If the theaters along New York City’s Great White Way had been open last week, their lights would have been dimmed in memory of Bob Avian, a Broadway legend who passed away Jan. 21 of a heart attack.
For more than 60 years, Avian made history on the Broadway stage.
Born Robert Avedisian in Manhattan to Armenian immigrants, Avian realized at an early age that he loved to dance.
In his candid, witty and sometimes surprising memoir, “Dancing Man: A Broadway Choreographer’s Journey,” written with Tom Santopietro and released last year, Avian recalled, “When my parents went out, I would push back the furniture, clear open space, turn on the record player and leap around the apartment. Boys weren’t supposed to dance, especially not in Armenian culture, but I loved music, and I especially loved the freedom I found in dancing.”
Even though his mother tacitly approved, Avian didn’t receive formal dance training until he enrolled at Boston University. His first break as a professional dancer was an international tour of “West Side Story” in 1960.
“I loved the adventure of traveling around the world, but the tour would prove even more momentous for one all-encompassing reason: During rehearsals in New York, I met a fellow castmate, Michael Bennett, a 17-year-old high school dropout marked for greatness,” he wrote.
As Bennett’s career took off, Avian saw his star shine, also. Over the next 25 years, they collaborated on “Promises, Promises,” “Company” and “Follies,” before sharing a Tony Award for “A Chorus Line,” the show that reinvented the Broadway musical in the 1970s.
After Bennett’s death of AIDS in 1987, Avian set his sights on London's West End and agreed to a long collaboration with producer Cameron Mackintosh on “Follies,” “Martin Guerre,” “The Witches of Eastwick,” “Miss Saigon” and “Sunset Boulevard.”
Avian never completely retired, although he relished stays in Fort Lauderdale with his husband of 36 years, Peter Pileski. His last touring production of “Miss Saigon,” completed a run in West Palm Beach last year and was headed for Miami’s Arsht Center before COVID-19 forced a premature cancellation.
Over the course of his long and successful career, Avian worked with the biggest names in theater, including Barbra Streisand, Mary Martin, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Carol Burnett, Jennifer Holliday, Patti LuPone, Elaine Stritch and Glenn Close.
In an interview with SFGN last year, he openly reminisced and lamented the changes he witnessed since taking his first bow at the Winter Garden Theater.
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 are the shows like an unorthodox, reimagined revival of “West Side Story” that had just opened, but he promised to save his opinions on that show for another time.
There won’t be another memoir, but the legend of Bob Avian will live on Broadway for generations to come.