By Ryan Leeds
Few people have had the longevity of a theater career like Bob Avian. The native New Yorker and son of Armenian refugees made his Broadway debut in the original Broadway production of West Side Story. He would later go on to understudy Bernardo and dance in the show’s ensemble on the international tour. It was here where he met Michael Bennett, a would-be wunderkind who would become his best friend and colleague for the next several years.
Avian’s new memoir, Dancing Man: A Broadway Choreographer’s Journey, charts his early days as a Broadway dancer, delves into his serendipitous partnership with Bennett, and, in later years, his solo projects. Stephen Sondheim, Barbra Streisand, Katherine Hepburn, Mary Martin, Julie Andrews, Jonathan Pryce and Burt Bacharach are just a handful of starry names with whom the two-time Tony Award winner (and one time Olivier Award winner) has worked.
The Broadway Blog recently spoke with Avian from his home in Connecticut to discuss the book and his life on the stage.
BB: What propelled you to write the book? Had you been keeping notes or journals for each project?
BA: I started it along with my husband, Peter, about 12 years ago, but I just got bored with myself, and we didn’t have a technique on how to do it, so we just let it slide. Tom Santopietro was an old friend of mine who had written several books. About three years ago, he expressed interest in telling my story, and we did that together, along with Peter. It was interrupted by my few back surgeries, but eventually, we knocked it out.
BB: In the book, you mention having worked with some challenging personalities throughout your career. How were you able to navigate such diva-like antics?
BA: I think one of my gifts is to keep things calm. Personally, I don’t like to work in a disruptive atmosphere. I like everyone to be in gear and all in the same place. When people would refer to Michael and me, they would refer to us as “bad cop/good cop.” I got used to “sweeping up” so to speak.
BB: Do you think that directors and casting agents would tolerate that kind of behavior in today’s environment?
BA: It depends on who the diva is, I suppose. If you’re dealing with a superstar or somebody with something very special that they wanted, of course, they would tolerate it. If it is someone whose talent could be replaced within 20 minutes, you won’t have it. It’s all about the actor’s gifts and whether or not that actor is worth it. As the years went by, I saw less and less of it because there is too much at stake. Every show costs a gazillion dollars now, and you just can’t forward to have someone who stops the flow.
BB: Talk a bit about how you and Michael worked. You both received Tony Awards for A Chorus Line and Ballroom. How did you determine who would teach the choreography in a show?
BA: We never thought about it. Sometimes Michael would tell me that he knew exactly what he wanted for a particular number and he would do it. Sometimes I would do the same. We were such good pals that we were never in competition with each other creatively. He was open to whatever I suggested, especially if we were alone. If we were in a production meeting, I would never say anything because Michael was my boss. I always knew that, and he respected me for that.
BB: In the early part of your career, you worked on Broadway and on national tours. In later years, you worked on shows in the West End. Were there major differences in the creative process between America and England?
BA: The first time I worked in London was when we were casting Promises, Promises. I went over to do the auditions with Michael. At that time, a dancer’s salary was so terrible. There were so many movie musicals being filmed there at that time that dancers and singers chose to do those over being on the London stage. On Broadway, we could barely get in the stage door because of the line and crowds. That all changed eventually. The big-budget movie musicals diminished, and London soon started equating itself to Broadway. In the beginning, though, we had a rough time finding talent—especially men. There also wasn’t the urgency that we had on Broadway. Years later, when I worked with Cameron Mackintosh, everything was similar to the Broadway process, including passion, technical aspects and the whole level of quality.
BB: Which show caused you the most stress or was considered your biggest disappointment?
BA: Probably Martin Guerre or The Witches of Eastwick. Rehearsals for [Martin Guerre] were a challenge because we had to get the whole company to dance, which was very tough. Neither the book nor the score was finished. I don’t think that the director—talented though he was—was comfortable with the material, and everything was in a state of being unfinished. We kept changing and rewriting, but when it opened, the show got killed. I got good reviews, but when it went out on an American tour, they cut all the dancing. I thought, “Of course they did!”
The Witches of Eastwick was tricky because we had Ian McShane, who wasn’t a typical song and dance man. He worked hard, but it wasn’t intrinsic to him. When we switched theaters, we started working with his understudy, who was a song and dance man. Cameron said, “It’s much better with the understudy. Until we can find another star, let’s go with him.” The show improved immeasurably. It wasn’t Ian’s fault. We cast him because we wanted a name and we loved his darkness, but he was ill-equipped to do a musical. Do you know how many times we still make that mistake? It happens all the time. Visually, it was a spectacular show but it stumbled along the way.
BB: At what point did you know that A Chorus Line would become such a hit?
BA: It was such a slow process. We did many workshops, which were an unheard thing at the time. When we finally got to the last workshop, we invited technical people to watch the rough run-throughs. We’d ask them to check it out for different reasons. They got so caught up in the show and started crying. Michael and I looked at each other, and I said, “Let’s keep our fingers crossed!” It started happening more and more.
Then, word got out on the street and everyone we’d ever met started asking us if they could come to a rehearsal! We denied those requests, but that’s when we realized that we had something really special. By the fourth workshop, we knew we liked it, but in the first workshop, we didn’t know what we had. We had no opening number, and we had to find the shape of it. We kept working on it for a whole year, and by the end of that year, it had a happy ending.
BB: What is the enduring quality of A Chorus Line?
BA: Its association with everyman. Michael had included this text in the program during previews: “This show is dedicated to anybody who has ever marched in step anywhere.” Everybody related to that. It was about the small person, not the big one. The star was the kid in the chorus and not the leading role. That was the dynamic impulse and what made it so special.
BB: In the book, you write, “the philosophy of my career was simply to go through any door that opened up.” After performing on Broadway and around the world, you were the stage manager for I Do! I Do! Did you feel in some way that it was a demotion or that you missed the thrill of performing?
BA: I did I Do! I Do! because I was getting to be an older chorus boy at 27 or 28, and I asked Mary Martin if I could do it. She spoke to producer Gower Champion who approved it. I did that for a year, and then Michael got a musical called Henry, Sweet Henry and asked me to join the creative team. Gower told me to follow my heart and let me out of the contract. I went back to dancing again with Michael. He was already an old friend, but it was the beginning of a long history.
BB: What’s next for you?
BA: I still have quite a few projects out there, but unfortunately, this pandemic has shut them down. I had a Miss Saigon production on a national tour, one in Tokyo, and one getting ready to open in Vienna. I also had a lot of productions of A Chorus Line all around the world. It all came to a screeching halt. Still, I’m very fortunate. To go from Michael Bennett to Cameron Mackintosh—two of my major partnerships—I just remember how lucky I am and how great it’s all been.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.