The long audition: Fosse, Me, and Sam Wasson’s “Fosse”

By Scott Ross

(Warning: Memory ahead.)

Bob Fosse has been a touchstone in my life for exactly four decades now. That conscious connection was forged on my 13th birthday, in 1974. The night before, my parents took me (and the dread sister) to see a dinner theatre production of Cabaret, a show I’d fallen in love with via the Original Cast Recording, which I’d borrowed from the Olivia Raney Library in downtown Raleigh (gone now, alas.) The next day, a Saturday, my best friend Michael and I went to the movie, brought back for some reason nearly a year after its big Oscar win. (The soundtrack LP was another of my birthday presents that year, my mother not quite understanding the difference.)

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At the time I was a sufficient musical theatre novice that I preferred the show to the movie; I missed the “book” songs Bob Fosse and his collaborators Jay Presson Allen and Hugh Wheeler jettisoned from the score. I also missed the Lenya character, and her Jewish suitor. (She’s there, but her role is significantly diminished, her dilemma assumed in the movie by the Marissa Berenson character.) I didn’t know, not having yet discovered Christopher Isherwood’s books, or the details of his life, how much more closely Cabaret as film dovetailed with Isherwood’s original, and with his own biography. But I loved the way the movie was put together; was amused by its nonchalant approach to sexuality; excited by the editing and by the choreography of the cabaret numbers; enthralled by Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli; and, although I didn’t yet comprehend why, by Michael York’s Isherwoodesque physiognomy.

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Michael York as Christopher Isherwood, more or less.

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Isherwood around the time of his days in Berlin.

I didn’t quite realize, not being fully conversant as yet with the possibilities of irony in staging musicals — and not having discovered Stephen Sondheim; that would come in a year or two — that what Fosse had made was not a traditional musical but a dramatic movie with musical numbers. Only later would I fully understand that by keeping the song-and-dance within the confines of the Kit Kat Klub — save the ersatz Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” — the filmmaker was able to exploit his stars’ talents (and his own) while keeping the action grounded in the drastically crumbling reality of 1931 Berlin and to comment ironically, as had Harold Prince in his original concept for the stage show but here in purely cinematic terms, on the story’s arc and the characters’ predicaments, erotic and otherwise. I would come to ruminate on this aspect of Fosse’s Cabaret in due course, as I realized who I was, how my feelings for Michael had altered, and that he had his own very personal reasons, not yet shared with me, for his amusement over the movie’s homosexual implications.

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Brian: Oh — SCREW Maximilian!
Sally: I do.
Brian (after a shocked pause, smiles): So do I.

These less personal and more thematic revelations came later, after seeing the movie again, on television in September of 1975. That infamous  broadcast contained one of the most bizarre acts of censorship I’ve ever encountered, even to this day. I fully expected the movie’s many uses of the word “screw” (“Fuck” in the European release) would be axed, or over-dubbed. What I was not prepared for was that ABC, terrified of the moment in Cabaret which made explicit that Sally Bowles (Minnelli) and her erstwhile beau Brian Roberts (York) have both been sexually involved with Helmut Griem’s erotically ecumenical Maximilian, would simply drop the audio in the middle of the scene. At first I assumed this sudden silence to be a technical glitch, but when the sound was restored immediately after that funny/shocking dialogue, I had the uneasy feeling that something else was at play. And it was — the same Puritan impulse that would later greet Fosse’s Chicago, Dancin’ and All That Jazz: How dare he suggest that there  was such a thing as sex in the world! And not just, in George Carlin’s ironic phrase, “Man on top, get it over with quick” sex but transgressive, unusual, non-normative sex!

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Timothy Scott in the “Dancin'” first national tour, with Valerie-Jean Miller and Cynthia Onrubia. Photo by Martha Swope.

