Bob Fosse Dances Through a New Biography

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UnknownBob Fosse is the unforgettable reason for one of the Top 10 nights I’ve spent in a theater. In terms of audience response to him, I’m not certain I’ve ever experienced anything to beat it.

The occasion was the 1963 City Center revival of Pal Joey with Fosse in the title role, of course, supported by mink-wrapped Viveca Lindfors(!) as Vera, Rita Gardner as Linda and Kay Medford as Melba, singing “Zip.” I was there on a Sunday night in June during the 15-performance run, which happened to be an Actors Fund evening (raise your hand if you remember those) and which meant, since it was Sunday, all other shows were dark.

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Which meant that every dancer in Manhattan who wasn’t on stage was in the audience. Which meant that the packed-house crowd responded to everything Fosse did, to every inverted first position, every hip hitch, every shoulder turn, every crotch bump, every pointed finger on every hat tip.

To say the atmosphere was electric is to make a woeful understatement, unless you specify that there was enough electricity in the mammoth auditorium to power the entire Northeast grid. The response to Fosse at the curtain call sounded like a tornado ripping through the building. If there are cracks in the City Center roof now, it’s possible they were caused then.

Fosse was born to play Joey, which is an assessment to which John O’Hara-who created the slickly social-climbing, night-club lizard for The New Yorker and was still alive in 1963-might have whole-heartedly agreed had he seen this Fosse outing or any the choreographer-director-actor had previously done as Joey. (I have no idea whether O’Hara ever did.)

Curiously, Sam Wasson doesn’t recall Fosse’s 1963 turn in such terms for his new biography, Fosse (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $32, 723pp., illustrations). Evidently, the author, a visiting professor of film at Wesleyan University, didn’t see the performance and relies on Tommy Tune’s reaction to either the 1963 outing or, it’s not clear, an earlier Fosse performance as the insinuating Joey.

Fosse & Lindors
Fosse & Lindors

Tune is quoted as saying to Wasson in a 2011 interview, “I saw Bobby in Pal Joey, and his dancing was spectacular. but as an actor Bobby didn’t come across.” As if Fosse had to act the role to bring it to life. As if someone else reporting on the role-one of the dancers looking at the stage, for instance-wouldn’t have reported quite differently how immeasurably Fosse met O’Hara’s (and Richard Rodgers’s and Lorenz Hart’s) requirements.

I bring up the excerpt from the biography only because I wish it had given readers a more positive account of a singular Fosse performance and not because it’s indicative of Wasson’s achievements in his comprehensive review of Fosse’s life.

It’s fairer to say that Wasson has done a painstakingly thorough job of getting the man’s life on the page. He’s interviewed over 300 “dancers, friends, family, lovers, collaborators and enemies,” as he says in his acknowledgments. He also bows to Martin Gottfried’s 1990 All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse as a valuable source.

He’s practically catalogued every cigarette that burned chain-smoking Fosse’s lower lip as well gotten around to every girlfriend with whom he cheated on wives Mary-Ann Niles, Joan McCracken and Gwen Verdon. Were there more cigarettes he smoked than women with whom he slept? Probably, but maybe by not that wide a margin.

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The most fascinating aspects of Fosse’s life aren’t his eye-popping successes, as Wasson frames it. And they’re abundant. For example, aside from his six Tonys, he’s the only person in show-biz history to win the Tony (Pippin choreography). Oscar (Cabaret director) and Emmy (Liza With a Z director-choreographer) in the same year.

No, it’s not his place at the pinnacle of his profession. It’s his ambivalent attitude toward the acclamation. For Robert Louis “Bob” Fosse, life was simultaneously blissful and tragic. Born June 23, 1927 and raised poor in Chicago, where he started performing at 13, he could never accept that he was truly good at his chosen profession.

Throughout his six decades and three months-he died September 23, 1987-he never stopped badgering friends and associates to tell him he did have merit. In a 2012 interview with Wasson, Stephen Sondheim quips, “A lot of [Fosse] saying ‘I’m a fraud, I’m a fraud,’ was in itself fraudulent. He wanted people to say, ‘You’re not, Bobby, you’re not.'”

Sondheim is undoubtedly correct as far as he goes, but following Fosse through his triumphs and fewer missteps, Wasson makes a convincing argument that while people may have assured Fosse he was that good, their assurances quickly faded against his persistent conviction that he was no better than mediocre.

It’s that self-denigrating belief that makes Fosse riveting even as the exorbitantly gifted artist accumulates the wives, the other women, close friends like Paddy Chayevsky and Herb Gardner and E. L. Doctorow, the awards, the astonishing Broadway/Hollywood resumé.

He was so intent on seeing himself as a lightweight that he probably wouldn’t even take lasting comfort in knowing his Chicago, which opened in the same year as A Chorus Line, now has the record for longest revival in both New York City and London or that Diane Paulus’s 2013 Pippin revival copped yet more Tonys.

Fosse, Verdon
Fosse & Verdon

One of the benefits of good books about entertainers is that they make readers eager to see the subject at work. These days, thanks to YouTube, the longing can be quickly satisfied. Fosse fans are instantly presented with a survey of Fosse credits. Not only is there a composite of him dancing, there’s footage of, say, Verdon and him, Ann Reinking, Minnelli’s entire Liza With a Z. There’s the magnificent “Manson Trio” segment with Ben Vereen from the original Pippin production and reproduced for Paulus’s treatment.

Also, there’s the seminal commercial Fosse concocted in 1972 to boost slow Pippin box office sales. Many may have forgotten that until the 60-second ad appeared and helped Pippin to a long run, theater marketers normally ignored television. With a minute’s worth of highly edited footage (the “Manson Trio” from all angles) Fosse changed that, too.

Watch any of these tasty treats (please don’t ask me about copyright issues possibly at issue), and from one perspective they all look alike. About Fosse, New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce wrote, “Fosse knows his limitations, and he knows how to make them look like powerful artistic choices marked by daring and style.”

She meant to denounce him, but isn’t there much to be said about knowing one’s limitations and turning them into strengths? That’s what Fosse did, and it’s called, to appropriate Croce’s word, style. Looking at how Fosse indefatigably spun variations on his signature moves is as breathtaking now as it was during the years he was (figuratively and literally) spinning them.

Following the ironically meant advice Fred Ebb wrote for Chicago‘s “Give ‘Em the Old Razzle Dazzle” even before Ebb wrote the words to John Kander’s tune, Fosse was-and still is-one of the world’s champion razzle-dazzlers. His only problem, the one that did him in, is that he could never entirely razzle-dazzle himself.