audiences would pass judgment. There were gasps when all saw the set onstage for the first time. However, there was so much new, technical rehearsals proceeded slowly. There were problems with sound. As previews were about to start, disaster struck: Jennifer lost her voice. Backstage, Avian found a very distraught Holiday, “head in hands, plaintively saying, ‘If I don’t have my voice I have nothing.’” He consoled her and advised rest. The cover was put on, but the first two previews were canceled.
“There’s nothing more frightening than preparing for a first preview,” advised Avian. “After the years of preparation, you’re in effect about to send your child out into the world. The curtain went up and it felt like ‘Gone with the Dreams’ — three hours of beaded gowns. But, in spite of the show lasting forever, the audience stood to scream their approval. At the time, standing ovations … really meant something … If the show worked in Boston, we felt very confident about its chances in New York … Our problem became where to cut. In its totality, the show worked, but many individual pieces were proving less than stellar. We began by fixing the problematic second act and cleaning out the dead weight.”
October 24, 1981, opening night, there was nothing but raves. Dreamgirls proved to be the talk of the town. Every performance was SRO, and the house record was broken with a gross of $326,000.
By the finish of tech rehearsals in New York at the Imperial, the creatives felt the finale was solid. “Effie had not been a part of the final scene. Everyone kept telling us she had to be there, that her presence would bring the show full circle and give a sense of closure. Our solution was to have all four of the Dreams sing ‘Dreamgirls’ in close harmony … That fix had been right in front of us the whole time … That ending may not have rep resented how it would have played out in real life, but it was right for the show. The new ending helped cement Jennifer as the star of the piece, and while it didn’t help smooth relations between her and Sheryl, the necessity of that reconciliation lay in the structure of the piece: Effie is the character around whom all the others pivot.”
The first New York preview was December 9, 1981, and the theater community was out in full force. “We hoped we’d presented black music and culture in the 1960s with both realism and love, but how was the tough New York audience going to respond? They loved it. Oh, the relief. Word of mouth on the street was great, and the lines at the box office grew daily.”
Critics raves assessments such as “Thrusts the American musical theater into a new age. The word genius was bantered around. However, the TV critics, Douglas Watt in the Daily News, and Clive Barnes in the New York Post were dismissive. Bennett and Avian were despondent, until word reached that Frank Rich in the Times had written a love letter. “The first sentence told us we were safe: ‘When Broadway history is being made, you can feel it.’ It got better: ‘Mr. Bennett has long been Mr. Robbins’s Broadway heir apparent, as he has demonstrated in two previous Gypsy-like backstage musicals, Follies (which he staged with Harold Prince) and A Chorus Line. But last night the torch was passed, firmly, unquestionably, once and for all.”
“New Yorkers,” states Avian, “may try to affect a blasé attitude about established stars, but they love to anoint a new star, and Jennifer was the dream girl of the moment. But it wasn’t just about Jennifer—the entire cast was extraordinary.”
Speaking of co-lead Sheryl Lee Ralph, Avian writes: “She has brains, beauty, and talent to match. Although she and Michael never became friends, she knew how to handle him, and their occasional conflicts provided a show in themselves. It was a shame that she and Jennifer were never pals, but it was in the nature of the show these two women would be in conflict.”
Dreamgirls received 14 Tony nominations, which included Musical, Director, and Actress (Ralph). It garnered six wins: Book, Choreography (Bennett and Peters), Actor (Ben Harvey), Actress (Holliday) – Holliday and Ralph both were nominated, Featured Actor (Clevant Derricks), and Scenic Design (Wagner).
“Though we were the new hit,” states Avian, “there were pain and disappointment because the negative reviews took so little note of Michael’s incredible work. But the bottom line was that he had delivered another smash and confirmed his status as a true auteur of the American musical theater, the leading director/choreographer of his generation.”
[The Jennifer Holliday saga continued, sadly. Stardom was not enough for her. She had no appreciation for the fact that Bennett had taken her from unknown to stardom. Due to her lack of experience, she had no sense of loyalty to the show. She’d call in sick, but would be performing at a nightclub. You never knew if she’d be onstage or not. The situation was worse when the West Coast tour opening in Los Angeles. There was no escaping the New York and major media reviews. Theatergoers there were anxious to see this new star lighting up the night sky. Holliday was the only original cast in the company. Everything was riding on her.]
“Holliday and the show received sensational reviews,” reports Avian. “The box office got off to a solid start. Then, Jennifer started missing performances – a lot of performances. Audiences were uncertain they’d actually see the new star they were hearing so much about.” Ticket sales dropped drastically, and Dreamgirls closed early. When the tour moved to San Francisco, a decision was made to replace her. Lillias White stepped in and did a wonderful job.”[It was in media reports that this cast change had been planned all along. Those in the know were suspicious.]
