Book Reviews
1:57 pm
Thu November 7, 2013

Biography Of Director Bob Fosse Razzles, Dazzles And Delights

Originally published on Thu November 7, 2013 4:51 pm

On Sept. 23, 1987, opening night of a Sweet Charity revival in Washington, D.C., Bob Fosse and his ex-wife and collaborator Gwen Verdon gave the cast a final pep talk, then left the National Theater to get a bite to eat. They turned right, and about a block away, unknown to the gathering audience, or the cast, Fosse collapsed on the sidewalk. Newspapers the next morning said he died at 7:23 p.m.

I was inside that theater. I later calculated what was happening at 7:23. It was a quintessential Fosse moment: a stagewide bar rising from the floor, a line of dance hall hostesses draping themselves over it, bait for big spenders. Here you can listen to him stage the movie version a few years later.

I had seen a lot of Fosse shows by that time — Damn Yankees, Pippin, Dancin', Chicago — and I had read enough about him to know what was autobiographical in his movie All That Jazz.

So I cracked open Sam Wasson's 700-page biography figuring I knew the score. Hell, knew the score and the steps: those artfully slumped shoulders, knocked knees and pigeon-toes. The bowler hats and black vests worn without shirts, like the one Liza Minnelli sported in the number that introduced her in Cabaret on-screen, leading a chorus that knelt and stomped and sprawled, and used hard-backed chairs for everything but sitting.

But I didn't know the details Wasson gets at about how Fosse taught choreography that often made dancers seem all elbows and knees. First to Verdon, who was his muse before she was his wife, and then, with her help, to the dancers in all his shows.

In one dance the chorus girls all had to extend a foot while leaning back and shooting their arms down at their sides. Fosse gave them an image to help them see exactly how he wanted it: "Ladies," he said, "it's like a man is holding out a fur coat for you and you have to drop your arms in."

"Other directors," writes Wasson, "might give their dancers images for every scene. Bob ... had one for just about every step. These were the lines the dancers' bodies had to speak."

That, I submit, is lovely writing, as is his description of Cabaret as a film "about the bejeweling of horror [that] coruscated with Fosse's private sequins." You can lift samples just like those from virtually every page of this book.

You'll also learn how the director's dark stage imagery mirrored his own life — the wife and girlfriends he cheated on, the down-and-dirty burlesque houses he grew up in, the amphetamines that kept him going, and the barbiturates that calmed him when he lost confidence in his own "razzle-dazzle."

Wasson pictures him as harder on himself than he was on his dancers. In one year, he won a directing triple crown for which no one else had ever even been nominated — An Emmy for Liza With A Z, an Oscar for Cabaret and a Tony for Pippin. And his reaction was utter depression. But out of that depression came Chicago ... a musical vaudeville that looked great at the Tony Awards in 1976.

The revival is about to enter its 14th year on Broadway.

Fosse is filled with the kind of inside detail that comes of substantial research, and vivid descriptions that turn the research into a sort of movie in your head. All the way from little Bobby Fosse's elementary school disappointment when the spotlight faded on him, right through to the moment when Gwen Verdon, the love of his life, cradled Fosse's head on her lap on a D.C. sidewalk, just blocks from an audience he was at that very moment razzle-dazzling to beat the band.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Director and choreographer Bob Fosse was known for bringing a uniquely dark brand of show business to musicals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CELL BLOCK TANGO")

CAST OF CHICAGO MUSICAL: He had it coming, he had it coming. He only had himself to blame.

CORNISH: Fosse directed "Chicago" and "Pippin" on Broadway, "Cabaret" and "All That Jazz" on film. Critic Bob Mondello grew up watching those shows and has been reading a new biography called, simply "Fosse." He says it's opened his eyes about an artist he thought he knew.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: On September 23, 1987, opening night of a "Sweet Charity" revival in Washington, D.C., Bob Fosse and his ex-wife and collaborator Gwen Verdon gave the cast a final pep talk and then left the National Theatre to get a bite to eat. They turned right and about a block away, unknown to the gathering audience or the cast, Fosse collapsed on the sidewalk. Newspapers the next morning said he died at 7:23 p.m. I was inside the theatre at that point and I later calculated what was happening at 7:23, a quintessential Fosse moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: A stage-wide bar rising from the floor, a line of dance hall hostesses draping themselves over it, bait for big spenders.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG SPENDER")

CAST OF SWEET CHARITY MUSICAL: (Singing) The minute you walked in the joint, I could see you were a man of distinction, a real big spender.

MONDELLO: I had seen a lot of Fosse shows by that time, "Damn Yankees," "Pippin," "Dancin'," "Chicago," and read enough about him to know what was autobiographical in the movie "All That Jazz." So I cracked open Sam Wasson's 700-page biography figuring I knew the score, knew the score and the steps.

Those artfully slumped shoulders, knocked knees and pigeon-toes. The bowler hats and black vests worn without shirts, like the one Liza Minnelli sported in the number that introduced her in "Cabaret" on-screen, leading a chorus that kneeled and stomped and sprawled and used hard-backed chairs for everything but sitting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEIN HERR")

MONDELLO: Author Sam Wasson gets at how Fosse taught choreography that often made dancers seem all elbows and knees. First, to Gwen Verdon, who was his muse before she was his wife, and then, with her help, to the dancers in all his shows. In one dance, the chorus girls all had to extend a foot while leaning back and shooting their arms down at their sides. Fosse gave them an image to help them see exactly how he wanted it. Ladies, he said, it's like a man is holding out a fur coat for you and you have to drop your arms in.

Other directors, writes Wasson, might give their dancers images for every scene. Fosse had one for just about every step. These were the lines the dancers' bodies had to speak. That, I submit, is lovely writing, as is his description of "Cabaret" as a film about the bejeweling of horror coruscated with Fosse's private sequins. You can lift samples just like those from virtually every page of this book.

You'll also learn how the director's dark stage imagery mirrored his own life, the wife and girlfriends he cheated on, the down-and-dirty burlesque houses he grew up in, the amphetamines that kept him going, and the barbiturates that calmed him when he lost confidence in his own razzle-dazzle.

Wasson pictures Fosse as harder on himself than he was on his dancers. In one year, he won a directing triple crown for which no one else had ever even been nominated - an Emmy for "Liza With a Z," an Oscar for "Cabaret" and a Tony for "Pippin." And his reaction was utter depression. But out of that depression came "Chicago," a musical vaudeville, the revival of which is about to enter its 14th year on Broadway.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THAT JAZZ")

BEBE NEUWIRTH: (Singing) Come on, babe, why don't we paint the town and all that jazz. I'm going to...

MONDELLO: Sam Wasson's book "Fosse" is filled with the kind of inside detail that comes of substantial research and vivid descriptions that turn the research into a sort of movie in your head. All the way from little Bobby Fosse's elementary school disappointment when the spotlight faded on him, right through to the moment when Gwen Verdon, the love of his life, cradled Fosse's head on her lap on a D.C. sidewalk, just blocks from an audience he was at that very moment razzle-dazzling to beat the band.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG SPENDER")

MUSICAL: (Singing) Hey, big spender. Hey, big spender.

MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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