KENT — Patti LuPone, Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett, Katherine Hepburn, Chita Rivera, Barbra Streisand, Mary Martin — these are but a few of the extraordinary actresses who Bob Avian has danced with or choreographed for Broadway shows. The full list includes practically every major actor who has ever appeared in a show. And the shows themselves — “West Side Story”; “Hello, Dolly”; “Company”; “Follies”; “Coco”; “A Chorus Line”; “Dreamgirls”; “Miss Saigon” — are a panoply of some of the most iconic and groundbreaking shows ever created for Broadway.
Not bad for a boy from New York City who grew up wanting to dance.
“My parents were Armenian immigrants,” explains Avian, a part time resident of Kent, “who had been displaced by the Turkish genocide and moved to Beirut and then emigrated to the United States.
“I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and one of my favorite activities was going to the movies, especially musicals. I loved watching those dancers and I realized that I could dance. And I did, every chance I got. Boys weren’t supposed to dance, especially not in Armenian culture.”
Avian never had a lesson until he went to Boston College, where a girl he knew suggested he go to dance classes with her. He stayed in college for all four years just so he could dance. After graduating he worked at the Pittsburgh City Light Opera, but Avian was already looking ahead to bigger things. Enter “West Side Story.”
“I auditioned to become a replacement in the national tour of ‘West Side Story’ and got the job,” Avian says. “The tour eventually returned to Broadway for a second run and there I got to work with Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim. I knew it couldn’t get any better than that.” But it did.
During his time with “West Side Story,” Avian met Michael Bennett, a fellow cast member, with whom he would forge a friendship that lasted until Bennett’s death in 1987. Together they would go on to create extraordinary productions, with Avian as dancer and assistant choreographer to Bennett. Together they were an incredible force in the creation of some of the most successful musicals and changed the face of Broadway, including the masterpiece “A Chorus Line.”
Avian tells the story of each show and its incarnation in his memoir “Dancing Man: A Broadway Choreographer’s Journey,” written with Tom Santopietro, who has written seven books, including “The Sound of Music Story” and biographies of Barbra Streisand and Doris Day.
Although the book follows a chronological thread, they chose to open the book with the chapter on Katharine Hepburn and her foray onto Broadway in “Coco” in 1969.
“It was Tom’s idea to open with Hepburn,” Avian explains. “You want to open with a grabber. She was a great star and she was totally miscast. She couldn’t sing and she sure couldn’t dance. Eventually she made it and there was never a seat available, it was totally sold out every night of its run. She loved Michael and could see how extraordinary his work was. She began to trust us and she was showered with so much love from the audiences that she gained the confidence she needed on order to perform.”
As for those many leading ladies, it would difficult to choose just one favorite.
“But If I had to,” Avian declares, “it would have to be Mary Martin. “The first time we worked together was on a flop called ‘Jennie.’ The next time was on the international tour of ‘Hello, Dolly.’ We developed a very close relationship and we took care of each other.”
The book is full of amazing stories about what Avian has produced. Thanks to Santopietro the story is finally in print.
“The book came about because I insisted,” says Santopietro. “Bob is so modest that he never would have done the book himself. But he and I are good friends and I knew his story was a fascinating one.
“We worked on the book over the course of several years,” Santopietro continues. “We’d sit and talk and discuss his career one show at a time. I’d listen and take notes. I didn’t tape the conversations because my brain doesn’t work that way. I like to take notes and look at the person, not at the machine.”
“Dancing Man” delivers on several levels. Yes, it is the story of a young man who becomes not only a successful dancer but also a revered choreographer. But it is also a short history of some of the most successful shows ever produced here and internationally. Bringing together these two elements fell to Santopietro, who combined his talent with that of Avian to produce a book that works on so many levels — as a personal story, a theater history, and an inspirational tale of following your dream.
“Some of my success was luck,” says Avian. “some due to talent, and quite a bit of it due to determination. We all have to keep plugging away, keep learning, and remain open to any and all opportunities. When you see an open door, walk through it — find out what’s on the other side. Don’t be afraid of change. It’s the only constant in life.”
“Dancing Man: A Broadway Choreographer’s Journey” is available from amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and many other outlets.