Tag Archives: Bob Fosse

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

By Scott Ross

Hollis Alpert, The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess  A thorough history of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s “Broadway opera” (with a lyrical assist from Ira, leading to the Gershwin heirs’ ludicrous declarative title for the recent revival, The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which elicited a stern, and quite proper, rebuke from Stephen Sondheim.) The book is attractively put together in an over-sized format, with scads of photos. Included is the famous 1950s “goodwill tour” of Russia and the glorious 1976 Houston Opera production starring the rapturous Clamma Dale.

Amy Asche, ed., Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II  The most recent in Knopf’s beautiful series of coffee-table lyric collections, all of which are stylishly produced, contain breathtaking arrays of production photos and are as exhaustive as seems humanly possible.

A Pictorial History of the American Theatre

Daniel Blum, A Pictorial History of the American Theatre, 1860-1980 (New Fifth Edition; Enlarged by John Willis)  A huge volume in the Pictorial History series, noted for their thoroughness (and their impossibly crowded pages of tiny photographs.) Still, to leaf through one of these volumes is to be completely transported into the past.

Everything Was Possible

Ted Chapin, Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies  I have been obsessed with this show, to my mind the greatest of all musicals, since my teens. (Name-Drop Warning!) In an early ’80s letter, I suggested such a book to Stephen Sondheim, who replied that he didn’t think much of the idea, “especially after the fact.” How wrong he was! And how grateful we should all be that it was Ted Chapin who put this together. He was there. He saw. He knows. And his personal view of the proceedings makes for an immediacy and a comprehensiveness that are just about definitive.

Don Dunn, The Making of No, No, Nanette  This one is dated by Davis’ smug, condescending and, frankly, bitchy remarks about “queers” in the theatre, and his frequent imputations to the many gay men involved in this successful revival, of comically swish attitudes and over-the-top, camp enthusiasms. Be that as it may; until Everything Was Possible, this was the most complete accounting we’d ever gotten of the production, from conception to aftermath, of a single musical show. It’s all here: The back-stabbing and in-fights, the terrible realization early in rehearsals that Busby Berkeley was not the man for the job of staging, the sackings, and the battle royal between the peripatetic Harry Rigby and the rather monstrous Cema Rubin, which culminated in the heartbreak of Rigby’s losing his own show. I don’t know whether it’s a juicy backstager, a cautionary tale or just a fine job of reportage (those homophobic tendencies notwithstanding) but it certainly is compelling.

Richard France, The Theatre of Orson Welles  France’s is the only volume of which I am aware that concentrates solely on Welles’ theatre work, and despite its un-attractiveness as a book, the scholarship is as impeccable as the conclusions are, occasionally, biased against—and unfair toward—its subject.

John Gielgud, An Actor and His Time  Essentially a transcription of Gielgud’s multi-part BBC Radio program, this is a rich, informative, amusing and beautifully illustrated volume by and about one of the greatest actors of the last century. Not to be missed.

Jon Anthony Gilvey, Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical  Gilvey writes about Champion’s work as though he’d been present for every show—an impossibility, given his age—and his descriptions of such seminal stagings as the opening of Carnival put you front row center, with an immediacy and a fulsomeness rare in books of this kind.

The Season

William Goldman, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway  Another book that suffers from some dated attitudes, again in particular about gay men. But Goldman’s complete accounting of a single season (1967-1968) is breezy, informative, fascinating and, at times, wildly funny. I discovered a Bantam paperback edition in a second-hand book shop at 16, and devoured it in record time, and with the ardor only the completely stage-struck can approximate. Or appreciate. The wealth of detail remains vivid nearly four decades later. What’s interesting now is that Goldman’s overview took in a season that was generally regarded as one of Broadway’s worst, yet how rarified a world it seems now, with all those plays opening. Not musicals. Plays. In retrospect, Goldman’s, despite his disappointment, was a veritable Golden Age compared with today.

