The Magazine

Dance to Excess

Bob Fosse, demon choreographer.

Feb 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 22 • By GINA DALFONZO
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There’s an anecdote here that perfectly captures the choreographer-director Bob Fosse (1927-1987). At the end of the musical Pippin (1972), the hero is supposed to say he feels “trapped but happy” with his new family. Over the protests of his team, Fosse cut the last two words, deliberately sending audiences out on a sour note. 

Shirley MacLaine, Bob Fosse (1969)

Shirley MacLaine, Bob Fosse (1969)

associated press

“Bob,” says composer Stephen Schwartz, “was imposing his own psychological demons on a story that in many ways couldn’t support that.”

And indeed, Fosse had demons. Frequently molested and humiliated in the burlesque clubs where he worked as a teenager, and never forgiving his parents for not shielding him, he carried a darkness that manifested itself in twin obsessions with sex and death. Cleverly, Wasson reflects this latter obsession in his chapter titles, which count down from “Sixty Years” to “One Hour and Fifty-Three Minutes.”

Little of this darkness was apparent when Bob Fosse was a fresh young face in Hollywood. Variety had called him a “prospect for Gene Kelly roles” and he danced brilliantly in a few MGM musicals, most notably Kiss Me Kate (1953). But he lacked Kelly’s cheerful confidence. Fosse was driven by insecurity, and Wasson posits that the classic Fosse style—hat pushed over the face; tiny, twitchy moves; a focus that was “down and in” instead of “up and out,” as Donna McKechnie puts it—was rooted in his shyness. 

If Hollywood was unwelcoming at first, Broadway was different. Hired to choreograph The Pajama Game (1954), Fosse instantly made his mark on musical theater, and his shyness didn’t keep him from pushing for (and getting) a codirector credit. As his career blossomed, and he began directing films as well as stage shows, he fought for more control—until he was writing as well as choreographing and directing. As his influence increased, Fosse’s shows darkened. Relatively bright musicals like Damn Yankees (1955) and Sweet Charity (1966) gave way to the bleak Chicago (1975) and the film version of Cabaret (1972, which won him an Oscar).

“He was draining the color,” Wasson writes of the Chicago dances. “These were not people but bodies, automatons. Their eyes were still and mean.”

Fosse went on to make a morbidly autobiographical film, All That Jazz (1979), in which, essentially, he filmed his own death eight years before it happened—and in which he callously let the young actor Keith Gordon suffer much the same kind of humiliation he had endured in those burlesque clubs. Yet the darkness couldn’t repel those who cared for him. His first two wives never got over him; his third wife, Broadway legend Gwen Verdon, filed for separation after catching him “with a couple German girls” during the making of Cabaret. Still, until Fosse’s death, Verdon kept starring in his productions, assisting with his choreography, and catering to his whims. 

For Fosse was a tough habit to break. His genius, charm, and empathy with his dancers proved irresistible to scores of them—even though, for him, the line between consent and harassment barely existed. Dancer Phyllis Sherwood recalled how, when she was 16, Fosse came to her hotel room and exposed himself. But, she adds, “We laughed about it afterward. .  .  . He was such a sweet guy—no matter what he did, you couldn’t stay that mad.” Her fellow dancer Candy Brown contends that “he never had a sleaziness about him.”

In fact, Fosse’s behavior was very nearly the dictionary definition of sleazy. Cheryl Clark walked off the set of All That Jazz when Fosse tried to make her dance topless, telling him, “I’ve seen you exploit girls since I was 21 years old and you’re not going to exploit me.” Fosse called in another dancer, Sandahl Bergman, and, after she did the number, he tried “pimping” her (Wasson’s word) to one of the producers. With women, as with work, Fosse was always pushing to see how much he could get away with.

Of course, these things were thought about differently back then. But one would hope that a contemporary biographer might achieve a little critical perspective. Instead, Sam Wasson—so perceptive about Fosse’s work—views Fosse’s personal life through tinted glasses, claiming that “the net result of Fosse’s sexual involvement was mostly positive.” Indeed, he speaks of Fosse building “a family”—and it’s strangely true that various wives, mistresses, and one-night stands formed genuine friendships. His widow Gwen Verdon, daughter Nicole, and longtime girlfriend Ann Reinking worked harmoniously together on Fosse-related projects after he died. If this was “family,” it was a Sister Wives sort of setup—with Fosse, even after death, very much the man in charge.

Gina Dalfonzo is editor of and Dickensblog.