Bob Avian: Dancing Man, A Life in Theater as Choreographer/Director; Tales of Collaborating with Michael Bennett in New Autobiography
By: Ellis Nassour
April 6, 2020: Tony-winning scenic designer Robin Wagner, credited with over 50 Broadway shows, says, “Bobby, in addition to being an extraordinarily nice guy, is an absolutely brilliant director/choreographer. He and Michael Bennett was a pair. They knew each other inside out. Everything Michael did, Bobby contributed at least half. Michael trusted his instincts. Bobby was more collaborator than assistant.”
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, and Gower Champion. Perhaps many are not aware of the multitude of Avian’s contributions since he was never one to push himself into the spotlight. Now, is as good a time as any.
Of Avian, producer Cameron Mackintosh says, “Bob is far more than a dancing man. He is one of the savviest, most intuitive, inventive and no b.s. talents the musical theater has produced. He danced in every type of show from burlesque to West Side Story and Hello, Dolly and learned from the giant choreographers of the 20th Century.” Mackintosh goes so far as to state: “Bob was an integral part of the reinvention of the American musical in the 70s,” working on legendary shows with brilliant composers, producers, directors, and, of course, Michael Bennett.
There’s nothing sophisticated about Avian’s conversation. He’s down-to-earth, telling stories and juicy gossip from his life in theater as if sitting with a friend. He was 22; Bennett 17 when they met dancing in the international tour of West Side Story.
Avian refers toJerome Robbins as “a genius, but one tough guy.”When he dropped by to check on the show, “he scared us to death. We wanted to remain out of his sight line, desperately trying to dance behind someone else. He could be insulting and cruel, breaking dancers down until they were in tears. He said heartless things that came out of his own insecurity.
“His frustration, in his art and personal life, came out in attacks on us,” continues Avian. “It was a horror show to endure.” What he remembers of his opening night when, after playing in three theatres from September 1957 – June 1959, the show returned to Broadway after a year’s hiatus in late April 1960 was Leonard Bernstein conducting the overture. “It was, in a word, thrilling.”
A quick learner, Avian soon became a sought after gypsy, especially for replacement casting. After leaving Funny Girl in 1965, and working with Gower Champion on Carnival!, he was eager to jointhe Hello, Dolly! starring Mary Martin. When an abrupt cancelation occurred, at the bequest of President Johnson, the show packed off to Vietnam to entertain thousands of troops. When the tour ended and Martin was being whisked to London for the West End opening, the cast transitioned to Las Vegas with their new Dolly, former pin-up gal and famous movie musicals star Betty Grable.
Next was a short-lived gig in the ensemble of the musical Café Crown, which closed after three performances. He decided, “I didn’t want to be in the running for the title of ‘World’s Oldest Chorus Boy.’ I was looking to better myself,” That brought him back to Champion and a job in December 1996 as assistant stage manager for I Do! I Do, the two-person musical starring Martin and Robert Preston. He learned how to call the cues, “.In those pre-computer days, you had to count the length of the light cues, but I only called the show once or twice.”
When the cast changed a year later, he left the show – but not to choreograph, but to perform.
It was the musical Henry, Sweet Henry, which ran just over two months. Bennett brought Avian on as an assistant choreographer for TV shows.
Along with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951), The King and I (1951), 2Hazel Flagg (1953), Destry Rides Again (1959), Here’s Love (1963), and Illya, Darling (1968), Henry, Sweet Henry was of the rare breed of musicals based adapted from a film. Bennett garnered a Tony nomination for his choreography on his first Broadway show, A Joyful Noise, which ran for a week. He was set to choreograph Henry, Sweet Henry, based on the Peter Sellers film The World of Henry Orient, with a score by Bob Merrill (Carnival!). He asked Avian to join the cast as dance captain and to work as his assistant along with young dancer Charlene Painter [later a Philanthropist with her multi-Emmy Award winning husband Walter, who choreographed Oscar and Tony Award telecasts; and the musical staging for City of Angels].