The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical

Mark N. Grant, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical  Speaking of disappointment with contemporary Broadway… Grant, a composer, surveys the best of the great age of innovation with keen musicianship and some surprising findings (the fox-trot as the source of the American Popular Song… who knew?) He then brings us to now, and despairs. Everything of which he quite properly complains is something I, and many others who work in and love theatre, have been kvetching about for years: The over-amplification, the nearly total reliance on song catalogs and hit movies as source material, the creeping amateurishness of and rock-style reliance on assonance by most contemporary lyricists, the soaring cost of tickets, the appalling behavior of audiences, the ubiquitous standing ovations for every show… With all that, and some pointed critiques of specific composers and librettists (even Sondheim comes in for a few, gently articulated and quite astute, knocks) I can even forgive Grant for his dismissal of Kander and Ebb.

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare  If, as the ad-meisters like to say, you only read one book on Shakespeare, let it be this one. Greenblatt’s scholarship and research are impeccable, his findings sometimes startling abut always on point, and his appreciation of the playwright total and convincing. It’s also a richly textured depiction of Elizabethan England, with all its perils, and that rare volume by a heterosexual historian and critic to take in, appreciate and even commend, the seemingly fluid sexuality of the Bard. Invaluable and unique.

Otis Guernsey, Playwrights, Lyricists and Composers on Theatre  An anthology of pieces from the Dramatist Guild Quarterly during the early ’70s, this one is especially notable for its delicious panel discussions by the participants of specific shows, and includes Sondheim’s Lyrics and Lyricists talk, in which (among other things) he illustrates how he took a beautiful piece of dramatic prose by James Goldman and trasliterated it into the stunningly poetic lyric for Evening Primrose‘s “I Remember.”

Moss Hart, Act One  The great-grandaddy of all modern theatre memoirs. Hart, looking back from the perspective of the late 1950s, re-created his early days as the prototypical stage-struck young man and his early collaboration with George S. Kaufman on Once in a Lifetime. It’s a sharp, witty, gloriously fulsome self-portrait with one interesting little curlicue: Nowhere in it does this healthy young American male mention dating a girl. In light of later revelations about Hart’s conflicted sexuality, that omission seems almost no omission at all. (See also: Steven Bach—Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart.)

Mary C. Henderson, Mielziner: Master of Modern Stage Design  A gorgeous and profusely illustrated coffee-table tribute to one of the most important American scenic designers.

Hirschfeld on Line

Al Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld on Line  A long look back, from the then-near centenarian. A huge volume, taking in everything from Hirschfeld’s early, “serious art” phase to the evolution of his utterly unique style of caricature. From the ’20s to the Aughts. When I was a teenager I used to wonder how, when this venerable and brilliant man passed, an actor would know he’d “arrived” without Al to sketch him. Little did I know then how many more decades Broadway hopefuls had in which to make that arrival. A treasure.

John Kander and Fred Ebb with Greg Lawrence, Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz  A lovely book, in which the most important and innovative songwriting team since the heyday of Bock and Harnick discuss their respective beginnings and their many superb collaborations. I’m deeply indebted to Greg Lawrence for getting them on the record while Ebb was still with us.

Robert Kimball, The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter  One of the earliest of the Knopf volumes, and one of the best. Literacy, humor, astoundingly free-flowing inner-rhyme and hot sex have seldom been so wittily evoked, or invoked, in the musical theatre.

Robert Kimball, Cole  A sumptuous, over-sized trove of photos and personal reminiscence by Porter’s friends and collaborators.

Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon, The Gershwins  The companion to Cole in beauty, style and completeness of pictorial lushness.

Robret Kimball and Stephen Nelson, The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser  Loesser was an anomaly: An full-time lyricist and amateur composer from the world of pop and Hollywood who came East and took Broadway by the throat with Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Each time he re-defined himself, and expanded the syntax of musical theatre expression: From brassy, Runyanesque Broadway to near-opera to potent satire that, nevertheless, was amusing enough not to worry all those tired businessmen who flocked to it. Leosser’s great run was brief, perhaps, but few have accomplished as much in so comparatively little time.

Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger and Eric Davis, The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer  While Mercer was, like Frank Loesser, more a creature of Hollywood and Vine than Broadway and 42nd, he began in musical revues and made periodic visits. He wasn’t always as successful on the boards as on the sound-stages, as he was the first to admit, but his lyrics to Harold Arlen’s magnificent score for St. Louis Woman alone would place him in the Pantheon. This is a book I wish to hell I’d had at my side when I was creating my own Mercer revue in the mid-’90s, transcribing all those songs by ear and, later, discovering with a pang that I’d blown some of them. (Pre-Google, who knew that “cute vest-pocket Mazda” referred to light bulbs?)

