Broadway Dims the Lights for Its Brightest, Fallen Star, a Chorus Line's Michael Bennett

updated 07/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The creator, Michael Bennett, had much in common with his two stellar Broadway hits, A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls. The shows were about longing and rejection, which wasn't surprising, for as Bennett once pointed out, an artist should stick to what he knows. The musicals, however, ended with carefully crafted triumphs. For Bennett, such a fantasy was not to be.

Two weeks ago, at the age of 44, Bennett died of AIDS-related cancer. He was eulogized by producer Joseph Papp as "the most talented person in the American stage in the last 50 years." The son of a Buffalo machinist, Bennett dropped out of high school to become a dancer and choreographer and soon demonstrated a rare genius for theatrical production. He perfected the seamless musical—music, dance and scenery integrated into a flowing, dramatic whole. He created the workshop system of producing musicals, achieved renown as a musical doctor to ailing shows and made stars of newcomers Tommy Tune, Jennifer Holliday and Donna McKechnie, to whom he was married briefly.

What he could not achieve was contentment outside the theater. "He was a backstage legend," says a friend. "He didn't know from flowers or trees. He lived to create shows." Even Bennett admitted, "I went to the beach once and exhausted myself worrying about not working."

Bennett's greatness lay in his ability to craft shows that were both lavish in their production values and touching in their emotional content. He could be dictatorial and was occasionally immodest, but the former trait he softened with compassion and the latter with humor.

On the night of his death A Chorus Line played its 4,957th performance. Dreamgirls was in its fourth day of a triumphant Broadway revival. If it is true that Bennett lived for nothing but theater, then the curtain may never go down on his life.

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