“It was my first experience being a part of the creative team from pre-production on,” explains Avian. “Charlene learned Michael’s steps instantly, but I didn’t … [but] I made a good editor. As Michael constructed the numbers, I found I could say, ‘I don’t understand what this number is about’ or ‘This is too long.’ Michael would really listen. I never felt like I was a hired hand. Our dance styles meshed very well because Michael’s strengths were tap and jazz, while mine was ballet. We possessed an extensive dance vocabulary. In addition, we were the best of friends — even after spending the day together in the rehearsal room.
“We’d talk on the phone every night … laughed — sometimes hysterically. It was only as the success and attendant pressures grew over the decades that the laughs diminished. Regardless of whatever happened through the years, we shared the un breakable bond of having grown up in the business like brothers.”
Avian hated being in the show while assisting Michael. “It was tough to be by his side during rehearsal and then jump up to be in a number. I was functioning as assistant choreographer until 30 minutes before curtain … I was playing a variety of roles, doubling as both one of the adults and, in certain scenes, as one of the 16-year-old schoolboys.” In the cast was Baayork Lee, with whom I was to form a lifelong friendship, and Alice Playten, a small young woman with a very big voice who stopped the show at every performance with ‘Poor Little Person’” — which garnered her a Tony nod. Bennett received his second Tony nomination as choreographer..
It was an audience-friendly show, “but the big critics were not among them. Clive Barnes, then the all-powerful New York Times drama critic, killed us. Even though this was to be the last show I danced in … I just knew I didn’t want to be dance captain.”
For the next 25 years, Bennett and Avian became extensions of each other, so tightly bound and matched they could finish each other’s sentences, know what each was thinking before they thought it.
Avian details how they worked: Bennett sitting for hours until coming up with ideas – planning out movement, music counts, how to make the best use of the stage; then, his job to distill ideas down to their essence – take “what worked, what didn’t, what needed an extra twist” to create the magic. Bennett’s pre-production work was so encompassing “that the last thing we worked on were the dance steps … the building blocks – look, content, message, and music came first … Our sensibilities dovetailed beautifully. We didn’t dance like each other, which helped to cover a wide variety of styles.”
Though roommates for a time, Avian is quick to point out he and Bennett were never in a sexual relationship.
A golden opportunity was on the horizon, however: But it took Bennett and Avian to spin it into gold.
“Michael automatically made me a part of all his shows. He’d say, ‘We’re going to do this show.’… There was never any discussion or hesitation. It worked so well [because] I didn’t want to be Michael and he didn’t want to be me. I didn’t know if I was a choreographer or not, but I was a great second banana. My ambition was strong, but it was much more muted than Michael’s.
“Our working relationship was a case of two heads being better than one,” continues Avian. “We matched up well because we so trusted each other. I knew how talented Michael was and really pushed his star. It was also clear that temperamentally speaking, we were a great match. I was much more low-key than Michael, and could calm any waters that he stirred up.”
A surprise call came from David Merrick to help fix the problematic musical How Now, Dow Jones, and he created a showstopper, “Step to the Rear.”
Another musical, adapted from a film, The Apartment (1960) was Burt Bacharach, Hal David, and Neil Simon’s 1968 Promises, Promises, the first Broadway show that Avian received assistant choreographer credit.
This isn’t something you could say often, but Merrick was so pleased he hired Bennett to choreograph Promises. Bennett listened to as much Bacharach music as possible to learn “the syncopation, quirky rhythms, and off-beat counts that Burt liked to employ. [However] he soon realized the choreographic opportunities … He decided to maximize any and all possibilities by choreographing the scene transitions in order keep the show constantly moving forward.”
He says Bacharach and David were easy to work with, Bacharach, so used to the recording studio environment that was conducive to his perfectionist instinct, was very frustrated. “It was extraordinary to watch Neil Simon at work. He was whip-smart, very clever, and could write a scene in five minutes. He was in the rehearsal room all the time, and if we hit a snag he’d say what all choreographers and directors dream of hearing: ‘Don’t fuss with it. I’ll just rewrite it.’ Nothing in his script was sacred; he always wanted to change, improve, and collaborate.”
For the number “Grapes of Roth,” Avian describes how Bennett created, “It took place in a crowded singles bar; Michael decided to choreograph it as an urban crush, the principals and ensemble members all packed together in a 10’ square … It took a long time to plan out — each hip thrown left, or shoulder moved to the right, each swiveling body, or raised pair of hands — all aimed at highlighting the frantic New York singles scene.”
