For more than 60 years, Bob Avian has made history on the Broadway stage.
His first break came as a dancer in “West Side Story” and “Funny Girl.” He met choreographer and director Michael Bennett in 1962 and over the next two decades they would collaborate on “Promises, Promises,” “Company” and “Follies.” Avian shared a Tony Award with Bennett for their work on “A Chorus Line,” the show that reinvented the Broadway musical in the 1970s.
He went on to produce “Dreamgirls,” and, on London's West End, choreographed “Follies,” “Martin Guerre,” “The Witches of Eastwick,” “Miss Saigon” and “Sunset Boulevard.”
Avian has worked with the biggest names on Broadway, including Barbra Streisand, Mary Martin, Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Carol Burnett, Jennifer Holliday, Patti LuPone, Elaine Stritch and Glenn Close.
Now, he’s sharing the story of his career in a candid, witty and sometimes surprising autobiography, “Dancing Man, a Broadway Choreographer’s Journey.”
“I’d intended to do it for quite a few years and my husband Peter [Pileski] and I started to write it, but we didn’t have a technique about how to approach a biography,” Avian explained. “Tom Santopietro, my coauthor who I’ve known for years, has written six books and wanted to do it, so we started three years ago. I had some shows and a couple of spine operations, so we kept coming back to it and coming back to it and coming back to it. Tom knows me well, he knows my voice and he wrote it all in long hand! I told the stories and Peter is a great editor, so it was a three-man effort.”
With the current coronavirus crisis, Avian lamented that the first stops on his publicity tour were cancelled. With widespread social distancing, there are plenty of potential readers looking for a good book and “Dancing Man” is filled from cover to cover with fascinating backstage tales. Fortunately, the book is available from online sellers and theater insiders like Mackintosh and Seth Rudetsky have given their blessings in the reader reviews.
Avian spent some time talking about his relationship with Bennett, during the 30-minute call from his winter home in Fort Lauderdale: “You can read most of this in the book,” he pointed out, inspiring another sale just a few minutes later.
Almost ironically, in this frightful new era of COVID-19, Avian spent some time remembering Bennett’s last months after being diagnosed with AIDS. Just as Avian was Bennett’s sidekick on the stage, he was also there through clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health and many ups and downs until “eventually the dark day came” in 1987.
“I kept maintaining the shows I’d been working on when Cameron Mackintosh asked me to do the ‘Follies’ reunion in London. After hemming and hawing, I did finally take it, beginning an eight-show collaboration between us. Then came Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ I only said yes because I thought Cameron was going to be one of the producers,” Avian said.
Avian isn’t completely retired. The latest touring company of “Miss Saigon,” completed a run in West Palm Beach and was headed for Miami’s Arsht Center before public safety forced the premature cancellation.
“I’m getting too old now,” the 82-year-old admitted, “but I have a great team of assistants doing all the leg work. I’m sitting around like an old grandad.”
Much has changed since Avian took that first bow at the Winter Garden Theatre. Musical theater has become a billion-dollar business. Producers are doing more with less — smaller casts, more intimate shows — and a rap musical is now the hottest ticket around. And then there’s the shows like an unorthodox, reimagined revival of “West Side Story” that just opened on Broadway, but he’ll save his strong opinions on that one for another time.
“Dancing Man, a Broadway Choreographer’s Journey” by Bob Avian with Tom Santopietro (University Press of Mississippi, 240 pp., $28) is available from major book retailers. For more information, go to BobAvian.com.