Michael Bennett is best known for the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Chorus Line (1975), now considered the quintessential concept musical, in which the choreography, dialogue, music and staging support a central theme. The musical’s intimate subject matter—the personal lives of chorus dancers auditioning for a show—was revolutionary for its time. Bennett also introduced the concept of workshopping a musical, as a way to test material in preparation for a Broadway run. A Chorus Line ran for 15 years, then a record-breaking run for a Broadway show.
At 16, Michael Bennett DiFiglia dropped out of high school to dance in the European tour of Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story, taking the stage name Michael Bennett. After a year on tour, he moved to New York City to dance on Broadway and was cast in Subways Are for Sleeping (1961) and Here’s Love (1963). In 1962 he became the choreographic assistant for Nowhere to Go But Up. His first credit as sole choreographer came four years later for A Joyful Noise (1966), for which he received his first Tony Award nomination.
By the 1970s, choreography was frequently the first element of a Broadway musical to get cut when money was tight, so dancers constantly struggled to find work. It was during this time that a friend invited Bennett to attend a meeting with dancers to address these issues. He brought a tape recorder and listened as the dancers shared their personal stories, including what set them on their career path. This is the material that eventually became A Chorus Line. Bennett worked closely with the dancers to develop all elements of the show, from the choreography to the set design, through a series of workshops—a method that set a new standard for testing Broadway material.
The show premiered in 1975 and was an immediate hit. Audiences were struck by the poignancy of the subject matter—the real-life struggles of Broadway’s unsung heroes, the chorus dancers. A Chorus Line won 10 Tony Awards, including two for Bennett: best direction and best choreography.
Over the course of his career, Bennett choreographed and directed 10 Broadway musicals, earning seven Tony Awards. After the success of A Chorus Line, he had two more hits, Ballroom (1978) and Dreamgirls (1981). He was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-’80s and died in 1987 at the age of 44.
Bennett’s muse Donna McKechnie (far right) in “Turkey Lurkey Time,” from Promises, Promises. Photo by Friedman-Abeles, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives
Did You Know?
After the box-office success of A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett purchased the eight-story building at 890 Broadway in New York City and converted it into a multi-studio rehearsal space, adding a theater and a restaurant later on. Today, it houses American Ballet Theatre, Ballet Tech and Gibney Dance Center.
A Chorus Line, which closed in 1990 after 6,137 performances, held the record for longest-running musical for 14 years, until CATS broke that record in 1997. Today, Phantom of the Opera holds the record with more than 12,000 performances (and counting).