For the Act One finale office Christmas party, Bennett again rose to the occasion.
The number was to show the frustrations of being stuck in an office all day. Notes Avian, “But the reaction at the end was ‘meh’— it was respectable, but completely unexciting. We looked at each other and went, ‘We are in big trouble.’’ Back at the hotel, they staged a new number. “As soon as the orchestration was ready, we threw it onstage and that night it stopped the show.” It was the outrageous “Turkey Lurkey Time,” a “head-thwacking, elbow-wagging”showstopper “ featuring Donna McKechnie, who’d become Bennett’s favorite dancer, Margo Sappington, and Baayork Lee as secretaries dancing to a driving rhythm.
“Michael,” informs Avian,” had been afraid he’d be replaced, and now had created the show’s musical highlight.”
Jerry Orbach, who’d already succeeded with The Fantasticks and Carnival!, was cast asChuck Baxter. “He was a constant delight, but we inadvertently caused him problems when the female swing turned out to be someone he had an affair with … When his wife found out, she called me, screaming … All I could think was: ‘Why is she calling the assistant choreographer? Aren’t there any higher-ups to yell at?’ We didn’t fire the swing, but we kept her out of sight as much as possible.”
He described director Bob Moore (The Boys in the Band) and the creative team as harmonious. “We all had one thing very much in common: we were all scared of David Merrick, a state of affairs which suited Merrick just fine. He kept us all off balance and we’d wonder, ‘What exactly does he mean by his barbed comments? Is he going to fire us?’ He was determined to maintain total control, and could turn on anyone, no matter their position. Once ‘Turkey Lurkey Time’ went into the show and proved to be a showstopper, however, Merrick left Michael and me alone.” The show opened to raves. Bennett received his second Tony nomination for choreography (after 1966’s short-lived A Joyful Noise).
Three more than interesting projects followed. Two became legendary. There was Coco, headlined by Katharine Hepburn, Company, and Follies.
Avian’s title changed to associate choreographer on Coco, Alan Jay Lerner and André Previn’s musicalized story of France’s Coco Chanel’s rise to the top of the worldwide fashion industry – costumes designed by the acclaimed Cecil Beaton (My Fair Lady). With the inimitable Katharine Hepburn returning to the stage, the show was sold out for the first three months. At $2-million, it had the biggest budget in Broadway history. It had 24 models, and constantly spinning turntables and sensational production numbers backed by a 33-piece orchestra to showcase one of the greatest actresses of all time. However, as Avian writes, “there was an elephant in the room.”
“The first day of pre-production, we’re excited and even in awe of the great Kate — for precisely ten minutes,” points out Avian. “Then Michael and I look at each other and realize the legendary Katharine Hepburn doesn’t have a musical bone in her body. Michael and I can read each other’s thoughts: We’re in trouble. Big trouble … At the end of this first day we were on the phone for hours, laughing and trembling.”
Bennett simplified every single step, but Avian reports that even rudimentary movements proved difficult for Ms. Hepburn. “What she did have, however, was star presence to burn, extraordinary acting ability, and a fierce work ethic. The question was how to find a way to make those gifts shine … In her frightened state Kate proved contrary in the extreme, contradicting whatever direction Michael gave her. If Michael said to her, ‘You’ll enter from upstage right,’ Kate would say ‘Oh, no, no, no … I’ll come in from downstage left.’ Finally, we hit on a solution. If we wanted Kate to enter from stage right we’d say, ‘It might be nice if you’d enter from stage left.’ She’d do the exact opposite.”
There were problems aplenty. Everyone expected “a big smash flop.” Nothing seem to daunt audiences. They came to see their great film star – live and onstage. “Katharine Hepburn was not a singer and definitely not a dancer,” sums up Avian, “but she was an actress and star presence of the highest order.”
In spite of the reviews, Bennett came out of the 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.
Thanks to Michael Bennett theater as we had known it was about to change forever. And so was Michael Bennett…
END OF PART ONE
Want the scoop on Company and Follies? Tune in Wednesday.