Bob Fosse (1927 – 1987) celebrated the sexuality of female dancers, but he didn’t ignore the attraction of men in his projects, creating compelling, sexy roles for male dancers in Damn Yankees, Pippin, and Chicago, musicals where he caught the complexities of sex and desire.
Fosse was solidly straight, but after Pippin opened in 1972, he bravely wrote:
“Always before, if I found a male dancer that I knew was homosexual, I would keep saying, ‘No, you can’t do that, don’t be so minty there’. This time, I used the kind of people they were to give the show a kind of individuality, and they were so happy about it, I think it helped the show.“
Even as a brazenly heterosexual director/choreographer, he had little trouble admitting his own anxieties about gayness as a youth. In an interview with After Dark in 1980, Fosse said:
“There were many men I found really attractive. I sometimes thought: ‘Is there some latent tendency in me I’m unaware of?’ But I never found it a big problem for me, never.“
Fosse is a fascinating subject: a perfectionist who seemed determined to drive himself into an early final curtain call. He won nine Tony Awards for his stage work before moving to films, perhaps a more perfect medium for his considerable talent.
In a shocker, Fosse, not the favored Francis Ford Coppola, won the Academy Award for Best Director in 1973 (for Cabaret). He was nominated for four more Oscars. Fosse also won an Emmy Award for the television special Liza With A Z and the Tony for Pippin that year, the only time in history that a person has won all three of the big awards in the same year, and the only person to have won all three awards in the category of Best Director.
Some people seem to think that All That Jazz (1979) is his take on his own life story, but I find it to be more of a fantasy and a meditation on the subject of death. It is one of my favorite films. I consider it to be a real masterpiece. If you haven’t seen it, you simply must.
His work from the 1950s to the 1980s, revealed that his favorite subject showbiz itself. He understood the powers of the biz. His choreography, a repository of American popular dance history, often looked back at dance from the early 20th century, drawing from Burlesque and Vaudeville; his dancers slouched and used strange postures and shapes, emphasizing small movements, which were repeated. These gestures were borrowed directly from the worlds of work, sports, puppetry, ventriloquism, even of the military, turning his dances into a kind of social satire of post-war USA.
In the early 20th century, dance acts performed in Vaudeville theatres all over the USA. But, by the 1930s, film musicals, the Great Depression and radio all but killed Vaudeville. It had been family entertainment, but it morphed into a form enjoyed primarily by men. The acts were exotic dancers and stripper, and Vaudeville became Burlesque. Other, more wholesome acts were sometimes interspersed between the dirty stuff.
In Chicago, in the early 1940s, teenage Fosse started performing tamer dance numbers in Burlesque houses. The tawdry atmosphere backstage sometimes made him feel uncomfortable among older women who performed by taking off their clothes. This greatly influenced his work.
His talent as a dancer brought him first to Broadway and then, in 1953, to Hollywood. Fosse arrived at the apex of the fame of virile, manly Gene Kelly. Kelly was known for striking athletic poses emphasizing the power and prowess of his body, but Fosse’s choreography was more inspired by the effortless elegance of Fred Astaire and the eccentric moves of the Vaudeville performers he had grown up loving so much.
When Fosse choreographed Stanley Donen‘s film version of The Pajama Game (1957), a tuneful musical about American labor unions, his choreography for the Steam Heat number features dancers with what would become the signature “Fosse Look”: bowler hats, spats and suits, imitating steam valves and dancing in unison to form a kind of human assembly line, all pelvic thrusts, hunched shoulders, and turned-in feet. Instead of Kelly’s clean athletic lines, Fosse’s dancers are twitch. Dancing in the typical postwar American musical was usually meant to express rugged individualism. Fosse’s dancers all wear the same costume and move as if they were all parts of one machine. The movements are quotations, not the expression of dancers’ individual selves. Fosse dancers are sexy but not unique. In Sweet Charity (1966), Fosse satirized popular American dances of the era, like the Frug.
When the film version of Sweet Charity was made in 1969, big musicals were passé, and it bombed at the box-office. It was years before Fosse made another film. When he did, it was Cabaret, where his favorite themes move from social satire to an urgent critique of showbiz as a dangerous distraction from a world gone mad.
During a number written by John Kander and Fred Ebb just for the film, Mein Herr, performed by Liza Minnelli, the movements and gestures of the Kit Kat girls around her begin as erotic poses, but they become more uncomfortable, then degrading, with women on all fours beating with their hands on the stage as if they are marching feet. It is a musical version of 1930s German society in a transition from sexual freedom of expression to a dictatorship.
Lenny (1975), Fosse’s biopic of controversial comic Lenny Bruce, is another project about society choosing to escape into meaningless entertainment instead of acknowledging its corruption and indifference. The original Broadway production of Chicago (1975) shows a society so obsessed with fame it can’t tell the truth from the lie. Fosse understood the way that showbiz and politics had been intertwined since 1920s Chicago and 1930s Berlin. Fosse’s art was made for our current era.
Even as he criticized entertainment as “razzle dazzle” intended to distract and misdirect, he never stopped trying to show how musical entertainment can expose this alienation. I mean, come on, there is magic to do and all that jazz.
Fosse left this world on September 23, 1987, taken by a heart attack after collapsing on a DC sidewalk when he was on his way to the final dress rehearsal for a revival of Sweet Charity. He was just 60 years old but had maybe lived a little too much.
Fosse married three times, all his wives were dancers: they were poor Mary Ann Niles, tragic Joan McCracken and most famously, the fabulous Gwen Verdon, who was his equal, muse and creative partner. He met Ann Reinking during the Broadway run of Pippin, and they had an on-again-off-again romantic relationship for a decade. They continued to have a professional, creative collaboration until his passing. Throughout the 1970s, Fosse also had an affair with Jessica Lange. All Fosse women were loyal to him and to his work. Reinking, Lange and Verdon all appear in All That Jazz.
Here is a list of Broadway musicals that Bob Fosse choreographed and/or directed:
Bells Are Ringing (1956)
Big Deal (1986)
Damn Yankees (1955)
New Girl In Town (1957)
The Pajama Game (1954)
Pleasures And Palaces (1965)
Sweet Charity (1966)
Here is a list of films Fosse appeared in, directed and/or choreographed:
The Affairs Of Dovie Gillis (1953)
Kiss Me Kate (1953)
Give A Girl A Break (1953)
My Sister Eileen (1955)
The Pajama Game (1957)
Damn Yankees (1958)
Sweet Charity (1969)
The Little Prince (1974)
All That Jazz (1979)
Star 80 (1983)