Journey to the Center of the Theatre

Walter Kerr, Journey to the Center of the Theatre  As a critic, Kerr has his own nay-sayers, but he was an unusually intelligent and big-hearted reviewer, and this collection of his 1970s work on theatre (and, occasionally, film) amply illustrates why his readers were so devoted. I particularly treasure his anger at Paddy Chayefsky in 1971 for not writing all that great dialogue in The Hospital for the stage and his re-evaluation of the lie at the center of the otherwise splendid Alice Adams: Who, he wonders, could accept the pulchritudinous Katharine Hepburn as a wallflower?

Miles Kreuger, Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical  This superb early ’70s work, fortunately reissued in time for the complete 1988 studio cast recording of the score on Angel (Krueger was an important contributor to that boxed set of discs) is among the first, finest, and most beautifully appointed, books of its kind.

Alfred A. knopf [Borzoi]  1969 Lawrence Ratzkin

John Lahr, Notes on a Cowardly Lion  Lahr, just beginning his career as a critic, wrote this graceful, loving but remarkably clear-eyed portrait of his famous father just before Bert’s untimely death while shooting The Night They Raided Minskey’s. It captures a great clown in all his contradictory moods, his fabled insecurity, and his joyous genius. 40-plus years later it remains one of the most lucid, intelligent and compelling biographies of any theatre star.

John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton  Switching gears completely, Lahr next concentrated on the transgressive British playwright, unapologetically gay and astonishingly prolific throughout his brief, meteoric rise. In a sense, this is a dual biography, since Orton’s life—and even his very death—were so inextricably commingled with that of his one-time lover and eventual murderer Joe Halliwell. Quoting liberally from Orton’s then-unpublished diaries and early novels, all of which the author would later prove instrumental in getting into print, Lahr paints an unblinking portrait of a genius and wit whose appetites for casual sex perfectly reflected his times but the details of which would doubtless have shocked his public. This book is of enormous importance, if only for rescuing an important modern playwright from near-oblivion.

Arthur Laurents, Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood   Laurents was famously prickly, and his late memoir percolates with anger and contrariness even as it celebrates the author’s own accomplishments, his friendships and collaborations, and paints an indelible portrait of post-war American movies and theatre, musical as well as “straight.” Laurents was unique among his peers for refusing to pass, and for not feeling he had to.

Alan Jay Lerner, The Street Where I Live  Although his later biographer Gene Lees later invoked the famous advice of the frontier newsman to James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”) as descriptive of Lerner’s memoir, it’s an irresistible volume for those who appreciate its author’s wit and rare literacy. Lerner certainly knew how to tell good stories about himself, and some of them may even have been true. Appended with a nice selection of lyrics from his best work.

Tom - The Unknown Tennessee Williams

Lyle Leverich, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams  The only unfortunate aspect of this glorious, revelatory biography is that its author did not live to complete a second volume. Leverich traces Thomas Lanier Williams from his earliest days to the heady success of The Glass Menagerie with such impeccable scholarship and understanding, both of his subject and his subject’s milieus that you feel as though you’d never known anything about Tennessee before this book, and may never know as much after it.

Ken Mandelbaum, A Chorus Line and the Musicals of Michael Bennett  Mandelbaum’s superb biography of Bennett is also a riveting account of how the then-longest running of all musicals came into being. Bennett’s death from AIDS at 44 arguably robbed the American theatre of what might have been the ultimate popular maturation of the form.

William J. Mann, Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand  Covering Streisand’s life and development only up to the end of her run in Funny Girl, Mann concentrates his formidable wit and skill on what, and who, made her, apart from her own, unassailable drive and self-belief. Scrupulously foot-noted, exhaustively researched, this is the sort of book one waits decades for, and which mere fannish hacks can never get new, let alone touch.

Who Put the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz

Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg, Who Put the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz?: Yip Harburg, Lyricist  An important overview, and a long overdue biographic and critical assessment of one of the American musical’s most whimsical yet socially committed artists. The section on Finian’s Rainbow would, by itself, make this worth reading. The obvious affection for, and appreciation of, the subject (one of the co-authors is Yips’ son) does not, however, led to hagiography. Harburg was known to be difficult—his quirks of personality led his two finest musical collaborators, Harold Arlen and Burton Lane, to resist continued work with him—but his ultimate legacy is social comment buoyed by wit and charm. No one but Harburg could have created both Og the love-sick leprechaun and Flahooley, the Capitalist nightmare, let alone conceived of a world “Over the Rainbow” or written that anguished Depression-era cri de coeur “Brother, Can You Spare a Time?”

Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life  Miller’s dramaturgy seems to me overrated and under-heated, especially when contrasted with the conflicted poetry of Tennessee Williams, his major post-war rival. But as an essayist and, here, as a memoirst, Miller carved out a niche particular to him, and in which he was most at home. His philosophical musings on friendship, betrayal, HUAC, Marilyn Monroe and the nature of dramatic theatrical expression occasion some of his finest writing. Fittingly, too, he wrote not a standard, linear autobiography but something approaching the labyrinthine manner in which memory itself so often works.

Ethan Mordden, Broadway Babies: The People Who Made the American Musical  Mordden is the Johnson of the American musical, even when, as in this book, he is annoying you with self-coined musical terminology (“numbo” here seems to mean “central aria” or, in the parlance, The Eleven O’Clock Number) or making specious claims (Bibi Osterwald’s studio recording of Gypsy, he tells us, may reveal the best Mama Rose of them all, yet a friend tells me that when he asked Mordden about this, the author admitted he’d never heard the record) or, as lately, spreading the hack phrase, “So to say” with whorish indiscretion. For a long time, this overview of the great creators of the form was the standard reference. Until, that is, his own subsequent volumes taking on the musical decade by decade, supplanted it.

Ethan Mordden, One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s  The author’s periodic critical histories of the musical by decade eventually led to this, the most anticipated volume. That is, the one that takes in the ascendancy of Sondheim and the flowering of Bob Fosse’s genius.

The Fireside Companion to the Theatre

Ethan Mordden, The Fireside Companion to the Theatre  One of the most well-thumbed books in my library, brimming with the author’s informed and idiosyncratic critical acumen. It’s all here, from Aeschylus to The Zoo Story, illuminated with wit and perspicacity. Mordden is particularly fine on O’Neill, but flip to any entry and chances are you will emerge hours later, having been inspired to skip to dozens of others.

George Plimpton. ed., Playwrights at Work  A sublime collection of Paris Review interviews includes invaluable conversations on the craft with Thornton Wilder, Lillian Hellman, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and John Guare, among other (to me) lesser or more negligible figures (Sam Shepard, August Wilson, David Mamet and Wendy Wasserstein.) My copy is thick with Hi-Liter marks, and the collective wisdom contained herein is essential.

Hal Prince, Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre Perhaps prematurely, Prince recorded his memories of his work up to 1974; his hunger years were just around the corner. But as I regard him as the most important of the so-called “superstar” directors of the period, in that his staging innovations, and his embrace of more intelligent, thoughtful, and mature, content in the musical, his reminiscences are compelling, and fascinating.

The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson

Frank Rich and Lisa Aronson, The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson  Aronson’s work ranged from designs for the Yiddish theatre in the 1920s to The Diary of Anne Frank in the ’50s and ended with such groundbreaking Hal Prince shows as Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and what must constitute his (and Prince’s… and Sondheim’s) ultimate masterpiece, Follies. This sumptuous visual appreciation holds pride of place in my library.

Deena Rosenberg, Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin  A beautifully produced appreciation of the Gershwins (the cover reproductions of period sheet music practically shimmer) this overview by the daughter-in-law of Yip Harburg and the Artistic Director and Executive Vice President of the Harburg Foundation is informed by the author’s expertise, her skill at examining the material, and her obvious love for it.

John Simon, Singularities: Essays on the Theatre, 1964-1974  Simon’s obsessive concern with physical beauty, and his occasionally suspect pronouncements, which too often teeter on the edge of anti-Semitism, have served to detract from his very real erudition, brilliance, enthusiasm and love of the theatre. These essays, which encompass Ibsen, Cyrano de Bergerac, and that essentially indefinable but invaluable entity called charm, are Simon at his clearest and most perceptive.

John Simon, Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre 1963-1973  All of the personal idiosyncrasies that mar Simon’s mar are here, of course, but his enthusiasms, knowledge and devotion to concision carry you past the more obvious (and even odious) affectations.

