Who's Who in Musicals: Be-Bl
by John Kenrick
(b. Michael Bennett DiFiglia)
Director, choreographer, dancer
b. April 8, 1943 (Buffalo, NY) - d. July 2, 1987 (Tuscon, Arizona)
After dancing in the choruses of several Broadway shows, Bennett made his choreographic debut with A Joyful Noise (1966). He went on to earn a solid reputation by staging dances for Promises, Promises (1968) and director Hal Prince's productions of Stephen Sondheim's innovative hits Company (1970) and Follies (1971).
Bennett was the foremost director/choreographer of 1970s concept musicals (shows built around a central event or theme rather than a traditional plot). At a series of private sessions in the early 1970s, Bennett tape recorded the memories and musings of veteran Broadway dancers. This material formed the basis for A Chorus Line (1975), which Bennett directed and choreographed. The show became a sensation, receiving several Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize, and going on to a record-setting Broadway run.
Bennett's innovative Ballroom (1978) displeased critics and closed in a matter of weeks, but his stylish Dreamgirls (1981) overcame a rocky reception to become a long-running hit. The next six years brought a series of personal and professional heartaches, all exacerbated by Bennett's drug use and bisexual promiscuity. After his marriage to ACL star Donna McKechnie ended in divorce, he abandoned the musical Scandal in mid-workshop, and was forced to give up directing the long-awaited Chess when he was diagnosed with AIDS. Withdrawing from the public eye, Bennett tried to keep his illness a secret until his death at age 44.
Bennett, Robert Russell
Arranger, composer, conductor
b. June 15, 1894 (Kansas City, Missouri) ' d. Aug. 18, 1981 (NYC)
With orchestrations for more than 300 Broadway musicals to his credit, Bennett played a major role in defining the 'Broadway sound' from the 1920s through his retirement in the 1960s. He became the most sought after stage orchestrator of the so-called "golden age, creating the original charts for such hits as Show Boat (1927), Anything Goes (1934), Porgy and Bess (1935), Kiss Me Kate (1947), and My Fair Lady (1956). Bennett also orchestrated many musicals composed by Richard Rodgers, including Oklahoma (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949) and The Sound of Music (1959).
Bennett was particularly admired for his overtures, many of which remain among the best ever created for the musical theatre. His non-theatrical orchestrations include Rodgers' acclaimed score for the TV documentary Victory at Sea. Composers handed Bennett melody lines, and Bennett then gave audiences the fully colored versions that seduced their ears in the theatre. Consider "Shall We Dance" from The King and I (1951) Rodgers certainly wrote the rapturous melody, but Bennett gave the song its unforgettable "BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!" Despite declining health, Bennett remined active through his final years. He died of liver cancer at age 87.
(b. William Berkeley Enos)
Choreographer, film director
b. Nov. 29, 1895 (Los Angeles) - d. Mar. 14, 1976 (Palm Springs)
Born into a theatrical family, Berkeley made his stage debut by age 5. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War I, he staged the dances for seventeen Broadway productions, including A Connecticut Yankee (1927), Present Arms (1928) and Sweet and Low (1930). He went to Hollywood in 1930 to stage numbers for the screen version of Whoopee and stayed to work on several more Eddie Cantor films produced by Sam Goldwyn. Berkeley then went to work for Warner Brothers, where his innovative use of camera movement and intricate ensemble choreography made the musical sequences in 42nd Street (1933) a surprise sensation.
During the next five years, Berkeley brought musical films newfound popularity, serving as director and choreographer for a series of hits, many starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell. Composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin provided the scores, and Berkeley created memorable dance sequences (often including overhead kaleidoscopic shots) for Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (1933) and Hollywood Hotel (1937), among others.
