Even though Bob Fosse’s been dead longer than many of our readers have been alive, I can’t imagine that anyone here doesn’t have at least a passing familiarity with his work. After all, two of his signature shows (Pippin and Chicago) are currently running on Broadway, each in a hit revival received even more enthusiastically than the original. And what do those revivals have in common? Both took great pains to create choreography “in the style of Bob Fosse,” including recreating Fosse’s own steps for big numbers in each – “The Manson Trio” (the dance break in “Glory”) in Pippin and “Hot Honey Rag” in Chicago. With no disrespect to the other great choreographers of Broadway, while original dances from De Mille, Robbins, and Bennett have been recreated, no one else created a style so recognizable and enviable that people today still strive to work (and market their work as) “in the style of” anyone other than Fosse.
Given Fosse’s enduring popularity and fascinating personal life—more on that in a sec—I predict that Sam Wasson’s excellent new biography will be as in demand as Pippin tickets. The 700-page opus takes us from Fosse’s funeral back to his childhood dancing in the slimiest burlesque houses Chicago had to offer, through the romances and bromances of the showman who made history as the first (and still only) to win the best director Oscar, Tony, and Emmy awards all within a year.
Not convinced? Here are the “Five B’s” of Bob Fosse that most intrigued me in reading about his life.
Anyone familiar with Fosse’s choreography shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that he got his start in the burlesque houses of his native Chicago: the sexiness of seediness that forms the core of Fosse’s trademark style is a direct descendant of the bump-and-grind strippers and sad sack ex-vaudevillians he encountered there. What might be surprising is how young Fosse was when he started performing in these places. As a young teenager, Fosse and his friend Charlie Grass performed as “The Riff Brothers” pretty much from the moment puberty set in. Faced with both affection and humiliating ridicule from the strippers who shared their stage, Fosse emerged permanently scarred from the experience. Wasson makes the case that the rest of Fosse’s career was in some way or another trying to process his early burlesque trauma.
Fosse’s libido was legendary, as was the size of his instrument. According to Wasson, it seems like Debbie Reynolds is just about the only woman Fosse ever met who didn’t succumb to his charm. But the really interesting aspect of his romantic life is they way in which is overlapped. Fosse’s wives and girlfriends not only knew each other, they often took each other under their wings, offered advice, and formed something of an unconventional extended family. This is particularly true of Fosse’s third wife, Gwen Verdon, the mother of Bob’s daughter Nicole. Gwen remained a close artistic collaborator with Bob even after they split, and she retained a close working and personal relationship with Ann Reinking, Fosse’s most important girlfriend (and Gwen’s replacement in the lead of the original Broadway production of Chicago). The opening scene of the book describes Gwen, Ann, and Nicole dancing together in Bob’s memory at the dinner following his funeral — while his final girlfriend, Phoebe Ungerer wept in the corner. To love Bob was to share Bob, and while there were moments of tension, these women pulled it off with incredible grace.
All my life I had heard stories of Fosse’s bisexuality, driven by both his insatiable sexual appetite and his need to get close to his dancers in every way possible. Wasson’s book makes a case that Bob was too busy with women, and even so, he wasn’t interested in men like that. I’m not sure I’m convinced, but I’m also not entirely sure it matters. Regardless of what Bob did in bed, it’s pretty clear he didn’t identify as bisexual.
This doesn’t mean men weren’t important in Fosse’s life. On the contrary, for all of his complicated on again off again relationships with the women in his life, Bob’s tight friendships with the men in his life were constant. While Bob first began forming tight friendships with other men early on—Charlie Grass in his teens, Joe Papp during his military service, Neil Simon and Cy Coleman and other colleagues in his early days on Broadway—it was when he formed a triumvirate with writers Paddy Chayevsky and Herb Gardner that he really found his emotional rock. It’s interesting that all of Bob’s important relationships with women were with other dancers, with whom he both collaborated and competed, Bob’s male inner circle was all writers, whom he worshiped and attempted to emulate.
Although Fosse’s track record on Broadway and in Hollywood was close to flawless, he went out on sour notes in both arenas, with Big Deal on Broadway and Star 80 in the cinemas. Both projects appear to have suffered from Fosse’s growing singularity of vision, which might be a nice way to frame insatiable ego. Despite spending his career in collaborative endeavors, Fosse strove to be an auteur, and if he could have performed every task and every role in his later films and shows, he would have. And yet, despite their tepid reviews and disastrous audience receptions, I now want to see Star 80 (and however much of Big Deal one can see) because Wasson’s description of Fosse’s creative process was so vivid and enthralling, I have to see the results.
That’s just a taste of the many pleasures of this book. Don’t let the page count put you off; after all, a good 100 of those 700 pages are notes and index. If you like to read on the go, this is definitely one for your e-reader, although I can’t complain about my newly toned biceps thanks to reading this in hardcover on the subway.