“But finally you want control. You want the show to move a certain way from start to finish, and that’s why we became directors, choreographers like Michael [Bennett] and Jerry and Tommy [Tune]. We had to be able to control it.” Bob Fosse (69)
This kind of theatrical control was certainly a “big deal” in the aspiration and evolution of dancer-choreographer-director—and ultimately—writer Bob Fosse (1927-1987). But Kevin Winkler titled his book Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical to assert Fosse’s major role in four decades of development in American musical theater and in contemporary pop culture. Big Deal is also the title of Fosse’s last Broadway show (1986) and his first Broadway flop. Ironically, this show fulfilled his desire for full control, as he was author, director, and choreographer, with a score of preexisting songs.
To describe this total control, Winkler borrows the terminology “the Muscle” from William Goldman’s The Season, a well-respected panorama of the 1967-68 season of Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. (1) “The Muscle” is the person whose vision dominates what the audience will see on stage. During his chorus dancer years Winkler experienced Fosse exercising Muscle when, for a 1982 revival of Little Me, the icon was brought in to restage a number from the first production. Big Deal also reflects Winkler’s later career, twenty years as a curator and archivist for the New York Public Library. In addition to abundant use of archival sources, the author draws on quotations from Fosse and interviews with his friends, family, and professional colleagues.
To describe this total control, Winkler borrows the terminology “the Muscle” from William Goldman’s The Season, a well-respected panorama of the 1967-68 season of Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. “The Muscle” is the person whose vision dominates what the audience will see on stage.
Winkler notes that, in general, the Muscle is a director-choreographer, a relatively recent designation. A century ago director and dance director were separate work responsibilities, the director working with the actors on their general movement and role interpretation, the dance director working with non-singing, non-talking dancers who performed largely ornamental and formulaic steps unrelated to plot or character. Only a few early twentieth-century dance directors made efforts to integrate their work with the show’s dramatic intent and its design elements and thus made small but significant steps toward the hyphenated director-choreographer.
The work of George Balanchine (1904-1983), Agnes DeMille (1905-1993), and Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) furthered the importance of dance in musical theater and the integration of choreographic and directing functions.¹ DeMille and Robbins in particular mixed ballet, modern dance, and vernacular movement such as tap and square dance, as appropriate, in defining character and furthering narrative. As both wanted dancers to be skilled actors as well as movers, they took on functions originally the province of the director. With his West Side Story (1957), Robbins established the “control” model that Fosse would emulate. The playbill title page read: “Entire Production Directed and Choreographed by JEROME ROBBINS.” This model of the director-choreographer strengthened the Muscle and prepared it for a new generation of artists, “of whom Bob Fosse would be one of the most assertive and authoritative.”(12)
Big Deal is largely a chronological detailed analysis of Fosse’s work in theater and film. Winkler describes his “mission statement” as “to get inside Fosse’s choreography, to pull apart the Swiss watch precision of his dances and understand not just their structure but also the wide-ranging sources of his movement vocabulary and to consider them in the context of their shows and films, and in his larger development as an artist.” (xiii) He sets Fosse’s career within the general evolution of concept and practice in the American musical and, to a lesser extent, describes how his work reflects both personal issues and large-scale social and cultural developments. Winkler’s analysis of Fosse’s movies illustrates the choreographer exploring how “live” dance and film intersect and diverge in their potential movement expression. He emphasizes the significance of certain female dancers—particularly his wives, Mary Ann Niles, Joan McCracken, and Gwen Verdon—in their impact on Fosse’s career and his definition of an individual dance aesthetic. All of Fosse’s wives were older than he and had well-established theatrical résumés. Fosse acknowledged that they all furthered his artistic development, for instance, saying of McCraken, “I was all show biz, all I thought about was nightclubs, and she kept saying, ‘You’re too good to spend your life in nightclubs,’ she lifted me out of that, and I’ll always be grateful.” (26)
Winkler describes his “mission statement” as “to get inside Fosse’s choreography, to pull apart the Swiss watch precision of his dances and understand not just their structure but also the wide-ranging sources of his movement vocabulary and to consider them in the context of their shows and films, and in his larger development as an artist.”