Flash-forward to December, 1979 and my first trip to New York as a theatre-mad 18 year old, seeing Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ at a matinee performance. Ann Reinking was out, as was her wont — although I intuited how exhausting the show must be, it was only later that I understood just how grueling that three-act marathon was for Fosse’s dancers — but the experience was transformative nonetheless. I was especially impressed by a brilliant young dancer who, coincidentally, shared two of my names; I simply could not take my eyes of Timothy Scott whenever he was on-stage. While he was definitely my “type” (or one of my types, anyway) it was his technique, his expertise, his energy and his sheer stage presence, especially in the “Big Noise from Winnetka” trio, that made him irresistible. (When I got home I wrote him a fan letter; it went un-answered.) A trained jazz dancer, Scott seemed to me the perfect masculine embodiment of the Fosse style. My psyche was no less Art-and-Beauty orientated than Fosse’s, save that his concentration was on the female of the species, mine on the male.

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Timothy Scott’s Playbill headshot.

Then, in the winter of 1980, All That Jazz. A movie that obsessed me to such a degree that, as stage manager of a local production of Life with Father that season, my nightly exhortation to the troupe over the tannoy at the top of Act One was Joe Gideon’s somewhat shame-faced, “It’s showtime, folks!”

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Rowell Gormon, “Life with Father”‘s Reverend Dr. Lloyd, gave caricatures to the cast and crew as closing night gifts. In mine, he captured my Fosse phase perfectly.

That summer I staged, and performed in, a pair of dances for a local revue, one of them my memory, not entirely accurate, of Cabaret‘s “Money, Money,” for myself and my friend Lisa. Discovering that Fosse, who did not enjoy the usual and requisite ballet training of his peers and lacking the terpsichorean vocabulary to express to his dancers precisely what he wanted from them, charted his ideas through the use of stick figures, was an encouragement. Although I was far less conversant with the nomenclature of dance than Fosse, I was able to work out my choreography (such as it was) that way, and did. There was enough enthusiasm on that stage to make up for my choreographic inadequacies, but what mattered most to me was creating an homage to one of my idols.

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In retrospect, I realize that my interest in Fosse began much earlier than Cabaret, at age 11, with the 1972 telecast of his Liza with a Z, one of the entities that conferred on him a still-unchallenged Triple Crown as recipient of the three major, nicknamed, show-biz awards (Oscar, Tony, Emmy) in a single year. I just didn’t, at that moment, know who he was. I got a much clearer sense of him the following summer, on seeing his movie debut, the heartbreaking Sweet Charity, on television.

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So, Bob Fosse: One of the handful of true American originals, and a repository of show-biz tropes that, yoked to his own physical defects, became a style. Adored and, if not reviled, at least dismissed, in equal measure. Capable of astonishing on a regular basis, yet a simulacrum of his own limitations. Endlessly fascinating while, at one and the same moment, and in some essential fashion, personally repellent.

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On that last point, I suppose Fosse joins a not so very select list; some of the creative artists whose work I most admire were, or are, problematic as people. As someone (sources vary) once noted, he who would eat sausages or respect the law would do well not to find out how either are made. The same holds true of admiration; best to maintain a distance, or risk discovering that one’s heroes possess feet of purest clay. That axiom presents a problem for those, like me, who are by nature intensely curious, particularly about the work they love and the people who make it. Although as a reader I am at best a sort of literary magpie, flitting from one shiny object to another, I am especially enamored of biography and what my best friend and I think of as “the backstage stuff.” Do I dare find out too much about my idols?

Add this: The very nature of the human psyche and the human heart militates against complete understanding. How many of us fully comprehend ourselves, and our own motivations, let alone those of others? How far can empathy extend? How does even the most incisive, competent biographer make sense of what is, essentially, inexplicable? The best know they never can. Externals give clues, but clues only. And thanks to the various schools of psychology, and our own imperfect grasp of them, head-shrinking is now a game any number can play. And the more noted the subject, the greater the impulse to analyze.

