Bob Fosse: Of Dance, Death and Immortality

An appreciation today for stage and screen director/choreographer/dancer/actor Bob Fosse (1927-1987).

Your author had to mature and steep himself in show biz history for decades before truly appreciating Fosse’s genius. Jazz dance proliferated in television variety when I was a kid in the ’70s, but I always found it a tough pill to swallow, a thing to be endured through gritted teeth while waiting impatiently for comedy sketches, stand-up comedians, and top 40 pop acts. Nothing was less cool than Jazz Hands in that tough, cynical age. (I was into, you know, Baretta and Starsky and Hutch, and Welcome Back, Kotter. If it didn’t have an undercover cop with an Afro busting heroin dealers it didn’t move the needle. Haha, get it? I said “move the needle.”). Like many people outside the New York musical theatre orbit, I first became aware of Fosse through his 1979 meisterwerk All That Jazz, which was a big deal at the time, nominated for multiple Oscars, though it didn’t take home the big ones. My feelings about the film were mixed at the time. Mind you, I was only a teenager. I found the script and direction exciting and eye-opening, and naturally Roy Scheider of Jaws was unassailable, but at that young age I found Fosse’s signature aesthetic markers (the cocked hat, the cocked hip) revolting, cringe-inducing at a knee-jerk level. Interestingly, I already knew most of Fosse’s work of the era from my childhood, without knowing about him particularly, i.e the films Cabaret (1972) and Lenny (1974), and Stanley Donen’s musical adaptation of The Little Prince (1974) which he choreographed and performed in as The Snake, a performance I found creepy and not at all appropriate for children. I also later saw the tawdry Star 80 (1983) when it came out, without particularly noting that it was by Fosse. Ironically, it was around the time of his death in 1987 that I first studied dance, which would have provided some of my first building blocks of appreciation for aspects of what he did. But only some of what he did, for his legacy was complex.

One thing that’s interesting about Fosse is that he inherited and handed-down a popular dance tradition he was too young to have participated in directly, but which he helped to define as classical, and then transformed into high art. He is often spoken of in terms of vaudeville and burlesque, but the circuits had already died when he was quite a young child. But Fosse was not too young to have been influenced by veterans of the classic era, or to have worked in the scattered fragments that remained. The fact that he was born and raised in Chicago is central to his artistic identity. A century ago, Chicago was the second most important theatrical town, after New York. It’s where all of the western vaudeville circuits were located, and the home of important musical theatre productions on a near par with Broadway. Joe Frisco, Father of Jazz Dance, was from Chicago, and I still contend, though I’ve not yet turned up any corroboration, that Fosse inherited Frisco’s entire aesthetic package, his signature moves, the derby hat, the smoking-while-dancing. Granted, Frisco was erratic and improvisatory whereas Fosse’s work was highly wrought and pre-conceived, but the overall LOOK is much the same.

Anyway, Fosse’s father had been in vaudeville as a song plugger and member of a vocal quartet. His mother had been a crowd extra in operas. (This makes their depiction in the recent bio-pic Fosse/Verdon a little inexplicable apart from a dramatic agenda). When Fosse was growing up, his father was working as a traveling salesman, though it’s not as though he was some stranger to show business. Fosse began taking dance lessons at the Chicago Academy of Theater at the age 9 (1936) under a man named Frederic Weaver, who subsequently became his booking manager. The training which Fosse received seems to have been extremely wide-ranging and rigorous, far in advance of what one would assume you would receive at some perfunctory, time-filling kids class. This was a professional grounding. At an early juncture (circa 1940) Fosse was paired with a fellow student named Charles Grass in an act called The Riff Brothers. With this act, and later solo, Fosse began to get booked at social gatherings, performances for servicemen, night clubs, and significantly, strip clubs. He was still a kid at the time; his presence in this environment was highly inappropriate but these seedy clubs were all that was left of burlesque. The presence of comics and dancers were vestiges of burlesque’s glory days and helped legitimize what might otherwise be a straight-up sex show, which is where the form eventually went. But Fosse’s experience in these clubs was just as formative to his art as his endless tap classes.

World War Two was still raging when Fosse turned 18, and he was drafted by the Navy, where he was sensibly assigned to an entertainment unit that played the Pacific. After the war, he began his theatrical career in earnest. In 1947 he toured with a show entitled Call Me Mister, where he met fellow dancer Mary Ann Niles. The pair married and formed a dance team, Niles and Fosse (sometimes Fosse and Niles), which was booked on live TV variety programs like The Morey Amsterdam Show and Your Hit Parade in the late ’40s. The pair’s Broadway break came with Dance Me a Song (1950), which also featured Joan McCracken. Exit Niles, enter McCracken, whom Fosse married in 1951.