Big Deal also stresses Fosse’s adolescent experience as formative in the steps he frequently used and in the tone and content of much of his work. Robert Louis was born in Chicago in 1927, the fifth of six children of a Norwegian Methodist father and an Irish Catholic mother. His parents’ own limited but positive show business experience led them (unlike many parents) to encourage Bob to pursue a theatrical career. At the Chicago Academy of Theater Arts Bob learned tumbling, clowning and comedy routines as well as tap and ballet from the director, a former vaudevillian. The director soon paired thirteen-year-old Bob and another student as a tap duo called the Riff Brothers and became their agent and manager. Early performance venues were as innocuous as church socials and USO shows, but soon the boys were also performing in nightclubs where they lied about their age or waited outside to perform the only “legit” act in a burlesque show.
By the time he was fifteen, Bob was leading a double-life: high school student by day, performer by night of a solo tap-dance-with-jokes act in sleazy venues as far away as St. Louis and Minneapolis. Fosse claimed that his parents did not think a straight-A, churchgoing son would be influenced by his surroundings. “[My mother] thought that you could send a boy of that age into a roomful of naked women and it wouldn’t bother him—because he was such a good boy. Obviously, she was wrong.” (17) Fosse remembered conflicted feelings during this early professional work: lonely travels, shoddy surroundings, ‘being exposed to things that early that I shouldn’t have been exposed to … ” (17) Yet he thought learning a lot about show business, particularly seedy show business, was valuable. Winkler asserts: “While his later work could display touches of sentiment and pathos, it was the triangulation of vaudeville, burlesque, and nightclubs that formed the basis of Fosse’s DNA.” (17) Works in which Fosse had Muscle—his musical Chicago and his film Cabaret, for example—clearly drew from the movement styles and dark sexuality of this triangle.
By 1946, Fosse, now nineteen, was a featured dancer in the road company of Call Me Mister where he met his first wife Marion Niles. Together they formed a dance duo that worked its way up from lesser to better nightclubs and hotel ballrooms from Montreal to Miami. Fosse created most of their choreography, some that included elements of the then fabled Jack Cole style. ² The success of the Fosse and Niles duo led to their engagement in a Broadway musical revue, Dance Me a Song (1950), featuring Joan McCracken. As his second wife, McCracken (a recognized star since her appearance in Oklahoma) insisted that Fosse should have more formal training. In a showcase at the American Theatre Wing, Fosse’s work caught the attention of an MGM talent scout and scored a contract with the studio of Fosse’s idol, Fred Astaire.
Fosse’s brief time with MGM was generally disappointing. He played a supporting role in his first film, Give a Girl a Break (1953) and danced with Debbie Reynolds. He had a smaller role and less dancing in his second film, and was given only a bit part in Kiss Me Kate. (1953) However the film’s choreographer Hermes Pan was so impressed with Fosse’s dancing that he allowed him to choreograph a short duet for himself and Carol Haney, a former Jack Cole dancer and dance assistant to Gene Kelly.
Excerpts from Winkler’s description of this duet illustrate one of the outstanding aspects of Big Deal, the author’s ability to vividly describe movement and choreographic atmosphere:
“The cheerful musical comedy dancing of the preceding hour and forty-five minutes is forgotten as a blast of jazz adrenaline jumps off the screen more powerfully than any 3D effect. Haney swings a leg out from the wings and gives a bloodcurdling scream as Fosse zooms out in a running slide that sends him halfway across the stage … They travel with a slow, panther-like strut punctuated by Fosse’s ‘come here, you’ nod that elicits a shiver of ecstasy from Haney. Then they are off again in a leap and jazz run that swings them up and around what looks to be an Elizabethan lamp post… Finally they hit a pose that seems all but inevitable: legs apart, arms up with wrists hanging limp, shoulders hunched, head gazing down and away from the audience, as they shuffle forward, the rhythm seeming to take over their bodies. Haney points a burlesque bump in Fosse’s direction that sends him into [a] back flip.” (32-33)
You can watch this brief duet here at 2:10-3:15. In fact, most of Fosse’s work is available on YouTube or DVDs. Viewing something by Fosse is essential to grasp fully the importance of rhythmic precision and variations in his choreography, yet Winkler’s descriptions enrich the experience by drawing attention to details easily missed. Big Deal includes a two-page glossary of dance steps, but reference is largely unnecessary.
