American dancer, choreographer for the musical stage and screen, writer, and director Bob Fosse (b. Chicago, IL, 23 June 1927; d. Washington, DC, 23 September 1987) was perhaps the most influential figure in the field of jazz dance in the twentieth century. Enormously creative, inspired, driven, strong-willed, tireless, and ruthless, Fosse forged an uncompromising modern style – characterized by finger-snapping, tilted bowler hats, net stockings, splayed gloved fingers, turned-in knees and toes, and shoulder rolls – that has frequently been called “cynical.” The choreographer himself, rather cryptically, identified it as “the amoeba.” On Broadway, Fosse won an unprecedented eight Tony Awards® for Choreography (The Pajama Game 1955, Damn Yankees 1956, Redhead 1959, Little Me 1963, Sweet Charity 1966, Pippin 1973, Dancin’ 1978, Big Deal 1986), plus one for stage direction (Pippin 1973); he won an Oscar® for his direction of the film version of Cabaret (1972), and received three other Academy Award® nominations (Lenny 1974, two for All That Jazz 1979).
Influenced initially by the work of Jack Cole, Fred Astaire, and Jerome Robbins, Fosse was fluent in a dizzying mix of styles: in Redhead alone he incorporated elements of the ballet, jazz, march, cancan, gypsy dance, and the traditional English music-hall. Nor had he any reservations about drawing upon the seamier facts of his own personal life: his 1979 film All That Jazz – written, directed, and choreographed by himself – laid it all out: his compulsive chain-smoking, drinking, drug-taking, and womanizing.
Of Norwegian and Irish descent, Bob was the fifth of six children born to a Chicago vaudevillian. He was early regarded as a child prodigy and given tap dancing lessons; he was on the professional vaudeville stage before reaching high school. At dance school he was the only male. “I got a lot of jokes and got whistled at a lot. But I beat up a couple of the whistlers and the rest sort of tapered off after a while.” At thirteen, he joined forces with another young dancer as The Riff Brothers, and within a few years the pair were making very good money indeed.
At fifteen Fosse was working as an emcee in a string of burlesque houses; his first bit of choreography was for a quartet of fan dancers. Finishing high school in 1945, he enlisted in the Navy, but World War II very soon came to an end. He completed his two-year tour of duty honing his skills and entertaining troops on Okinawa. Upon discharge, he moved to New York City, formed a dance team with his first wife, Mary Ann Niles, and performed in variety shows for television and the musical stage. In 1950 he debuted on Broadway in a revue called Dance Me a Song, and in 1952 he understudied for Harold Lang in the title role of Pal Joey.
1953 took Bob Fosse to Hollywood and a contract with MGM. Among the three movies he made that year was Kiss Me, Kate, with Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, and Ann Miller. He choreographed (uncredited – the film’s official choreographer was Hermes Pan) and danced a short but brilliant sequence with Carol Haney in the film, and thus came to the attention of two of Broadway’s most powerful producers, George Abbott and Jerome Robbins. After contributing choreography to another MGM musical, My Sister Eileen, Fosse returned to New York – with a new wife, actress and dancer Joan McCracken – to work on a new musical with Abbott, The Pajama Game. He also brought along Carol Haney as dance partner and choreographer’s assistant, who wound up in the show, winning a Tony® for Best Featured Actress.
The Pajama Game (1954) was the first show fully choreographed by Fosse and it was a smash hit. Sensational numbers like “Hernando’s Hideaway” (performed in half-darkness) and “Steam Heat” (which was so hot that director Abbott was tempted to cut it) won Fosse a Tony Award® – his first of eight – for Best Choreography, and a Donaldson Award. Damn Yankees followed in 1955, winning Fosse his second Tony® and his first opportunity to work with dynamite redhead Gwen Verdon (“Whatever Lola Wants”), who would become his third and last wife.
In 1956 stage director and choreographer Jerome Robbins invited Bob Fosse to co-choreograph Bells Are Ringing (with Judy Holliday and Sydney Chaplin). Nominated for Best Musical, the show ran for 924 performances and won Tony Awards® for the two stars. Fosse and Robbins shared a nomination for Best Choreography. Bells Are Ringing was adapted for the silver screen in 1960.
New Girl in Town brought Abbott, Verdon, and Fosse together again in 1957. Based on the play Anna Christie by Eugene O’Neill, the musical had so much drama and so little movement that Fosse started to embellish the walks of the performers – playing prostitutes – until he had developed a “Red Light Ballet.” At tryouts in New Haven, it was so shocking that the police padlocked the production until it was cleaned up. (Soon after the show opened in New York, the “Red Light” sequence was almost entirely restored.)
Tired of making concessions for the sake of “propriety,” Fosse began to realize that he needed to be his own director in order to have complete creative freedom. Here his close relationship with Gwen Verdon, who was then practically the queen of Broadway, came to his aid: she consented to star in her next show, Redhead (1959), only on condition that Fosse would direct as well as choreograph. Redhead won Tonys® in 1959 for Best Musical, Best Actor (Richard Kiley), Best Actress (Verdon), Best Costumes (Rouben Ter-Arutunian), and Best Choreography.