These personal, exhaustive (and, admittedly, exhausting) ruminations are occasioned by my having finished reading Sam Wasson’s fat biography Fosse (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.) Wasson’s monograph on Blake Edwards (the wonderfully titled A Splurch in the Kisser) held me, even at its most academically pretentious, and his little book on Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.) was often enchanting. And given my nearly lifelong fascination with Bob Fosse, the pull of the book was damn near irresistible. I have emerged on the far side of Fosse even more depressed than usual. If that is explicable because its subject’s love affair with death, it is only in part. I’ve long been conversant with that aspect of my idol’s psychology.  Indeed, as a more-than-somewhat obsessive aficionado of All That Jazz my first, uncensored thought when I heard, in the autumn of 1987, that Fosse had died was, “Well, he finally got to fuck Angelique.” Less than Bob Fosse’s own darkness, then, it was the sheer, almost unrelenting, piling up of incident that got to me. 600 pages worth of neurotic dissipation can do that to you.

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But is that due to Fosse — or to Wasson’s Fosse? When I read Kevin Boyd Grubb’s Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Works of Bob Fosse in 1990 I was certainly moved, but the principal emotion I felt afterward was exhilaration — the sense that Fosse’s best work, seen on film or experienced in the moment, mitigated his darkness, even his death. But in Fosse, that very work is itself buried under the relentlessness of detail. The book is not a poison-pen biography by any means, but what you carry with you is, not the indelible images the man left us, but the overall, debilitating miasma of his life. Or, in any case, of the life Sam Wasson describes. In its way, Fosse is the literary equivalent of Star 80, the director’s 1983 meditation on the brief life and brutal death of Dorothy Stratten. The dread sets in early, and never abates.

The sense of unease begins with Wasson’s death-watch chapter titles, which open with “60 Years” and devolve from there; the last is “One Hour and Fifty-Three Minutes.” Any life can be measured in those terms, of course, and I suspect that no one would have appreciated those chapter headings more than Bob Fosse.  They’re like those shock-cuts that recur in Star 80 and which so unnervingly portend a grisly finish that the viewer feels trapped in a hell too visceral to walk away from. This viewer did, anyway; the images, veiled and uncertain at first but attaining full and hideous definition by the end, still linger from my initial exposure 30 years ago. Although I didn’t care a great deal for Lenny, Star 80 is the one Fosse movie I can’t imagine ever sitting through again. The infamous open-heart surgery in All That Jazz was a jolly romp by comparison.

While Wasson sings the praises of Martin Gottfried’s Fosse biography All His Jazz and never once mentions Kevin Boyd Grubb in the text, his end-notes indicate that he has quoted from Razzle Dazzle extensively (if selectively.) While it is true that Grubb’s book has been faulted for its errors, it at least had the virtue of having been written by an expert in dance, and not by a sexual neurotic: Gottfried, whose long and risibly suspect tendency to determine dread homosexual underpinnings in all things theatrical, and to oppose them rather hysterically, reached a kind of nadir in his review of Pippin which, notoriously, hailed Fosse’s staging as having returned choreography to a heterosexual norm at long, long last. The image one gets is of a Broadway theatre in which squads of screaming nellies, wrists limply a-flail,  routinely invaded the stages of every musical, humping each other’s legs (and other body parts?) while Gottfried watched, aghast, helpless and terrified.

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Ben Vereen and the Players in “Pippin.”

Wasson too, despite his avowed adoration of movie musicals, seems curiously loathe to approach homosexuality in any direct manner. For a field — dance — which has long attracted young gay men, that’s a striking omission. Fosse’s bête noire Michael Bennett is noted in the book as Donna McKechnie’s partner, and later as a notable loss to AIDS, but the leap from one to the other is entirely mental on the part of the reader. As is Wasson’s citing of Fosse’s jealousy over Ann Reinking’s relationship, whatever it was, with the dancer Charles Ward; Wasson tells us that other Fosse dancers assumed Ward was gay, but elides over that, never acknowledging as Grubb does that Ward was, for many of Fosse’s Broadway corps, their first friend and colleague to succumb to the virus.

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Fosse’s ambisexual corps in “Dancin’.”

