The choreographer who changed Broadway jazz
From pigeon-toed stances and widespread palms to sinewy, meticulous isolations, few choreographers evoke such strong imagery as Bob Fosse (1927–1987). Not only did he revolutionize the look of musical theater in the 1950s–’80s, his work continues to influence choreographers and filmmakers today. A Chicago native, Fosse began studying dance at age 8 when he accompanied his sister to dance lessons. A natural mover (and without the means to pay for dance lessons), Fosse began performing on vaudeville stages and in sleazy burlesque joints. In 1953—after high school and a two-year stint in the Navy performing for troops in the South Pacific—he signed a contract with MGM Studios in Los Angeles. Proving his choreographic chops in one section of the film Kiss Me, Kate, Fosse was hired to choreograph The Pajama Game on Broadway, earning him his first of nine Tony Awards. Although Fosse did not develop a codified technique to train dancers for his work, his style is immortalized by his choreography in many musicals, including Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, Pippin and Chicago.
Fosse’s dynamic choreography often shows a flair for the provocative, full of dark humor and sharp wit influenced by his early experiences in vaudeville and burlesque. The following productions showcase his style (Fosse both choreographed and directed all but Damn Yankees).
• Damn Yankees (stage, 1955): (Dir. George Abbott, chor. Fosse) The baseball-inspired dances show Fosse’s often overlooked athleticism. In the 1958 film version, he appears in the number “Who’s Got the Pain,” dancing with Gwen Verdon.
• Chicago (stage, 1975): Seen as the signature Fosse musical, Chicago was revived on Broadway in 1996 (chor. Ann Reinking) and is still running today.
• Dancin’ (stage, 1978): With everything from tap to ballet, the plotless musical revue features Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” and Neil Diamond’s “Crunchy Granola Suite.”
• Cabaret (film, 1972): Based on the 1966 musical Cabaret (chor. Ronald Field), the film stars Liza Minnelli as a nightclub performer in 1931 Germany. Famous numbers “Mein Herr” and “Money, Money” were not in the original Broadway production, but have been added in stage revivals.
• All That Jazz (film, 1979): This semi-autobiographical film follows Joe Gideon, a choreographer who must find balance between his health and a grueling work schedule. In it, Fosse forecasts his own death when Gideon dies from a heart attack. Fosse had undergone open-heart surgery after a heart attack five years prior. A subsequent attack in 1987 proved fatal.
The Legacy Lives On:
* After Fosse’s death, Chet Walker (who had been a dance captain of Dancin’) and Gwen Verdon hosted workshops teaching Fosse’s style and repertory. The sessions led to the production of the dance revue Fosse.
* The 2002 film Chicago, starring Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, won six Oscars.
* Beyoncé’s 2008 music video “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” shows close resemblance to Fosse’s 1969 “Mexican Breakfast,” a trio starring Verdon. Beyoncé’s 2007 video “Get Me Bodied” also lifts moves from “Rich Man’s Frug,” and Paula Abdul’s 1989 video “Cold Hearted” references “Take Off with Us” from All That Jazz.
* Many choreographers working today have been influenced by Fosse’s style, including 10-time Tony Award nominee Graciela Daniele (original Chicago), Radio City Rockettes director Linda Haberman (Dancin’), Tony Award winner Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo (Fosse).
All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse, by Martin Gottfried, Bantam Books, 1990
Bob Fosse’s Broadway, by Margery Beddow, Heinemann Drama, 1996
“Bob Fosse,” by Fiona Kirk, Dance Teacher, April 2006
“Auditioning for Fosse,” by Ann Reinking, Dance Magazine, February 2007
All That Jazz, dir. Bob Fosse, 20th Century Fox, 2003 (DVD)
Chicago, dir. Rob Marshall, Miramax Home Entertainment, 2002 (DVD)
Fosse, dir. Matthew Diamond, Image Entertainment, 2002 (DVD)
Cabaret, dir. Bob Fosse, Warner Home Video, 2003 (DVD)
Damn Yankees, dir. Stanley Donen, George Abbott, Warner Home Video, 2004 (DVD)
Kiss Me, Kate, dir. George Sidney, Warner Home Video, 2003 (DVD)
Sweet Charity, dir. Bob Fosse, Universal Studios, 2003 (DVD)
The Verdon Fosse Estate: verdonfosse.com
Dancers Over 40: panel discussions: youtube.com/dancersover40
PBS’ “That’s Dancin’: Fosse on Broadway” and “Broadway: The American Musical” resources: pbs.org
Photos: Chicago photo by Dan Chavkin, all courtesy of the Dance Magazine Archives