The fabled Broadway director George Abbott saw Fosse’s film duet “From This Moment On” in Kiss Me Kate—probably urged by Joan McCracken—and hired Fosse as choreographer for Pajama Game (1954). The Fosse style is already evident in “Steam Heat,” a number often performed out of context: a trio dressed in Charlie Chaplin-like suits and derbies execute precise unison movements ranging from small isolations in hands, neck and shoulders to knee slides, rubber-legged walks, and shuffling steps. Dance Magazine accurately predicted the dance would become a classic. (41)
Fosse won a Tony Award for his Pajama Game choreography, a stellar Broadway debut that brought employment as choreographer on another Best Musical show. In Damn Yankees (1955) he connected professionally and personally with Gwen Verdon, who would become his third wife and his ideal collaborator as performer and sometimes co-choreographer.
Viewing something by Fosse is essential to grasp fully the importance of rhythmic precision and variations in his choreography, yet Winkler’s descriptions enrich the experience by drawing attention to details easily missed. Big Deal includes a two-page glossary of dance steps, but reference is largely unnecessary.
By the late ’50s Fosse had choreographed two other Broadway shows and the Warner Brother productions of Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. He was, however. increasingly frustrated by vetoes of his creative vision. “I didn’t like the way directors had the power to ruin my dances or throw them out altogether. A director would say, “You’ve got to cut that!’ Well, he was the boss, so I thought, ‘You’ve got to be the boss, if you want to protect the integrity of the work.’” (60-61)
Verdon facilitated Fosse’s desire for autonomy by insisting that he be hired as both choreographer and director of Redhead (1959), a comedy murder mystery so tailored to her charisma and talents as dancer and actress that the show closed when she could no longer stay in the role. Fosse clearly was the Muscle as the playbill read, “Entire Production Directed and Choreographed by Bob Fosse.”
Now in control, Fosse’s Sweet Charity (1966), a musical adaptation of Federico Fellini’s film, Nights of Calabria, and a vehicle for Verdon, happened within a changing landscape of Broadway productions. On a roundtable discussion titled “Is the Director-Choreographer Taking Over?” Fosse said: “[O]ne of the things that we’ve started groping at is style. We’ve thought that we’ve become too conventional in the way we do things and that we should become more visual … and I think that turning toward the director-choreographer has come out of this restlessness.” (124) Sweet Charity was praised for its “total choreography, a musicalized story conceived in dance images, in which even the dramatic conversations are performed as precisely designed movement.” (126)
Fosse would increasingly use stylized expression and cinematic techniques in his approach to both theatrical and film production. The ’60s was an era rich with theatrical and cinematic innovation.³ Film would clearly appeal to Fosse’s interest in visual expression linked with the ability to dictate what the audience would see. In preparation for his 1968 movie version of Sweet Charity (his debut as a screen director), Fosse screened many different types of films to learn techniques. Hollywood trade papers acclaimed the previews, but East Coast critics saw the editing as hyperactive and self-consciously cinematic.
Despite mixed reviews, Fosse was determined to do another film before returning to Broadway, and his next movie brilliantly integrated his growing mastery of the medium with his choreographic style and personal experience. Cabaret (1972), Fosse’s re-envisioning of the 1966 Broadway musical, “placed Fosse at the epicenter of America’s cultural changes. The political and social turmoil of pre-Nazi Germany and the shifting sexual and ethnic identities of its characters found parallels in America’s anxieties over the ongoing Vietnam War, new sexual permissiveness, and identity politics.” (139) In the “Mein Herr” number, “the ne plus ultra” of Fosse films (149 ) star Liza Minnelli, dance chorus girls and camera work capture the decadence and hedonism that Fosse experienced during his adolescent years in strip clubs. The same year, Fosse’s hit musical Pippin (1972) reflected post-Watergate cynicism about politics and government and illustrated Fosse’s pursuit of a more stylized theatrical approach. An ensemble of masked strolling Players slip in an out of character to show Pippin’s search for life fulfillment through song, dance, and scenes often defined by shifts (like cinematic “cuts”) in lighting. Fosse’s success as director-choreographer peaked in 1973, with Tony Awards for Pippin, Oscars for Cabaret, and Emmy and Peabody awards for his television showcase of Minelli, Liza with a Z—a “triple crown” unmatched achievement to this day.
Verdon facilitated Fosse’s desire for autonomy by insisting that he be hired as both choreographer and director of Redhead (1959), … Fosse clearly was the Muscle as the playbill read, “Entire Production Directed and Choreographed by Bob Fosse.”
