Fosse Paints a Portrait of a Dancin' Man

Fosse Paints a Portrait of a Dancin' Man Razzle Dazzle them and they'll make you a star," -- Billy Flynn in Chicago.
The dancers of Fosse.
The dancers of Fosse.

Razzle Dazzle them and they'll make you a star," -- Billy Flynn in Chicago.

No one embodied that Fred Ebb lyric more than master showman and first-rate sorcerer, Bob Fosse, choreographer and director of the original production of Chicago, whose distinctive, idiosyncratic style and instinctive theatricality razzle-dazzled Broadway audiences for over 30 years.

Fosse was a star: He is the only person ever to win the hat trick of major awards in one season (1973): the Tony for Pippin (actually, two, as director and choreographer), an Oscar for "Cabaret" and an Emmy for "Liza with a Z." His hip, sexy, stylized choreography made him a star: the angular movements, hunched shoulders, pelvic thrusts, knock knees, bent knees, syncopated rhythms, snapping fingers, splayed fingers, gloves, hats, people moving in amoebalike clumps. These were all part of the Fosse signature, which is instantly identifiable and familiar from such shows as Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, Pippin, Chicago and Dancin', and the films "Cabaret" and the autobiographical "All That Jazz."

Memorable numbers from those productions and others are among the high- lights of Fosse, a valentine to the nine-time Tony winner. Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr., Fosse was additionally assembled by Chet Walker, a long-time associate who appeared in several of his shows; Ann Reinking (the show's co-director), who shared a close professional and personal relationship with him (and choreographed the current revival of Chicago as an homage to him); and Gwen Verdon (Fosse's artistic advisor), his wife and favorite muse.

Fosse's style as a choreographer is very much an outgrowth of his style as a dancer. In his early years as a performer, he began incorporating hats into numbers to hide his thinning hair and discovered that they were a most effective prop. "His choreography came out of the way he was comfortable moving," says Verdon, "and also out of his love for detail. He looked at the body as a composition, where you could see one leg turned out, and the knee poking out, and the fingers and the elbows. He wanted to see space through the body, to make it dimensional." Fosse's attention to detail was inclusive, ranging from the tiniest crook of a finger to the big stage picture. "Bob saw the entire stage, not just what the dancers were doing on the deck," says Verdon. "He always had people up in the air on ladders. He did shows where people jumped into the pit. In Big Deal they flew from the balcony down to the stage on a rope. The entire theatre was part of his view of what he was doing." What is most surprising about Fosse's choreography when seen over the course of an evening is that it reveals itself to be a study in contrasts. It generates heat even though it is frequently cool and dispassionate. And as flamboyant as most of the numbers are, much of the movement is very internalized, almost private. "He always said, 'Don't dance for the audience, dance for yourself,' " says Verdon.

Fosse shied away from sentiment and romance in his choreography; rarely did he create a love duet. Part of the reason was the material that attracted him; he often took on shows that were about misfits and miscreants, the underside of society. Their unfortunate stories and situations did not invite lyricism. But, from many accounts, he also seemed uncomfortable expressing such feelings, even in dance. The most heartfelt, deeply personal numbers in Fosse are the joyful "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man," which is dedicated to his idol, Fred Astaire, and "Mr. Bojangles," an unbearably sad vignette about an old hoofer.

" 'Mr. Bojangles' was inspired by Bob's feelings about old dancers," says Verdon. "No matter how old they get they are still dancers. They may shuffle through an old routine, and it's sad to watch. Bob felt that even though they're making a mess of the steps they're trying to do, even though they're ancient, in their heads they still look beautiful -- they soar and fly. And he was beginning to know that feeling at the end of his life." Fosse died much too soon, in 1987 at age 60, on the opening night of the revival of Sweet Charity in Washington, D.C. According to Verdon, there are two songs in Fosse that come closest to revealing his character -- not "Razzle Dazzle," but "Dancin' Man" ("Gonna leave my footsteps on the sands of time") and the number which opens the show, "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" ("So live and laugh at it all"). "Both those songs are Bob," says Verdon. "But 'Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries' was his philosophy of life. He really felt that way. He really lived that way."