Picks and Pans Review: On the Line

updated 04/09/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/09/1990 01:00AM

by Robert Viagas, Thommie Walsh and Baayork Lee

It's probably only a matter of time before somebody writes a Broadway musical about Michael Bennett. As the creator of A Chorus Line, which is scheduled to end its Broadway run this month after 15 years, Bennett was his own theatrical extravaganza, a complicated, contradictory character right up there with Gypsy's Mama Rose and Dreamgirls' Effie White.

Until that show is written, we have these four recent books, all intent on explaining the boy wonder of Broadway, who died of AIDS in 1988 at 44.

The printed page was never Bennett's medium and, for the most part, he is not very well served in these books. They do make clear, though, that when Bennett was around, the show didn't go on—he did. Excessive and possessive, he was a musical-comedy kid who lived his life as though it were a passion play.

Kelly's One Singular Sensation (Doubleday, $21.95) is the least successful of the books. As the longtime Boston Globe theater critic, Kelly experienced firsthand the genius of Bennett's career, but his book reads like a hand-me-down recounting. The pretentious writing covers the basics from Bennett's hardscrabble start in Buffalo ("To commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant," observes A Chorus Line character) to the glitzy, glorious period of success, to the disaffected final days.

The prose features run-on sentences; the characterization is a run-on sentencing of Bennett, portraying him as a tortured artiste who didn't know himself as well as Kelly did. Kelly complains that Bennett's psychiatrist would not speak to him. Big deal, Kelly in effect ordains himself Bennett's shrink and writes, "Bennett's ambivalence toward both his parents was triggered by the complex emotions of a disturbed and warring child, one clapped to his mother's ambitions and kept from his father's reach." There hasn't been this much dime-store psychologizing since Lucy set up her stand in Peanuts.

Mandelbaum's book (St. Martin's, $19.95) wisely puts the emphasis on Benett's shows, which probably explain him better than any biography. Written with an infectious appreciation of musical comedy tradition, this chronology displays the precision of a scholarly study and the enthusiasm of a theater buffs letter to a friend.

As he dissects the making of Bennett's musicals, including the never-seen 1985 Scandal, which Bennett aborted after workshop productions, Mandelbaum provides historical perspective instead of histrionic psychobabble.

The crux of the book is a re-creation of the creative process that yielded A Chorus Line. Mandelbaum, a free-lance New York City critic, doesn't ignore tantalizing tidbits of biography, however. He notes, for instance, that Bennett believed the Mafia had a contract on him at one point and that, in the end, he was trying to control his death as surely as he controlled the lives of his performers. His mother found out Bennett had AIDS when she read about it in the New York Times.

Mandelbaum sometimes skimps on the high dramas played offstage, such as the bisexual Bennett's curious marriage to his lead dancer Donna McKechnie, and the author skitters toward hyperbole. Everything Bennett touches is the greatest, the most, the finest. Still, this book is the best of the lot.

What They Did for Love (Bantam, paper, $8.95) and On the Line (Morrow, $21.95) suggest revenge motives. Concentrating on A Chorus Line players instead of Bennett, both books try to turn the spotlight onto the allegedly upstaged, unsung heroes—the performers who strutted and fretted across the Shubert Theater stage in the first Broadway cast. To them, Bennett was an occasional friend, frequent tyrant and first-class manipulator. But neither book makes much of a case for the argument that Bennett was overrated.

Try as they might to move on, the Chorus Line performers still define themselves by Bennett's yardstick—what dances he gave them (or took away), what star turns he trimmed. Of the pair, On the Line has the edge because dancer Baayork Lee, "the mother superior" of endless Chorus Line companies, was there, as was Walsh, an original cast member. But as the actors recount the petty jealousies and pretty accomplishments of A Chorus Line, they themselves acknowledge that Bennett was always the real star of the show. The last time Donna McKechnie saw Bennett as the end neared, he told her, "The only thing I feel bad about is that I might never dance again." As these books suggest, the audiences that were bedazzled by Bennett's work have a right to feel regret too.

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