The added pressure and responsibility of directing on top of composing dances began to tell on Fosse with a marked increase to his irascibility. It may also have had a bad effect on his health, for he suffered an epileptic seizure during a rehearsal for his next show, The Conquering Hero (1961). The producers decided to replace him with Todd Bolender, and Fosse was badly stung. The change did not help the show much; it was an utter flop.
Meanwhile, another Broadway show that was in rehearsal at the same time, How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1961), starring Robert Morse, was having problems with its choreographer Hugh Lambert. Fosse was offered his job, and out of sincere sympathy agreed to accept the title of “musical staging director” only if Lambert was allowed to stay on board as “choreographer.” He reshaped the staging of “Coffee Break” and “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” into riotously comic romps, helping to win seven Tonys® for the production, including Best Musical, with a Pulitzer Prize to boot.
In 1962 Fosse choreographed and co-directed (with Cy Feuer) Little Me, starring Sid Caesar; though the show was nominated for just about everything, the only Tony® win went to Fosse. In 1964 he briefly returned to acting, reprising his star turn in Pal Joey and receiving a Tony® nomination for it, but it was not long before he was back directing and choreographing for Sweet Charity (1966), a project he had conceived and written, in part, himself. With its two innovative numbers, “Big Spender” and “Rich Man’s Frug,” the show earned seven Tony® nominations and one win: for Fosse. This distribution of Awards was beginning to look like a pattern: Pippin (1972) (Fosse once again wrote some of the book, uncredited) took six nominations and five wins: two of them for Fosse as director and as choreographer. Pippin became the highest-earning Broadway show in history.
In 1969 Sweet Charity was made into a film (it had been suggested originally by Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria), Fosse directing, starring Shirley MacLaine in the Gwen Verdon role. Fosse’s second directorial film venture was a true blockbuster, Cabaret with Liza Minnelli and Michael York, which ran away with eight Academy Awards® in 1973, including one for Best Director. This, with the two Emmy Awards he won (Direction and Choreography) for the 1972 television concert Liza with a Z and the Pippin Tony®, made for an extraordinary accretion of Awards in a single year (1973): a Tony®, an Emmy, and an Oscar®, all for Best Director.
After two more films, Lenny (a biopic of Lenny Bruce, starring Dustin Hoffman) and The Little Prince, the year 1975 brought Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon back to Broadway in Chicago, with Fosse as book writer, director, and choreographer. Surprisingly (especially in light of the explosive success of the 1996 revival which is now approaching its seven thousandth performance and is the longest-running show in Broadway history), it won no Tony Awards® this first time around, though it got eleven nominations. Perhaps its bizarre, morbid story was ahead of its time: Velma and Roxie, incarcerated and accused of murder, are attempting to use their notoriety as criminals to achieve stardom in show business. One week into rehearsals for Chicago, Fosse had a heart attack and had to undergo bypass surgery.
After directing and choreographing the revue Dancin’ (1978, winning his seventh Tony® for Choreography) on Broadway, Fosse turned again to film, this time with his nakedly autobiographical All That Jazz (1979). The action centers on his 1975 heart attack, and nearly every character in the movie represents a real person in his life: the role of wife Verdon, from whom Fosse was now separated, was taken by Leland Palmer; Roy Scheider played Fosse himself, John Lithgow represented his rival Michael Bennett, and several in the cast essentially played themselves, including Fosse’s daughter Nicole and dancer Ann Reinking, with whom he was living at the time. (He remained legally married to Verdon until the end of his life; in fact died in her presence.) All That Jazz took four Academy Awards®, earned Fosse his third Oscar® nomination for Best Director, and won the Palme d’Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival.
His next and last film, the controversial Star 80 (1983), was about the life and murder of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten. It was nominated for several awards, including Best Film at the Berlin International Film Festival, but its disagreeable subject matter did not win many fans in the U.S.
Big Deal (1986), Fosse’s last Broadway production as director and choreographer before his death, was something of a cynical repudiation of his own success. It was based on the 1958 Italian comedy classic Big Deal on Madonna Street (I soliti ignoti), in which a gang of crooks in postwar Sicily bungles their way through a caper that is thwarted at every turn. Fosse identified with the main character: “That’s my part! A swaggering bumbler who thinks he’s a ladies’ man, and he’s not.” Although Big Deal lasted for no more than 69 performances, it won his eighth Tony® for Best Choreography, and four more nominations.
In September 1987 Sweet Charity, directed by Bob Fosse and assistant-directed by Gwen Verdon, was being revived at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. Just as the show was opening, Fosse had a massive heart attack on the sidewalk outside the theatre and collapsed in his hotel room in Verdon’s arms. He died on the way to the hospital, and his death was announced to the cast after a standing ovation at the end of the evening.
In 1999, a three-act musical revue conceived and directed by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Ann Reinking, choreographed by Reinking (after Fosse) and Chet Walker, opened on Broadway. Gwen Verdon served as artistic consultant. It was called simply Fosse. The show won the Tony Award® for Best Musical, and after 1,093 performances in New York, moved to London to win Fosse and Reinking, in 2001, a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreography.
Bob Fosse was inducted posthumously into the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs in April 2007. A segment of Paulina Street in Chicago now has the honorary appellation of “Bob Fosse Way”.
– Lucy E. Cross