Quick. Without looking at the title of this column, who was the only person to win the Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical on Broadway, the Oscar for the Best Director of a Movie and the Emmy for the Best Director of a Television Special … and do it all in one year? Right – Fosse!
Bob Fosse, dancer, choreographer, director, dominating personality and sufferer of a raging sense of inferiority which drove him to ever escalating heights of creativity in order to delay the day when people would notice he had no talent. This, after all, is the guy who gave us the “Razzle Dazzle” number that Jerry Orbach sold so well in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago which Fosse co-wrote, choreographed and directed. The lyric “long as you keep them way off balance, how can they spot you’ve got no talents” was about as autobiographical as a single line could be.
At least, that diagnosis is the approach Sam Wasson takes in his psychologically-based biography of Fosse. I don’t always find the authors of well-written, highly entertaining and thoroughly informative biographies either qualified to reach such psychological judgments, or capable of justifying their conclusions within the covers of a book. Wasson, however, ably applies layer upon layer of proof while building a fascinatingly human portrait of his unbelievably nerve-exposed subject.
His book leaves you with no choice but to agree with his conclusion. Of course, it isn’t that the conclusion is particularly earth-shatteringly original. Fosse’s psychoses have been bantered about for decades. Indeed, Fosse himself not only seemed to understand this basic fact about himself, he based a clearly autobiographical movie on just that view. The movie, of course, was All That Jazz, the 1977 film that won four Oscars, but despite being nominated for both, didn’t win for Best Movie or Best Director. His Best Director Oscar came for the film version of Cabaret.
Wasson begins the book with the wake following Fosse’s death, an event hosted by sixty-six people named in Fosse’s will who each received $378.79 with instructions that they use the money to throw a big party. Wasson then adopts a strange approach to chapter headings which emphasizes Fosse’s headlong rush toward his own burn out/conclusion/death. Each chapter is a bit ostentatiously titled with the time Fosse still had to live: the first chapter is titled “Sixty Years” while the last is “One Hour and Fifty-Thee Minutes.”
In between are a host of fascinating details delivered in an easy to read prose that draws the reader in and holds his or her interest. Wasson is never shy about expressing an opinion: “Bob Fosse was the best thing ever to come out of burlesque” he tells us before explaining his view of the impact on Fosse’s psyche of the fondling he received as a nearly pre-pubescent youth in the wings of multiple dingy dives.
Not all of Wasson’s opinions are completely understandable. He tells us, for instance, that when when he danced with his first wife/partner, Marian Niles, “Fosse moved with an inwardness comparable to shame” – whatever that means. But no sooner does the reader start to be irritated by such fuzzy phrasing than Wasson comes up with a nifty thought that is beautifully expressed such as “In a business of lucky breaks, where the revolving door of chance turns for jerk and genius alike, patience, not talent, would get Fosse and Niles where they wanted to be.”
The succession of women with whom Fosse partnered in matrimony and in art are presented in Wasson’s narrative with such clarity that they don’t, as they might have in a less well constructed book, blend into one image of “muse.” The ill-fated Joan McCracken (who some say was one of Truman Capote’s inspirations for Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) is described as “slight as an icicle” – quite the mental picture, that. His life-long partner/champion Gwen Verdon, and the later addition to the group, Ann Reinking, each emerge from the pages as individuals distinct and full blooded who brought different aspects, strengths and weaknesses to the life and career of Bob Fosse.
Even those whose connection with Fosse was somewhat less life-long or life-changing such as Carol Haney, the dancer who won the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical the same night Fosse won his first Best Choreography Tony for the dances she executed in The Pajama Game, are given shorter but no less specific descriptions. In this case, his description of Haney was “she looked like jazz sounded” – something that rings true for anyone who has seen her dance.
Fosse’s own habits and behaviors are made clear to the extent that the reader begins to believe he or she knows him. From his devotion to perfection in the construction of a major number to his unswerving politeness and generosity toward performers who had to audition before him, Fosse comes across, not as a mere collection of accomplishments, but as a person. This is no mean trick for a biographer – especially when his subject is as complex and conflicted as Fosse.
Fosse’s own dancing career – he was thought by some to be the natural successor to Gene Kelley on film – has been somewhat obscured by his success as a choreographer and a director.
For those who need a refresher, take eight minutes to view this collection of clips of his dancing.
The role of Fosse in the evolution of a choreographer/director as the creator specifically responsible for an entire production, is given fair treatment here. Wasson quotes a line from Brooks Atkinson’s review of the 1959 show Fosse choreographed and directed for Gwen Verdon, Redhead, which I underlined in my copy in a book of reviews many years ago: “Perhaps in the future all musical comedies should be written by choreographers.”
by Sam Wasson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
723 pages including index, acknowledgements and notes
and 30 well captioned black and white photos
List price $32.00
Wasson ends his treatment of Fosse’s life with Fosse’s death of a heart attack suffered in the middle of the intersection of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW when he and his muse/wife Gwen Verdon were walking from the Willard Hotel to the Washington DC opening of the tour of Sweet Charity at the National Theatre in 1987.
In between come descriptions of individual dances, the origins of a host of Broadway shows, Hollywood movies and not a few television excursions including the special he created for Liza Minnelli, Liza with a Z, which completed his “Triple Crown” of Tony, Oscar and Emmy in 1973.
That unmatched troika wasn’t his only entry into the pantheon of multiple major award winning. Most of his Tonys came in the category Best Choreography, a category in which he took home the trophy no fewer than eight times in just over 30 years: 1955 (The Pajama Game), 1956 (Damn Yankees), 1959 (Redhead), 1963 (Little Me), 1966 (Sweet Charity), 1973 (Pippin), 1978 (Dancin’) and 1986 (Big Deal).
The man, fascinating for his personality as well as for his accomplishments, can be found between the pages of Wasson’s book. It belongs on many a groaning theater shelf.