From 1938 to 1954, Berkeley worked for MGM on such musical films as Cabin In the Sky (1943), Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949) and several Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films. Berkeley's merciless directorial style sent Garland into nervous collapse on the set of Girl Crazy (1943), so it is not surprising that Berkeley won little sympathy when he suffered from emotional instability in his later years. A drunk driving charge and suicide attempt helped speed the decline of his career. The numbers in his final film, Jumbo (1962), showed few signs of his once imaginative talents. In 1971, Berkeley was credited as "production supervisor" for the Broadway revival of No, No Nanette his actual creative contribution was questionable. But in his final years, Berkeley did see his screen work re-discovered by scholars and film buffs.
(b. Israel Baline)
b. May 11, 1888 (Mohilev, Russia) - d. Sept. 22, 1989 (New York City)
When this Russian immigrant was age 8, the death of his father (a cantor) forced him to leave school and work full time selling newspapers on the streets of Manhattan. He learned about American popular music as a singing waiter in New York's Chinatown. A typographical error on the sheet music for his first published song ("Marie From Sunny Italy") gave his name as "I. Berlin" -- and he liked it enough to keep it. After writing lyrics with various Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths, Berlin began to create his own melodies. He never learned to read or write musical notation, and had to have his tunes transcribed by others. His gift for catchy tunes and conversational lyrics led to a long series of hits -- all published by a firm Berlin co-owned. His "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (published in 1911) became an unprecedented international hit, establishing a new worldwide pre-eminence of American popular music.
Aside from his prodigious output of songs for his own Tin Pan Alley publishing firm, Berlin contributed numerous songs to Broadway revues, including "I Love A Piano" for Stop! Look! Listen! (1915), "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" for the Ziegfeld Follies (1919), and "Heat Wave" for As Thousands Cheer (1933). He composed and produced the all-soldier revue Yip Yip Yaphank (1917) to raise funds for the Army Emergency Relief Fund during World War I, and did the same with This Is The Army (1942), which raised over nine million dollars during World War II. Berlin enjoyed extraordinary success with four Music Box Revues (1921-1924) presented in the Music Box Theatre he co-owned. This popular series introduced "Say It With Music," "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil" and "All Alone."
Berlin composed scores for 19 original film musicals, including Top Hat (1935), Carefree (1938), Holiday Inn (1942), Blue Skies (1944), Easter Parade (1948) and White Christmas (1954). His Broadway book musicals include Louisiana Purchase (1940), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), and Call Me Madam (1950). After Mr. President (1962) received poor reviews, and an MGM project entitled Say It With Music failed to go into production, Berlin officially retired. However, he wrote the show-stopping "Old Fashioned Wedding" for a 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun, and continued composing privately. Berlin was too ill to attend the all-star ASCAP concert at Carnegie Hall commemorating his 100th birthday. He died with over 2000 songs to his name. Jerome Kern once said, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music ' he is American music."
b. August 25, 1918 (Lawrence, Mass.) - d. October 14, 1990 (NYC)
Bernstein is one of the few 20th Century composers to to succeed with both theatrical and classical compositions. His Broadway scores included On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), Candide (1956), 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), and a successful version of Peter Pan (1950) that starred Jean Arthur. Bernstein's collaborators read like a mini-Who's Who of American musical theater Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Hal Prince, Arthur Laurents and Alan Jay Lerner. His greatest Broadway hit was West Side Story (1957), a retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set among New York City's 1950s street gangs. With lyrics by Sondheim and the hit songs "Maria" and "Tonight," it remains one of the most popular musicals of all time.
As principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic (1957-69), Bernstein popularized young people's concerts and became known for a visually florid conducting style. Bernstein gave a series of memorable televised lectures at Harvard University (his alma mater) during the 1972-73 academic year, and taught numerous master classes at Tanglewood. He also was an early master of the media, making many effective appearances on television that helped popularize classical music. He had a strong moral sense of what he felt to be right, and acted publicly on it regardless of the potential consequences, in actions ranging from his open support of Amnesty International to his historic "Berlin Celebration Concerts" on both sides of the Berlin Wall with an orchestra representing East and West Germany, the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France. (This bio was contributed by James Longo.)
