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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews

 
FOSSE

SETTING MOVEMENT IN MOTION
By MATT WINDMAN

  Fosse, by Sam Wasson; 723-pages.

Much has been written lately about composer Robert Lopez becoming an EGOT, having won an Oscar for the hit single “Let It Go” from the animated film Frozen after previously winning Tonys (The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q), a Grammy (The Book of Mormon) and Daytime Emmys (The Wonder Pets). But Bob Fosse remains the only person ever to win Oscar, Emmy and Tony Awards in the same year, a feat unlikely to ever be repeated.

It’s hard to think of another recent biography of a stage personality that is as thoroughly detailed, sharp-eyed and compulsively readable as Sam Wasson’s Fosse, a 723-page tome that fully describes and examines the director-choreographer’s coming of age, extensive body of work on Broadway and in film, iconic style of movement, depressed and insecure personality, compulsive philandering, and other addictions.

Although Wasson, a film critic, no doubt had plenty of documentary resources to work with, he has interviewed numerous sources including Fosse’s friends, enemies, colleagues and numerous lovers, resulting in an embarrassment of colorful and revealing anecdotes about the man. Whereas many stage biographies can be dry and academic, Fosse is a finely textured mix of celebrity gossip and critical insight. At the top of each chapter, Wasson counts down how many years Fosse has left, rather like a train that is bound to veer off the tracks eventually. He died immediately prior to a performance of the national tour of Sweet Charity, collapsing outside the theater on the street.

The book opens upon a strange scene, namely an upbeat post-death celebration of Fosse’s life held at Tavern on the Green. Fosse, in his will, apparently left $25,000 to pay for such a party. It was attended by E.L. Doctorow, Neil Simon, Sanford Meisner, Elia Kazan, Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange and Ben Vereen, among others. The maitre d’ of the Carnegie Deli, Fosse’s favorite lunchtime hangout, was also present. Gwen Verdon, Fosse’s wife, and Ann Reinking, his on-and-off girlfriend, blissfully danced together with Bob’s daughter Nicole, also a dancer.

Fosse, who went on to conquer film (Cabaret, All That Jazz, Lenny), television (Liza with a Z) and stage (Sweet Charity, Chicago, Pippin), lost his innocence in Depression-era Chicago in sleazy burlesque houses where the strippers and other female performers would mess around with this young boy. His dark but sentimental view of show business magic would color virtually all of his future output. His razzle-dazzle signature touches – the bowler hat, snaps, isolated hands, bump and grind – were derived from his early days as a vaudevillian. Wasson makes the case that Fosse’s style ultimately produced Michael Jackson and hip hop.

Whereas the male director-choreographer is now assumed to be a flamboyant figure, Fosse stood for uninhibited heterosexual eroticism, as perhaps best exemplified by the orgy scene in Pippin. But he was not macho. He was the sensitive, brooding, needy genius-artist that beautiful young women instinctively felt compelled to nurture. Many, including Verdon, stayed loyal to him after he treated them terribly. What straight man wouldn’t kill to have that kind of appeal? If he repeatedly managed to antagonize his collaborators, most especially songwriters, he loved dancers. Even to reject a dancer at an audition was apparently a painful process for him.

While reading it, I was grateful to be able to check out bits and pieces of Fosse’s own performances via YouTube, such as his cameos in the films of Kiss Me Kate (“From This Moment On”), Damn Yankees (“Who’s Got the Pain?”) and The Little Prince (“Snake in the Grass”). It turns out that very little of his stage work has been preserved on video. There is little footage from the original Chicago other than Jerry Orbach performing “All I Care About Is Love” at the Tony Awards. The production of Pippin that was broadcast in the 1980s was not directed by him and he apparently hated it.

 


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