In Chicago (1975) Fosse pursued a Brechtian presentational approach to its staging and performance. Now probably the show most thought of as a Fosse hit, Chicago opened to mixed reviews criticizing its stylized “musical vaudeville” structure while lauding the stellar cast. Verdon played Roxie Hart, a murderous wife who parleys her notoriety into show business fame. Chicago’s level of cynicism and eroticism was too much for many audience members and even some critics, and it was rarely produced for two decades. But as Winkler notes, the acclaim following a 1996 restaging demonstrates that popular culture now accepts what was cynical and vulgar in 1975. And in the twenty-first century, “The media landscape is now littered with Roxie Harts who need only update their Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat accounts to keep the public interested. Roxie’s employment of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ contains eerie parallels with contemporary American politics.” (207) By 2016, Chicago had been running on Broadway for twenty years, far beyond the record of A Chorus Line, the show that overshadowed it in the 1970s.
By 1970, Fosse had openly self-identified with the “swinger” image, talking freely of his use of cocaine and Dexedrine and of his many liaisons with female cast members. He would not do well in the “Me Too” era. Mariel Hemingway recalled Fosse literally chasing her around a couch insisting that he always slept with his stars. (250) On the other hand, Fosse was known for being kind and patient during auditions. Moreover, he cast more minority actors in his shows than other leading directors and choreographers, clearly prioritizing talent over race. Tense with obsessive attention to detail and hyper-energized from drugs and chain-smoking, Fosse could rehearse his dancers relentlessly. But to be a “Fosse dancer” was enviable status. Verdon and Fosse separated but never divorced, remaining on good terms as occasional professional colleagues and mutually devoted to their daughter.
Fosse’s Muscle, well established by the late ’70s, did not necessarily produce work as creative as that forged with and against collaborators’ talents. Fosse conceived Dancin’ (1978) as a showcase of different genres of dance to preexisting songs with lighting more important than scenery. However, his movement vocabulary and choreographic devices were largely the same without the expansion demanded to express character and plot. The Fosse dancers performed brilliantly, but the graphic sexuality of costume and movement in some numbers provoked controversy. Winkler’s summation of Dancin’ seems apt and supports his emphasis on the influence of Fosse’s sleazy teenage experience. While it exhibits the theatrical flair and kinetic energy characteristic of his work, “At its worst, Dancin’ displayed both an adolescent, leering vision of sex and a surprising trace of schmaltz.” (229)
Similarly, Fosse’s autobiographical film All That Jazz (1979) demonstrated skill in film techniques but was, for many, out of control in its narcissistic depiction of drug use and promiscuity. Intensely diverse criticism praised its editing and panned its self-conscious cinematic surrealism. In a Fellini-esque scene Joe (Fosse’s alter ego) has close-up open-heart surgery while surrounded by a Busby Berkeley-like ensemble of dancers representing ghosts of girlfriends past. Johnny Carson quipped at the Oscar Awards ceremony, “They opened Bob Fosse up and found a case of inoperable ego.” (245) All That Jazz received nine nominations but won Oscars only in technical achievements.
Fosse’s Muscle, well established by the late ’70s, did not necessarily produce work as creative as that forged with and against collaborators’ talents. Fosse conceived Dancin’ (1978) as a showcase of different genres of dance to preexisting songs with lighting more important than scenery. However, his movement vocabulary and choreographic devices were largely the same without the expansion demanded to express character and plot.
None of Fosse’s ’80s film or stage projects resonated with critics or audiences as did his work during the previous decade. Out of town tryout reviews panned Big Deal, his first Broadway show in eight years, for its clumsy script (by Fosse), awkward structure, vague characterization and gloom—both in content and film noir stage lighting. To politely expressed suggestions from the producer, Fosse the Muscle responded: “I’m the director. You’re the producer. Let me make my show, so shut the f … up.” (267) Big Deal closed after only seventy performances.
When Fosse died at 60 in September 1987, coverage suggested that his best work was behind him. The Verdon-Fosse Legacy LLC organization is preserving his classic style and repertoire. Winkler, however, argues for Fosse’s powerful and continuing influence in the development of MTV, on pop icons like Michael Jackson and Beyonce, and even on hip hop. Fosse work and postmodern adaptations thrive on the web. Watch side-by-side clips of Fosse and Michael Jackson dancing, and you may well agree that Fosse remains a big deal.