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Bob Fosse: Remembering a dance genius who still inspires

Joel Grey’s MC is lifted aloft in Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning 1972 film Cabaret. Photo: ABC Pictures/Allied Artists Joel Grey’s MC is lifted aloft in Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning 1972 film Cabaret. Photo: ABC Pictures/Allied Artists
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As a new book throws a revealing, fresh light on Bob Fosse’s life, Michael Quinn traces the legacy of the innovative and award-winning choreographer and director of stage and screen musicals

In 1973, Bob Fosse became the first director to win an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy award in the same year. Nearly half a century later, he remains the only person to have lifted film, theatre and television’s most prestigious accolades all at once. His trophy cabinet housed eight more Tony awards – the most for any choreographer – and numerous other gongs and accolades. It gave him an iconic status that, three decades after his death of a heart attack in 1987 at the age of 60, retains its convention-challenging, agenda-changing relevance.

His reputation as one of the great dance innovators continues to grow. His striking, unique style – surely the defining characteristic of the modern American musical – is instantly recognisable and incessantly imitated.

The return of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Chicago, originally choreographed by Fosse on Broadway in 1975, to London’s Phoenix Theatre in April this year served as a reminder of a unique talent. It is a show that has long been popular with the British public. Its 1979 West End debut notched up 600 performances and its 1997 revival ran for 15 years.

Now, a book by dancer-turned-writer Kevin Winkler – Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical – throws a revealing new focus on its subject. The first examination of Fosse’s development as a choreographer and his impact on dance in the musical, it’s a vivid portrait of a man driven by an acute and dogged self-criticism that was worked out in a daring, provocative style of impeccable detail.

Fosse and Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees. Photo: Warner Bros
Fosse and Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees. Photo: Warner Bros

“Dance expresses joy better than anything else,” Fosse once remarked. He might as well have added “and deviousness, desire and decadence”. All those qualities, and more, are to be found in a sexy, sensual, syncopated and sophisticated style unique in dance.

Much of Fosse’s darkly daring choreography derives from his experiences as a child hoofer in vaudeville – his earliest ambition was “to be a nightclub dance act telling a few jokes” – and, especially, his exposure to more adult preoccupations performing in burlesque clubs.

Aping Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, he devoted his early adult career to becoming a dancer, memorably forging a glittering partnership with his third wife, Gwen Verdon. Dexterous routines with Carol Haney in the 1953 film Kiss Me, Kate and Tommy Rall in 1955’s My Sister Eileen brilliantly blended the gracefulness and athleticism of his idols.

His breakthrough as a theatre choreographer came with The Pajama Game on Broadway in 1954, and at the London Coliseum the following year. It made a star of Shirley MacLaine, who later took the lead in Fosse’s 1969 film Sweet Charity.

Four years later, the Broadway premiere of Stephen Schwartz’s musical Pippin prompted The Stage to call Fosse “the most creative and original talent in the musical comedy world today”, an impression inked in by the show’s subsequent run at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Choreographer Roy Pannell writes about Pippin in The Stage, May 1973 (click to enlarge)

The same year, Fosse picked up his Academy Award for directing Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, which the American entertainment bible Variety hailed as “literate, bawdy, sophisticated, sensual, cynical, heart-warming, and disturbingly thought-provoking”.

But it was 1975’s Chicago – a prohibition-era tale, no less topical today, of corruption, sleaze, celebrity and murder – that cemented his place in musical theatre history. It remains the second-longest running musical on the Great White Way and ranks number eight on the list of Theatreland’s long-stayers.

In a note he sent to the original Broadway cast of Chicago, Fosse offered succinct advice that serves as an apt description of his own creative credo – “Trust… Relax… Artistry”. But perhaps most remarkable about Fosse, despite his own advice – and his unique success – was the self-doubt that perpetually haunted him.

“I am not an educated person,” he observed at the height of his fame. “I didn’t come up through a ballet company. I came up through burlesque. So, I have a lot of inferiority feelings concerning my own lack of education, my entry into showbusiness. I’m not a Baryshnikov. I’m not a Nureyev. I came up in vaudeville. Strippers.”

Fosse attempted to correct, or at least accommodate, such inhibitions in a technique assembled with martial discipline. MacLaine remembers him as “a stickler for detail. Every finger, every wrist, every hip, every shoulder had to be in unison or he went crazy”.

It was that strictly drilled sense of ensemble – that mesmerising quality of archly subverted conformity – that gave Fosse’s choreography its impact. More than his choreographer peers Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd and Harold Prince, Fosse connected dance with primal emotions while layering it with an intuitive appreciation of the form as a means of communicating character.

That many of his signature tropes were the result of insecurity makes them all the more potent. His trademark black bowler hats were prompted by sensitivity about losing his hair. Fearing he was round-shouldered and his feet didn’t ‘turn out’ with balletic exactitude, he made a fetish out of one and contrarily reversed the other into a dominant, distinguishing ‘turned-in’ feature. The distinctive, flickering, white-gloved ‘jazz hands’, however, were the result of a purer ambition: “The energy doesn’t end at the hands. I want such intensity that it feels like light is streaming from every finger.”

Fosse’s film alter ego (played by Roy Scheider) haloed by ghosts of past girlfriends in All That Jazz. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox
Fosse’s film alter ego (played by Roy Scheider) haloed by ghosts of past girlfriends in All That Jazz. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Energy – and sexual energy at that – was the core of Fosse’s art. He exploited it to the full with a dazzling cascade of cinematic techniques in 1979’s extravagant, loosely autobiographical, All That Jazz, considered by Stanley Kubrick as “the best film I think that I have ever seen”.

Fosse’s style was wickedly parodied in the cult 1982 revue Forbidden Broadway and celebrated in Fosse at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 2000. It’s there to be seen today in everything from pop videos by Michael Jackson and Beyonce to Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography for the current smash-hit hip-hop musical Hamilton. His influence on film and his accommodation of cinematic techniques into a theatrical setting is no less enduring.

Three decades after his death, Bob Fosse remains, as Winkler notes, “both a touchstone for American theatre dance, recognisable around the world, and a continuing source of inspiration for new artists”.

Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical by Kevin Winkler is published by Oxford University Press. Chicago is on at the Phoenix Theatre

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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