Fosse was quoted (in a New York Times interview from the time of Pippin Wasson ignores) as — to use a certain recent Presidential term — evolving in his attitudes toward his gay dancers: “Always before if I found a male dancer I knew was homosexual, I would keeping 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 individuality, and they were so happy about it. I think it helped the show.” In a book necessarily drenched in its subject’s sexuality and in his fascination with sex, this omission is telling.

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The sexy, brilliantly staged, and acted, invitation to a menage in “Cabaret.”

I don’t mean to belabor the point; after all, Fosse’s heterosexuality is integral to his work, and to the dances he created that occasionally scandalized the prudes, much as Joe Gideon’s “Take Off with Us” routine in All That Jazz shocks his collaborators. But, again, the slow realization, by audiences as well as the characters on-screen in All That Jazz, that Roy Scheider’s Gideon had actually done it, that he is going to depict two men and two women dancing romantic and sexual pas de deux in a musical was, in 1979, one of those absolutely galvanizing movie moments, like the achingly-almost ménage à trois in Fosse’s Cabaret, that heralded not merely tense anticipation and a gradually released pleasure in those movies’ gay audiences, but a complete relaxation about erotic variation on the part of the filmmaker himself.

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The mesmerizing male pas de deux in “All That Jazz.”

Which brings us rather neatly to the major disappointment of Fosse: While film-freak Wasson illuminates the making of Bob Fosse’s quartet of movies — all that “the backstage stuff” — with admirable detail and scholarship, the finished products are not treated with the same consideration. This, from an author whose previous books exhibited a boundless enthusiasm for movies and a keen, if occasionally academicized, grasp of critique, is puzzling at best. Yes, Fosse is long already, but if that was the editorial concern I would note that the Houghton Mifflin typeface is generous, and could surely have been reduced to a fractionally smaller font. Overviews are sometimes dangerous, but in the case of a book like this, they’re almost de rigeur, especially as Wasson is too young to have seen Pippin or Chicago or Dancin’ or even Fosse’s Broadway swan-song, Big Deal, and is thus at a critical disadvantage in conveying his subject’s theatrical achievements. None of Fosse’s later shows, aside from a very poor, scaled-down Pippin, was videotaped for posterity, even in the now-standard archival format; you’d either have to have been there or be the sort of writer John Anthony Gilvey proved in his superb Gower Champion biography Before the Parade Passes By, to produce the sensation of those historic dances by and for those who never got the chance to see them. But film is, at least for the moment, eternal, and each of Fosse’s quartet of movies is available for perusal and rife for commentary.
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Blane Savage, Ann Reinking, Charles Ward and Sandahl Bergman in “Dancin’,” photogrpahed by Martha Swope.

Wasson seems so intent on the shock value of ending Bob Fosse’s history, and his book, at the very moment of his death that nothing is said about his legacy in the 26 years since he left us. Surely a word or two, if only in an epilogue, is due to what has been done with Fosse’s choreography, and his shows, subsequently: Say, the popular revue Fosse which, while preserving his choreography, also misinterpreted and diminished it. Or the phenomenally popular “stripped-down” Chicago revival (really little more than staged concert) that nonetheless proved the worth of the show decades after its chilly initial reception. Or the subsequent, rather facile and misguided (though also massively popular) movie version, made by people (such as Craig Zadan) with impeccable backgrounds in theatre who nonetheless felt the need to “explain” why the musical numbers existed. (If you have to explain the reason for the numbers in a musical, why are you making a musical at all?)

Fosse is, despite these cavils, a thoroughly engrossing book. Wasson’s many interviews with Fosse’s friends, lovers, colleagues and dancers give it an aspect of laudable completeness and verisimilitude. I daresay that few recent books on the theatre have had greater scope, and Wasson’s organization and arrangement of these disparate details is more than admirable. (Think how much he must have had to leave out.) He allows those who loved Bob Fosse, even as he exasperated them, full sway to convey their emotions, some of them remarkably fresh even decades after the fact. He also gives Fosse’s detractors enough rope to hang themselves quite nicely: Hal Prince claiming Fosse ran his entire oeuvre off the energy of his, Prince’s, original staging of Cabaret; Stephen Sondheim observing that he never bought Fosse’s darkness as anything other than a pose, and judging that the man who turned his own, much-remarked upon, physical limitations into a style “saw the last 20 minutes of Follies” and made a career out of it.

