Michael Bennett’s legacy as a choreographer:
A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls
Michael Bennett’s choreography in productions such as Dreamgirls and A Chorus Line dominated the Broadway stage of the 1970s and 1980s. Along with the work of other great choreographers of the era like Bob Fosse, Bennett is credited for revolutionizing Broadway theater and the role of dance in the Broadway tradition. In A Chorus Line in particular, the dance tells the story, not plot or even song. However, unlike Fosse, Bennett did not have a style that was so distinct that it overwhelmed every production in which he was involved. Bennett tailored his choreography to the needs of the show and allowed it to reveal the themes of the production unlike Fosse’s very distinctive style. Bennett’s mark upon his stage shows is more subtle, but still evident.
The premise of A Chorus Line is simple: the tale unfolds the struggles of out-of-work dancers to land coveted roles in a Broadway show: they are not stars but still want to be part of the chorus line because they need to work. The production opens up with an audition scene with seemingly infinite numbers of bodies flailing around according to the instructions of the show’s director. Although everyone is dancing the same dance, some dancers are stronger, others are not. Bennett’s choreography, although technically a uniform exercise, is unique in the manner in which every actor suddenly becomes an individual in whom the audience has a personal investment. The audience immediately finds itself cheering for the weaker dancers and celebrating the stronger ones. The dancers first have their backs to the audience as they face the rehearsal room mirror and then suddenly the perspective of the audience flips as they face forward, so the audience gets to see the dancers in the back.
Although the ostensible purpose of the dance is uniformity on the stage, Bennett carefully creates moments when the individual characters shine through with a missed step or a glance at the audience of hope and terror. Dancers sometimes break formation in a heroic effort to stand out, yet they all sing the common refrain of desperately needing the job. The audience learns about the different characters and levels of ability of the dancers through their movements even while the number is exciting and keeps the toes of the audience tapping to the beat. Of course, A Chorus Line was far from the first Broadway musical to offer a backstage plot but rather than offering a sanitized, happy ending in which a single protagonist emerges as the star, it instead portrayed a much grittier vision of what it is like to survive as a working performer.
Over the course of the show, the different dancers emerge and reveal various personal aspects about their lives. Some, like Shelia, have a more lyrical style (evidence of Shelia’s background in ballet). Others suffer mishaps like Paul, who tragically re-injures his knee. One of the most interesting stories is that of Cassie, a former soloist who struggles to blend in with the rest of the cast. Cassie also has a personal history with the director Zach, who largely stands aloof during the production, passing cold judgment on the dancers as he ruthlessly eliminates those he doesn’t approve of, one by one. Each dancer has a different physical style which then becomes subsumed in the final production number where everyone dances alike and loses their individuality in the eyes of the audience.
Bennett also tackled a show about backstage drama in the form of Dreamgirls, which tells the story of a girl group called ‘the Dreamettes.’ The Dreamettes are a girl group begun by Effie White that uses the group’s success at a local talent show to garner worldwide acclaim. As the group’s money and fame increases, so do its members’ personal conflicts. Effie’s role in the group is eclipsed by a prettier backup singer who eventually assumes her lead role. Effie is relegated to the background despite the fact she is clearly the best singer of the group. Because she is not conventionally attractive, she is cast out and replaced with another, prettier girl. Bennett uses the conventions of 1960s girl group singing, with their stylized and coordinated movements, to help reflect the conflicts going on between the Dreamettes (later renamed the Dreams) and to reflect the changing fortunes of the group. Their performances grow showier, more elaborate, and obviously sexual as Effie is gradually edged out of the group and they are put under the wing of professional management. One of the most poignant moments is when ‘the Dreams’ with their new replacement for Effie suddenly take over the stage after Effie sings her heart-wrenching solo “And I’m telling you.” The glitter, glamor, and carefully coordinated mannerisms of their slim bodies writhing under their costumes are a stark contrast to Effie’s raw power, honesty, and solidity.
A subtheme to Dreamgirls is the replacement of a traditionally ‘black’ style of R&B with a smoother, more commercial-sounding Motown quality, and this is also reflected in the dancing of the male groups and singers who are cultivated by their handlers to become more palatable to white audiences. Their dancing becomes showier, more presentational, and theatrical over the course of the show. Like A Chorus Line, once again a central theme of Bennett’s philosophy as a choreographer shines through: dance reveals character and must tell a story (particularly stories about showbiz) versus merely be entertaining in and of itself.
A Chorus Line. Directed by Richard Attenborough, 1985.
Dreamgirls. Directed by Bill Condon, 2006.
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