Wonder of Wonders

Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof  Solomon’s expansive, informed and exciting evocations of Sholem-Aleichem, the initially uncertain but ultimately triumphant creation of Fiddler, the making of the inevitable film, and the show’s enduring impact down the decades makes for the finest book on musical theatre I’ve read in years.

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principals, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes  Take note of that sub-title; he means it…. and he takes no prisoners. (American Theatre magazine titled its review “Snide by Snide by Sondheim.”) But that is, literally, a sidebar. The bulk of this indispensable book are the lyrics themselves and their author’s explications of their generation. For a man who claims to be no writer of prose, Sondheim’s is sharp, incisive, rigorously intelligent, often witty and always engaging.

No Applause Just Throw Money

D. Travis Stewart (Trav S.D.), No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous  This marvelous pop history, which I saw, unheralded in the theatre section at Borders, provided me more sheer pleasure than almost any comparable volume of its kind. Not that it has any comparable rivals. “Vaudeville is dead,” James Agee once complained of an annoying ’40s musical. “I wish to hell someone would bury it.” Trav S.D. exhumes the body, dusts it off, props it up and, through his own, witty alchemy, makes it animate again.

Steven Suskin, Opening Nights on Broadway: A Critical Quotebook of the Golden Era of the Musical Theatre, Oklahoma! (1943) to Fiddler on the Roof(1964) Although Suskin is dismissive of Fiddler, among other landmarks, this fat omnibus of facts and contemporary newspaper reviews takes in every major, and many minor, musical offering between the advent of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the end of the era.

Jeffrey Sweet, Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and the Compass Players  Discovering the Avon paperback reprint of this collection of interviews at 16 or so was one of those thunderclap experiences. I was enraptured for a week. To say that the Paul Sills, his mother Viola Spolin and the Second City improvisational theatre were influential is an understatement of staggering proportions. Virtually every major, important comedic performer of the 1960s, and a comparable number of 1970s comics (including virtually the entire cats of NBC’s Saturday Night, itself the greatest influence on comedy in the ’80s) came through its doors. The interviews are sometimes painful, often hilarious, and encompass Mike Nichols, Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, Alan Alda, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, David Steinberg, Gilda Radner, Del Close, Severn Darden, Paul Mazursky and Sills himself. Indispensable.

Kenneth Tynan, Tynan on Theatre  A Penguin abridgment of Tynan’s 1961 collection of seminal reviews, Curtains, this collection is perhaps the single finest volume on Britain’s post-war theatre, with some sharp assessments of America added from Tynan’s brief engagement with the New Yorker. His opinions are infused with a lover’s besotted enthusiasm, cut with the skepticism of the too-often scorned and informed by an erudition, wit and rare in reviewers on either side of the pond. Sample Tynan’s encomium to Orson Welles’ Moby Dick—Rehearsed (“With Moby Dick, the theatre becomes once more a house of magic”) and you may well be hooked for life.

Sam Wasson, Fosse  This long, comprehensive, exceptionally well researched biography of a figure who has been one of my theatrical touchstones for decades, Fosse is endlessly fascinating and often problematic, but a must for aficionados of the man, his achievements, and musical theatre (and movie) history in the post-war era. (See my full review, https://playwrightatliberty.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/the-long-audition-fosse-me-and-sam-wassons-fosse/)

Arnold Wesker, The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel  Wesker’s memoir of his ill-fated revision of The Merchant of Venice is both revelatory and heartbreaking. Written less in anger than in sorrow, the British playwright’s saga runs along a descending line, as Mostel struggles, uncharacteristically, with his lines, ultimately succumbing before the Broadway opening and Wesker’s longtime director, the brilliant but insufferable John Dexter, abandons the troubled production for greener pastures.

Sondheim & Co.

Craig Zadan, Sondheim & Co.  The week after checking out the original cast recording of Company from the public library at the age of 15 I was back to take out this seminal history of its lyricist-composer’s career up to 1973. (That a Broadway songwriter could eschew any easy rhyme like “life” and “wife” in preference for the surprising and appropriate “woman” took the top of my head off.) I perused my own paperback edition so often I practically had it memorized. No other book on the theatre meant more to me then, and no other has since.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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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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Cabaret OBC 15515788

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!

Dancin - Timothy Scott Valerie - Jean Miller. Cynthia Onrubia. Martha Swope

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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