(b. James Hubert Blake)
b. Feb. 7, 1883 (Baltimore, MD) - d. Feb. 12, 1983 (NYC)
After learning the art of ragtime piano playing in nightclubs and bawdy houses, Blake teamed with lyricist Noble Sissle. Beginning in 1915, they toured in vaudeville, using elegant renditions of their original songs to help shatter stereotypes that had plagued black performers since the days of minstrelsy. They collaborated on the score for Shuffle Along (1921), Broadway's first all-black musical hit. Featuring the popular "I'm Just Wild About Harry," this lighthearted spoof of small town politics ran for more than a year. Sissle and Blake collaborated on several more shows, but none were nearly as successful. They continued to write hit songs, including "You Were Meant For Me" (for Andre Charlot's Revue of 1924).
Blake worked with other lyricists, including Cecil Mack and Andy Razaf. After an unsuccessful attempt to revive Shuffle Along in 1954, Blake limited himself to lecturing and occasional performances. A renewed interest in ragtime revived his career in the 1970s, and a series of recordings and concert tours led to the hit Broadway retrospective Eubie (1978). Enjoying his restored fame, Blake died just five days after attending a gala celebration of his 100th birthday.
Composer, lyricist, librettist
b. Mar. 2, 1905 (Philadelphia, PA) - d. Jan. 22, 1964 (Fort-de-France, Martinique)
This classically trained composer worked on several major musicals. As a student, he took special inspiration from the works of German composer Kurt Weill. Blitzstein created the book, music and lyrics for Broadway's The Cradle Will Rock (1937), a daring look at union-management tensions in an American steel mill. More than a decade went by before Broadway saw his Regina (1949), a poorly received operatic version of Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes. Blitzstein did far better when he created a new English translation of Weill & Bertold Brecht's The Threepenny Opera (1954). A limited Off-Broadway booking won such acclaim that it ran for several years, as did a London production, bringing Weill's masterpiece long-overdue acclaim in both cities.
Blitzstein's next musical was based on Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, a grim drama depicting life amidst the violence of rebellion in British-ruled Ireland. Despite high hopes, and a superb cast headed by Shirley Booth, Juno (1959) was a very dark show; dismissed by the critics, it soon closed. After this disappointment, Blitzstein concentrated his efforts on classical compositions. Conductor Lehman Engel remarked that this talented man was "bent on self-destruction." Blitzstein died at age 58, after being robbed and beaten by three sailors in the West Indies.
(b. Ivan Lawrence Blieden)
b. June 23, 1925 (Houston, TX) - d. June 6, 1975 (Agadir, Morocco)
The son of an attorney, Blyden served in the Marine Corps and worked as a radio announcer before pursuing a theatrical career. An adept comic actor, he made his Broadway debut stepping into the cast of the long running comedy Mr. Roberts, where he eventually took over the role of Ensign Pulver. He then originated the role of Schmutz in the musical Wish You Were Here (1952). In 1955, he married dancer Carol Haney. When Haney choreographed Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's Flower Drum Song (1958), Blyden was cast as Chinese-American nightclub owner Sammy Fong. His rendition of "Don't Marry Me" proved a highlight, and his performance earned a Tony nomination. After Blyden and Haney divorced in 1962, he took on the responsibility of raising their two children. Despite Haney's ongoing problems with alcohol, the couple remained close, and Blyden was at Haney's side when she died of bronchial pneumonia in 1964.
Blyden wore eyeglasses with black plastic frames, a "super square" look that became his professional trademark. He was a regular panelist on the TV game show What's My Line, and made numerous guest appearances on sitcoms and dramatic shows. His few film appearances included the non-singing role of Warren Pratt in the big screen version of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1969). On Broadway, Blyden won acclaim as Doc in the ill-fated musical Foxy (1964), and played multiple roles in Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick's The Apple Tree (1966). He won the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical playing Hysterium in a revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1972). After appearing in the Broadway comedy Absurd Person Singular, Blyden was vacationing in Morocco when he was killed in a car crash at age 49.