Saturday, December 28, 2013

Fosse by Sam Wasson

You would think a book whose time line is a countdown to the dirt nap – Bob Fosse’s death – would be destined for gloom and doom. However, I have to hand it to Sam Wasson, the biographer of famous (and infamous) choreographer and director Bob Fosse (pictured young), for making a death march feel more like a dance number – rhythmic and fun.

Fosse, best known for his unique style of dance choreography, seen most recently (2002) in the film revival of Chicago (staring Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah), was also an actor, dancer, screenwriter, and film director. He won an unprecedented eight Tony Awards for choreography, as well as one for direction. He was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning for his direction of Cabaret, in 1973, beating out Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather. Fosse is also the only person ever to win, in a single year (1973), a Tony, an Oscar, and an Emmy.

Fosse was also a very hard drinker, drugger and debaucher, bedding practically every woman he ever met. The story goes that Fosse was an incredible lover who learned his sexual skills from the strippers he grew up around. (His mom was in vaudeville.) From Wasson’s account, it is also clear that Fosse’s life was a bottomless pit of insecurity that drove his compulsion to prove himself over and over again in bed and on the stage. And it was that drive that made him so successful – at least until it killed him (he died of heart failure).

The reason I read this book goes back to when I was a child and saw the musical Damn Yankees, which was choreographed by Fosse. I was gaga over Gwen Verdon’s dancing in that movie, and even as a child, I knew I was seeing dancing done very differently. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned that it was the Fosse-style choreography I was attracted to. Verdon (pictured) eventually became Fosse’s long-suffering wife - knowingly sharing him with a never-ending string of starry-eyed ingénues.
I also loved the movie Cabaret (staring Liza Minnelli, Joel Gray, Michael York) - another fun example of the Fosse dance style. And although I thought All That Jazz (staring Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer and Ann Reinking), Fosse’s semi-biographical film, was a bit too morose, I recommend you see both of these movies (as well as Chicago) to get a feel for the famous Fosse style.

And I recommend you read Fosse if you have any curiosity about the mechanics of Broadway and her disciples. The elaborate and detailed accounts of Fosse’s friendships with Paddy Chayefsky, E. L. Doctorow, Shirley MacLaine, Liza Minnelli and many other Hollywood and New York notables is fascinating and exciting. Wasson’s writing made me feel like I was part of the Broadway lifestyle, sweating through marathon rehearsals, basking in the spotlight of dance perfection and rousing applause, dashing over to the Russian Tea Room to carouse with the stars de jour, staying up all night working on dance steps and scripts – it made me feel young and tired, which is definitely better than old and tired.

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