It is, finally, the numbing piling-on of dissipation that is the chiefest aspect of Wasson’s Fosse, and the most dispiriting. Thesis biographies, like thesis plays, rarely get beyond a narrow point of view; the thesis is all. The endless sexual conquests that make Fosse seem like a real-life version of the Dean Martin “Dino” character in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s Kiss Me, Stupid, in danger of a headache if he doesn’t have sex every single night of his life. The insistence, odd in a man whose love and respect for women suggests a kind of nascent, if foot-scuffling, feminism, on his partners’ absolute erotic fealty to him even as he indulged himself satirically… and even as he recognized the absurdity in himself. The chain-smoking that reached such heights of madness that, during periods of intense working concentration Fosse often burned his own lips. The drinking, the drugs. The manic-depression. All of it doubtless real, and much of it contributing both to Fosse’s self-made myth and to his early demise, but much of it repetitious to the point of authorial obsession. The gentle, apologetic visionary of Shirley MacLaine’s memoirs, the driven soul whose genius could be ruthless and cruel even as he was begging everyone’s pardon for it (“One more time, please… Forgive me”) is in scant evidence here, as is the filmmaker whose apotheosis of style in the service of content, the magnificent Cabaret, won him a deserved place in movie history and whose self-lacerating All That Jazz stands as a model of staggeringly effective cutting.

As an adolescent, allowed to perform in the appalling world of Chicago burlesque, Fosse was likely initiated into sex at an early age, and in circumstances so exceptionally ugly even he lacked the intestinal fortitude to depict them fully in All That Jazz. This may or may not account for his love/hate relationships with women, but it is undoubtedly horrid, and terribly sad, and may go a long way toward explaining his life-long struggles with suicidal depression. “In today’s world,” Fosse was quoted in the late ’70s, “everything seems like some sort of long audition.” For him, that call-back process may have had its central metaphor in the approach/avoidance of death, but that didn’t make his accomplishments deathish.

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The first page of Bernard Drew’s 1979 American Film article on Fosse and “All That Jazz.”

If my response to Wasson’s book seems excessively personal, that’s because it is. Bob Fosse’s work has meant so much to me through the years that I feel compelled to defend him against what, in the end, is a biography more interested in the man’s personal flaws than his measurable achievement. I’m also aware that my veneration of Fosse is entirely subjective, and selfish; his gradual physical debilitation, as much as his death, deprived me of what I most wanted from him: More.

There is a great deal to admire about Fosse, but I wish the man whose best movies turned my head around and altered my world and whose self-indulgent, occasionally vulgar but utterly exhilarating Dancin’ I count as one of the seminal theatrical experiences of my youth had gotten a more sympathetic biographer than Sam Wasson. “Sympathetic” in the sense, not of condoning his subject’s excesses as a man and as an artist, but in the wider meaning, as one who expresses an understanding of the art itself and knows that when dealing with a creative person the work, in the final analysis, is all that really matters. The rest of it is just marking time.

1Bob Fosse – All That Jazz

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The long audition: Fosse, Me, and Sam Wasson’s “Fosse”

  1. Pingback: The long audition: Fosse, Me, and Sam Wasson’s “Fosse” | Random Notes from Some Kind of Hairpin

  2. Pingback: The long audition: Fosse, Me, and Sam Wasson’s “Fosse” | So few critics, so many poets

  3. Pingback: List, List, O List!: Being an Idiosyncratic and Annotated Compendium of 50 Essential Books on or About the Theatre, Sans Preamble and with a Preponderance of Musical Theatre Titles & an Unavoidable Focus on the work of Americans | Playwright at Libert

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