Bennett wanted to form his own production company. Forgetting momentarily the Shuberts (then) owned 16 theatres, he decided he’d purchase the independent Hellinger and make it his home base. Jacobs and Bennett shared a trait: they demanded to be in full control. Bennett’s plan didn’t sit well with Jacobs, and they clashed.
In show business, bygones can be bygones when necessity calls. In 1984, with Dreamgirls still on the boards, the Shuberts were interested in ABBA composers Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and Tim Rice’s decision to adapt their hit concept album, Chess, set against the background a high-stakes international match and love triangle, for the stage as Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber had done with Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Jacobs suggested Bennett as director/choreographer.
The producers and especially Rice didn’t share his vision. Andersson sided with Bennett; Ulvaeus sided with Rice. Bennett won. While he conceived, as was their tradition, Avian was in charge of the daily nitty gritty. “Andersson was collegial and collaborative, while Rice and Ulovaeus treated me as if I were invisible. It proved to be a frustrating experience.” Bennett hired Robin Wagner (Jesus Christ Superstar, Dreamgirls) to design the show, which would take place on a giant chessboard that could revolve and tilt. There would be cameras telecasting the match on giant screens.
Things took a drastic turn over Christmas 1985. Bennett discovered a lesion on his foot, diagnosed as Kaposi’s sarcoma, the AIDS cancer. Recalls Avian, “When Michael told me, we broke down in tears.” Bennett pulled out of the show. “In those early days of the AIDS epidemic, ignorance was rampant, and there was such a stigma Michael chose to keep the news private.” It was announced he departed because of heart problems.“ Trevor Nunn took over, but didn’t want to use Bennett’s concept. “The problem was the show was already underway … [and] Trevor ended up with a production that was a compromise, neither fully his vision nor Michael’s.
Avian describes the ordeals of traveling across country in the search for potential life-saving treatments, all yielding false hopes. “It was a devastating time.” Bennett took part in an AZT trial that seemed to give hope. He didn’t know if he was receiving the drug or a placebo. “We shared a few weeks of optimism … but Michael started to decline again.”
With Bennett’s condition growing severe, Avian, exhausted, needed an escape. He kept an eye on A Chorus Line and the Dreamgirls tour. Out of the blue came a call from Mackintosh to choreograph the West End production of Follies. “I instantly said no. Cameron persisted. Steve Sondheim called.” He writes that he wasn’t able to think about work. Bennett’s “once volcanic energy vanished.” He encouraged Avian to take the job, “It’s time you went out on your own.” Avian explains one reason he agreed: “Steve had written four new songs, which gave me fresh choreographic possibilities.” Nicer still, the production was to be more upbeat, with book writer James Goldman “making the show more audience-friendly.” There was instant rapport with Mackintosh and director Mike Ockrent. In fact, even before rehearsals began, Mackintosh told Avian he wanted him to choreograph Miss Saigon.
July 2, 1987, Mackintosh came into rehearsals and quietly laid a hand on Avian’s shoulder and said, “Michael’s gone.” In the end, he writes, “It was a shock and a sad relief … I took a walk around the neighborhood, cried, and then went back to work, which was the best possible thing I could have done.”
Bob Avian was on his own. He had proven himself so valuable an assest to Michael Bennett that he wasn’t sure how he would proceed. However, Avian had become vastly respected and his talent appreciated. In addition to Mackintosh, other producers put their trust in him. Miss Saigon, Putting It Together, Sunset Boulevard, Martin Guerre, and The Witches of Eastwich (West End only) were among his projects.
Chapters on how Avian was literally thrown to the wolves when he joined West Side Story on tour; his working with Katharine Hepburn in Coco; working with Mary Martin in Vietnam in Hello, Dolly! in the midst of war; gorgeous movie pin-up gal Betty Grable on Hello, Dolly!, such stars as Patti Lu Pone and Julie Andrews; and the edge-of-the-seat saga of Dreamgirls v. Nine for the Best Musical Tony; and his musings on how choreography has drastically changed are vastly entertaining elements in Bob Avian: Dancing Man.
Oddly, in writing about Dreamgirls, Avian doesn’t mention Effie’s showstopper, “And I Am Telling You,” one of the most-memorable tunes in Broadway history; or discuss how it developed; and in his chapter on Miss Saigon, he never mentions that helicopter.
In Bob Avian: Dancing Man, he speaks volumes of how musical theater wouldn’t be possible without collaboration — that it takes more than one person to create the magic. He has created more than his share, but what makes him especially classy is how at every step along the way he credits those who guided and collaborated with him – and is gracious enough to mention them by name. Many are undeservedly forgotten today.
Despite his list of definitive theatrical successes, Avian says there’s no secret recipe. “Every musical is unique. They don’t follow any paths. Every one that’s a good musical has its own merit for its own reasons. There’s no map” Just blood, sweat, tears, frustrations, and, hopefully, good reviews.