When Bob Avian’s teacher at the Boston School of Ballet told him she wanted to get him a job with a prestigious German ballet company, he refused. Instead, he insisted, “I want to dance on Broadway!”
“I’d always loved musical theater,” Avian explains. “I found it totally magical. And you get a chance to do everything — not only to dance, but to sing and act, and you get little roles and understudy … I liked the total package better.”
Avian returned to New York and started making the rounds, showing up for auditions where he was one of 300 boys in the room. “You knew there weren’t going to be 300 jobs, there’d be eight jobs,” Avian says. “So you had to have the strength to be rejected and to understand that.”
Avian was lucky. Often, he did get the jobs. “But you see dancers who get rejected constantly and never get the job, and you wonder how they deal with it,” he says.
Avian made his Broadway debut in West Side Story as a replacement cast member. When he was offered the job, he says he “was over the moon. I was crying and screaming and thrilled to death.” When it came time to go onstage, however, he panicked. “I was frightened to death, because I’d had very little rehearsal and I’d worked pretty much alone in rehearsals,” he remembers. “Ready or not, you’re on that stage. But I knew what I was doing, I think. It was all very exciting.”
Also in the cast was an ambitious young dancer named Michael Bennett, who aspired to be a choreographer. The two became best friends. When Bennett was hired to choreograph A Joyful Noise in 1966, he invited Avian to work with him. Avian already had a job, so he turned Bennett down. But the following year, he joined Bennett to work on Henry, Sweet Henry, and a creative partnership was born. For the next 20 years, Avian and Bennett created iconic shows such as Company, A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls together. By the end, they were not only receiving choreography credits, but also directing and producing credits, as they exercised complete creative control over their projects.
“It proved to be very fruitful, because being very close friends, he always relied on me to tell him the truth,” Avian says. “I wasn’t just some dancer he hired to work out steps on, so he could say anything to me, or I could say, ‘I didn’t like that’ or ‘this looks good.’ I didn’t know if I had any kind of talent as a choreographer, but I realized I was a pretty good editor. He came to rely on me very much, because I didn’t want to be him, and he didn’t want to be me. We had a very strong relationship.”
One night, a group of dancers Bennett and Avian knew were gathering together to dance and hang out. When invited, Bennett asked if he could bring a tape recorder. The dancers said yes. “So off they went to this studio late at night after they had all finished their shows (it was like 12 o’clock), and they danced for a couple of hours,” Avian remembers. “It was very relaxed, maybe a little competitive … and they finally sat down in a circle and Michael said, ‘This is a great opportunity to talk about ourselves and find out why we do what we do and who we are as dancers.'” The tape recorder still rolling, Bennett began by telling the first story.
“By starting it off, he opened certain doors about his childhood, about his sexuality, about why he needed to dance,” Avian says. The session lasted 12 hours, with each person’s story getting a little deeper and a little more revealing. Avian and Bennett organized a couple of follow-up sessions. After collecting hours and hours of tape, they realized they needed to do something with the material. Bennett always had wanted to create a show about dancers. “Eventually, we found the concept for the show and distilled all this material into a biography of the dancers life,” Avian says.
One of the dancer/storytellers, Nicholas Dante, put together the show’s book with assistance from James Kirkwood Jr., who provided additional materials and dramatic structure. Rather than have the show’s characters retell the real dancer’s stories verbatim, pieces of stories were divvied up between many different characters to make composite figures. The only exception, Avian says, is the character of Paul, whose story of sexual discovery and hardships is exactly like it was told during the original midnight taping session.
In 1975, A Chorus Line opened off-Broadway at The Public Theater. It went on to win nine Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Avian says the story of the underdog hoping to get a break is something everybody understands. “At the time, we compared it to ‘Miss America,’ but now, of course, it’s like reality TV. [The audience] can imagine themselves up there battling to get a job.”
Despite being part of one of the most dynamic directing/choreographing teams of the ’70s and ’80s, Avian says he expected his career would end when Bennett passed away in 1987. Instead, Cameron Macintosh invited him to England to choreograph shows such as Miss Saigon and Sunset Boulevard for London’s West End. “I became part of the British invasion,” Avian says with a chuckle.
A Chorus Line remains Avian’s favorite creative work, and he leapt at the chance to remount it for Broadway and take it on the road again. When it originally played Atlanta, Avian visited the Fox Theatre to check on the show. He remembers sitting in the back row and being blown away by the size of the venue. “Our little show opened in a theater with 190 seats off-Broadway,” he says. “That I was watching it in [one of] the largest theaters in America said a lot to me about the success of the show.”
A Chorus Line plays the Fabulous Fox Theatre March 3-8.