Bob Avian. Do you know the name? Do you know A Chorus Line? Promises, Promises? Follies? The Broadway dancer and choreographer created all of these alongside Michael Bennett as his associate choreographer, or, in the case of A Chorus Line, his co-choreographer. Avian modestly refers to himself as “the second banana,” but Avian was unquestionably Bennett’s partner in crime. And, after Bennett’s death, Avian choreographed—on his own—such iconic musicals as Miss Saigon, Sunset Boulevard, and Putting It Together; not to mention directing and choreographing productions of A Chorus Line around the world.
But Avian began as a dancer. “I’m just an old Broadway gypsy,” he says. “In my heart, I’m still that.” Yet, as his résumé reveals (in addition to the above, it includes associate choreographer of Coco, Company, Seesaw, Ballroom, and producer of Dreamgirls) the history of theatre and, therefore, the current state of the art would not be the same without him.
From making his debut in Broadway’s original West Side Story to performing alongside Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Avian’s life in the theatre has been a fascinating one. Come March 2020, he shares those wild tales in his new memoir, Dancing Man: A Broadway Choreographer’s Journey. But, ahead of the book’s release, Avian agreed to give Playbill a sneak peek by walking down memory lane.
Avian and Bennett Met Doing West Side Story, and a Lifelong Partnership Was Born
The two dancers performed in the international tour of West Side Story. Avian was 22, Michael 17. “It established the beginning of our working relationship for 25 years,” says Avian. Their friendship solidified in Germany as the Berlin Wall was going up. Bennett had begun dating Avian’s best friend. “While we were in Berlin, during the ‘Cool’ number, the drugstore set is supposed to move upstage so they could do the dance,” Avian explains. “That particular performance, it didn’t move upstage and she got kicked in the head. Next thing, she’s in the hospital with a concussion.”
The tour was about to move on to its next city and the hospital wouldn’t release her and the Wall was nearing completion… “The day we’re leaving Berlin, Michael Bennett and I sneak into the hospital, sneak into her room, throw her stuff in her bag, throw her clothes on and sneak her out of the hospital to the train that was leaving Berlin!” Partners in crime.
When Avian danced with Streisand…
In 1964, Larry Fuller, the dance captain for Broadway’s Funny Girl, needed a male swing. The show was one week into its run; Avian had never swung before, but he took the job. His second night as part of the cast, he went on, stepping into “Henry Street” with Streisand. “The boys all dance with her individually, and so, all of a sudden, my turn came and I sweep her in my arms and she goes, ‘Oy God, who are you?’ And I said, ‘I’m the new boy.’ And she went, ‘Oy! No one told me,’” Avian recalls. “She got used to me,” he says with a laugh.
How the “Turkey Lurkey Time” Revamp Saved Promises, Promises
Bennett and Avian, his associate on Promises, Promises, created the famous head-thwacking, elbow-wagging routine for Donna McKechnie, Baayork Lee, and Margo Sappington. “It came from a state of panic,” says Avian. The show was out of town in Boston and “Turkey Lurkey Time” was this grand, elaborate number. “It was so involved and so complicated and, actually, pretty filmic,” Avian says. “If we had a camera, it would have been sensational. But the first act ended and it clunked. We looked at each other and we went, ‘We are in big trouble.’” Avian and Bennett met in a conference room at the Bradford Hotel and staged the number we now know in one day. “As soon as the orchestration was ready, we threw it onstage and that night it stopped the show.”
A Chorus Line Makes History
The 1975 musical famously began as audio recordings of dancers sharing their childhoods and their experiences working in theatre, but Bennett didn’t know that this session would lead to the creation of A Chorus Line. “He started out by going to a tape recording that two other dancers had set up where Michael said, ‘Do you mind if I bring my tape recorder?’” Avian tells Playbill. After that first session, Bennett knew there was something there; he organized two more sessions and told Avian to be there. When asked if there are any cut stories from those sessions that Avian misses he answers with an assured, “No, because we kept honing it to the peaks.” A Chorus Line was the first Broadway show ever to do a workshop. And because of those workshops, Bennett trimmed the fat. “He kept going to the core of what was most interesting and what was more character-revealing.”
How to Make Your Own A Chorus Line
To this day, Avian continues the legacy of the groundbreaking musical by building each production the same as the original. “The first day you share the history [of the show],” says Avian. “What I do is go around the room and get a little of theirs—they do a mini version of the taping session and I get to find out who they are, and they get to know everybody else.
“It’s very revealing and there are no secrets, which is very important when you do the show,” he continues. “It’s revealing about your deepest thoughts, and your problems, and our gifts.”
Despite his list of definitive theatrical successes, Avian has no recipe. “Every musical is unique,” he says. “They don’t follow any paths at all. Every one that’s a good musical has its own merit for its own reasons. There’s no map.” Still, Avian’s journey is one worth following.
Dancing Man: A Broadway Choreographer’s Journey is now available for pre-order. Click here to purchase.