Michael Bennett, 1943-1987
Story & Recording by Justin Ross Cohen
Hello. I’m Justin Ross Cohen, and it is my honor to share with you a bit about the life of the great director/choreographer, Michael Bennett. Not only did he change the course of the Broadway musical with his production of A Chorus Line, but the course of my life as well by, in 1976, casting me as Greg in the original Broadway production.
An out and proud bisexual, Michael championed sexual freedom in his work. Greg is one of three gay characters in A Chorus Line, remarkable at a time when homosexuality was still listed as a disease in the medical journals.
On the first day of rehearsals, he whispered in my ear, “Greg is a king, not a queen,” giving me a roadmap not only for the character, but for my life as well.
Born Michael DiFiglia in 1943 in Buffalo, New York, he left high school shortly before graduating to join a company of West Side Story, directed by Jerome Robbins, and was soon dancing in the chorus of numerous Broadway shows.
His choreographic career began while he was a featured dancer on the NBC pop-music series Hullabaloo. As a 10-year-old aspiring dancer, I watched Hullabaloo religiously. Filmed just two blocks from where I grew up in Brooklyn, I would walk by the closed-set studio and stare endlessly into the loading dock area, where they stored the pyramid of block letters spelling out the show’s title. I used to fantasize about dancing on those blocks one day. Ten years later, I was working with the man whose own dancing on them had inspired me so.
Michael Bennett received Tony award nominations for every musical with which he was associated, and won eight.
In 1985, Michael gave the first public indication that he was ill when he withdrew from the British production of the musical Chess. Due to the stigma of AIDS, he withheld the nature of his illness from all but his closest associates, telling others he had a heart ailment. He retreated from the public eye and spent his remaining months in Tucson, Arizona, where in 1986, he died from AIDS-related lymphoma at the age of 44.
Michael once said, “Broadway dance is what I know, what I was, and what I am.”
He dedicated A Chorus Line to — and I quote — “anyone who has ever danced in a chorus, or has marched in step … anywhere.”
Thank you, Michael. You, sir, were one singular sensation.