As a solo dancer, Fosse continued to dance on TV variety shows like The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Arthur Murray Party, and The Colgate Comedy Hour, on which Fosse also got his first choreography experience, thanks to the patronage of none other than Jerry Lewis. Earlier influenced by Fred Astaire, one of Fosse’s primary influences as a stage and screen choreographer was to be the earlier transitional figure Jack Cole. In addition to the physical elements of his craft, his relentless demand for high energy, Fosse proved to have unsuspected gifts that rapidly elevated his art, including a sophisticated pictorial eye, and an awareness of the need for inner, emotional motivation on the part of dancers, which led naturally from choreography to directing. But before hurling himself headlong into that art form, however, he had one last big year as a performer. In 1953 he appeared in the films The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, Kiss Me Kate, and Give a Girl a Break.

Then begins a quarter century so productive it is exhausting just to contemplate.

1954: Choreographed original Broadway production of The Pajama Game, which ran for two years

1955: Choreographed and appeared in the film My Sister Eileen, with Jack Lemmon, Betty Garrett, and Janet Leigh, and choreographed the original Broadway production of Damn Yankees, which ran for over two years. This is the show on which he first worked with Gwen Verdon, whom he would marry in 1960

1956: Co-choreographed Bells are Ringing (starring Judy Holiday) on Broadway with Jerome Robbins

1957: Choreographed movie version of The Pajama Game

1958: Choreographed (and appeared in) movie version of Damn Yankees and choreographed Broadway show New Girl in Town, based on O’Neill’s Anna Christie, and starring Verdon

1959: Directed and choreographed the Broadway musical Redhead, starring Verdon. This fascinating show was set in a wax museum at the time of Jack the Ripper

1961: Worked on The Conquering Hero, a musical version of Preston Sturges’s Hail the Conquering Hero as director and choreographer but left the show prior to opening due to run-ins with book author Larry Gelbart; then choreographed the smash hit How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which ran three and a half years

1962: Directed and choreographed Little Me, with book by Gelbart’s old cohort Neil Simon, based on the Patrick Dennis novel, and starring Sid Caesar. Fosse was to hit it off with fellow tv variety vet Simon; the pair would become close friends and collaborate again on Sweet Charity

1963: Played the lead in a Broadway revival of Pal Joey, a role he had understudied over a decade earlier

1965: Directed and choreographed Pleasures and Palaces on Broadway

1966: Directed and choreographed Sweet Charity, starring Verdon. The idea for the show was Fosse’s; Simon wrote the book. It ran for a year and a half

1969: Directed the movie version of Sweet Charity, his first film as auteur. Shirley MacLaine replaced Verdon in the title role.

1972: Directed and choreographed (and reconceived) the film version of Cabaret starring Liza Minelli; directed and choreographed the Broadway show and TV special Liza with a Z; and directed and choreographed the Broadway musical Pippin which ran for four and a half years

1974: Directed the movie Lenny, which featured Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce; and acted in and choreographed the movie The Little Prince. This was the year of Fosse’s first heart attack

1975: Directed, choreographed and co-wrote the original Broadway production of Chicago, which ran for over two years

1977: Acted in the film version of Herb Gardner’s Thieves, starring Marlo Thomas, Charles Grodin. and Professor Irwin Corey

1978: Directed and choreographed Broadway show Dancin’, which ran over four years

1979: Directed, choreographed, and wrote All That Jazz

1983: Wrote and directed the non-musical true crime drama Star 80, about the murder of Peter Bogdanovich’s fiance Dorothy Stratton 

1986: Directed and choreographed the short-lived Broadway show Big Deal; and directed and choreographed a revival of Sweet Charity

In 1987, the future Fosse predicted for himself in All That Jazz came to pass — death by a massive heart attack. Nothing mysterious about that of course, given that he was a chain-smoker, a pill popper and a workaholic. He crammed a bigger legacy in those 60 years than most people would have if they had lived to be 600.

And his work continued posthumously. The 1996 revival of Chicago, choreographed by Fosse’s last romantic partner Ann Reinking, holds the record for the long-running Broadway show. Reinking also adapted and revived Fosse’s choreography for the show Fosse (1999-2001). And most recently we have Sam Rockwell’s masterful performance as the multi-faceted maniac in Fosse/Verdon (2019).

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,