I was going through an old box of my college notebooks, when I came across an issue of Vanity Fair dated November 1984. I was about to throw it away when I noticed that on the last page there was an interview with Michael Bennett, who was in the middle of rehearsing Scandal.
Theater queens of a certain age will doubtless remember Scandal. It was meant to be Bennett's follow-up to Dreamgirls, a triumphant return to his A Chorus Line form. Bennett was even revisiting the famed ACL workshop process, allowing the show to emerge organically from a 12-month rehearsal period. In the Vanity Fair article, Bennett boasts that the opening number alone -- a 20-minute, full-on, balls-to-the-wall orgy featuring stars Swoosie Kurtz and Treat Williams -- took ten weeks of rehearsals to create.
Scandal was to have a score by Jimmy Webb and a book by Treva Silverman, neither of whom had any significant theatrical experience. But then, neither did Marvin Hamlisch. Bennett apparently preferred to work with newbies -- they're easier to bully about. It's certainly no secret at this point that Bennett was rather ruthless in his pursuit of theatrical perfection. To quote Bennett from the Vanity Fair article: "I usually try to hate everything when I'm rehearsing. In a way, I like to see the show as the enemy." Apparently this applied to his co-creators and performers as well.
I must say the Vanity Fair article doesn't reflect well on Bennett. Most of his quotes are pretty facile, if not downright puerile. In describing Scandal, Bennett says "It has a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, which I like in theater...And it has a happy ending, which I believe all musicals should have. For forty dollars a ticket, it's the least they should have!" The reference to forty-dollar tickets is simply amusing in retrospect. How could Bennett know that a scant 25 years later, ticket prices would have reached a ridiculous high of $136.50? (Thank you, Roundabout.)
But then there's the beginning/middle/end thing. Well, thank you, Captain Obvious. And every musical should have a happy ending? Um, really? West Side Story? Lost in the Stars? Grey Gardens? Parade? Marie Christine? Sweeney Todd? This sounds rather naive and disingenuous coming from the man who broke the hearts of sixteen fictional "boys and girls" nightly for 15 years with A Chorus Line.
Scandal as a show died with Michael Bennett. At the time, the official word was that the show was canceled because the salacious subject matter was inappropriate with the advent of AIDS. We later learned that AIDS was indeed to blame, but it wasn't the subject matter of the show, but rather the health of its creator that was at issue.
Bennett also pulled out of the London premier of Chess prior to its 1986 opening, for health reasons, although AIDS wasn't mentioned at the time. But by the time he left Chess, he had already commissioned the show's expensive and elaborate set, which consisted of two giant walls of video monitors and an enormous hydraulic chess board that rose and spun, not unlike the tire from Cats. Director Trevor Nunn inherited the production concept, but didn't seem to know how to do anything with it, and the result was pointlessly complicated and rather inert.
It's interesting to speculate what Scandal would have been like as a show, and whether there was any decent material there that's worth resurrecting. But it seems pretty clear that without the guiding and dictatorial hand of Michael Bennett, it's very likely that there really wouldn't be any there there. If there were, wouldn't something have leaked out in the interim, a la Carrie and the many extant bootlegs of same? And it's always heartbreaking to contemplate what might have been if Bennett have lived. Those of us content to appreciate what this tortured and torturing genius left behind at least have the October 13th DVD release of the "Every Little Step" to look forward to.