PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Ann Reinking

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Ann Reinking In the late Gwen Verdon's Playbill bio, the famed dancer-actress — and wife and collaborator of director-choreographer Bob Fosse — wrote, "Thank you Annie Reinking, for bringing Bob back to Broadway." For years, Verdon had been the keeper of Fosse's flame. In 1996, it was dancer-actress Reinking, a Fosse veteran of Dancin' and "All That Jazz," who potently reminded audiences of the work of Fosse by choreographing the smash revival of Chicago "in the style of Bob Fosse." And three years later, Reinking was co-director, co-conceiver and co choreographer of the 1999 Best Musical Tony Award-winner, Fosse, which she is now appearing in at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth together again in Fosse.
Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth together again in Fosse. (Photo by Photo by Howard Schatz)

In the late Gwen Verdon's Playbill bio, the famed dancer-actress — and wife and collaborator of director-choreographer Bob Fosse — wrote, "Thank you Annie Reinking, for bringing Bob back to Broadway." For years, Verdon had been the keeper of Fosse's flame. In 1996, it was dancer-actress Reinking, a Fosse veteran of Dancin' and "All That Jazz," who potently reminded audiences of the work of Fosse by choreographing the smash revival of Chicago "in the style of Bob Fosse." And three years later, Reinking was co-director, co-conceiver and co choreographer of the 1999 Best Musical Tony Award-winner, Fosse, which she is now appearing in at the Broadhurst Theatre.

Reinking's most recent Broadway acting was as Roxie Hart in Chicago. Few guessed she might eventually step into the Fosse company she helped nurture in workshops and development (with Verdon at her side as artistic advisor). But Reinking, slim and sleek and re-energized, is back in a Fosse show, doing steps with another surprise addition to the company, Ben Vereen (memorable in Fosse's "All That Jazz," Pippin and the Las Vegas revival of Chicago). The fact that Fosse was first conceived to star a female leading player (Valarie Pettiford created the role) seems to not matter to newcomers to the show. Well, dancers are flexible, so why can't Fosse be, too? The show gets even more flexible when Bebe Neuwirth (a Tony Award winner for the revival of Sweet Charity) joins Reinking April 2-29, after Vereen exits April 1. Reinking chatted about reconceiving Fosse, looking back and looking ahead.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Fosse originally had two women — Valarie Pettiford and Jane Lanier — billed as "starring" in the revue, then it had one actress billed as the star, then along came Ben Vereen to shake the show up. How did it come about?
Ann Reinking: It was my associate, Debra McWaters, who said, "What about Ben?" Stephanie Pope was leaving. Valarie Pettiford originated the part, and then Stephanie Pope, and I hadn't really thought of a man in that part. But when I thought about it , I said, "Except for a couple of numbers — about 3 or 4 numbers [in the role] — he could do everything." He's a real part of the Fosse family and Gwen loved him. We called him and he was free. There were three and a half numbers [in the track], including "Big Spender" and "Mein Herr," that Ben obviously wouldn't be right for. [Vereen joined the company Jan. 26.] There were some injuries and medical leaves of absence, and I said, "Maybe I can just fill in the gaps and have a wonderful time with Ben..." He asked if I would be with him. [Reinking joined the company March 2.] And then he said, "Why don't we do 'Dancin' Dan' ('Me and My Shadow') together?" I was thinking more or less we would do "Manson Trio" together, or "Razzle Dazzle." I thought he was terribly funny in "Dancin' Dan." Every time he did it, it would crack me up. He did bring his own wonderful element to the show, a real variety and another level. Another taste. Another feel. That's very important when you're doing an ensemble piece, that you give it a variety of levels so it doesn't get too homogenous. Here he was, a protege of Bob's...and he's singing beautifully.

PBOL: Vereen does "Manson Trio" and "Glory," which he made famous in Pippin. There's something really electric about seeing performers who were there at the primary source — who worked with Bob Fosse. A Vereen, a Reinking, a Neuwirth.
AR: I watch Ben. There's just somethin' in him and that's what Bob recognized. Once a star... No matter what, there's something there, they give you something that's special. He's somebody who innately had something, a real gift. To see that gift nurtured by Bob and then by Gwen, it's wonderful. It does give the show something. Showmanship!

PBOL: It looks like you guys are having a great time in the duet, "Dancin' Dan" ("Me and My Shadow"). It seems like you might laugh in a different spot in that number every night.
AR: I do! I have to stay very very alert because I'm not sure exactly what he's going to do every night. It's really fun. It's always within the framework of the piece, but you just never know. The other night he was just talking all through the number and cracking up the audience and hitting every step. I said, "You are so very chatty!" [She laughs.] He brings things out in me and other dancers. PBOL: On the subject of bringing new levels the show, is it possible that Fosse is flexible enough to support more changes, perhaps later in the run?
AR: I can see that, I know what you're talking about. It really lends itself, done in the right way, to a lot more variety.

PBOL: Might we eventually see other classic Bob Fosse numbers — "Whatever Lola Wants," or other specialty pieces — interpolated into the show? It would certainly bring fans of Fosse's work back to the show.
AR: I would love to do something like that: Just have a couple of changes — 3 or 4 changes. Gwen had reconstructed at least 45 numbers and they're all fabulous. Even I was just amazed at the wealth of Bob's legacy and the variety of it. It would be wonderful to do a Fosse 2. Gwen and I were talking about it. It's all there. You can do a Fosse 2 or do exactly what you said, just start round-robinning the program and keep it all in the same theatre.

PBOL: All that past Fosse choreography is documented on videotape and we have it?
AR: I know it is documented, a lot of it is on videotape. There are people who are in the show as we speak who were there from the very, very beginning [of Fosse labs and workshops]. It is all documented, and it is all together. And [Fosse and Verdon's daughter] Nicole [Greiner] also knows a great deal of it. I know a great deal of it. Other dancers do. I have looked at a lot of videotapes — of the lead dancers from the lab and also things that Gwen had. That's all there. It's ready to go if we can do that. There are so many famous numbers that we couldn't do [for Fosse] just because we don't have time.

PBOL: I would guess the economics of Broadway might not allow for a whole new Fosse , but injecting numbers is more feasible...
AR: I love that idea, injecting new numbers and starting to round-robin programs.

PBOL: What were your favorite numbers you had to cut that were painful to cut?
AR: "Beat Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar" was painful.

PBOL: What did you want to do that was ready to go?
AR: There's "Lola" and "Who's Got the Pain?" [both from Damn Yankees]. "Herbie Fitch's Twitch" from Redhead is a Chaplinesque piece, it's a tongue-twister, it's brilliant. There's a lot more of the earlier work. There's a pas de-deux Bob did for Gwen for New Girl in Town that is absolutely beautiful. Actually, in its day it was asked to be cut because they thought it was too sensual and too close to the mark. It's very rich and very well done, and it's romantic and obviously sensual.

PBOL: There was a controversial war ballet Fosse did for a flop show in 1961, The Conquering Hero, based on the film, "Hail, the Conquering Hero." Does any of that exist?
AR: Yes, some of it does. We reconstructed some of it off of Bob's notes and from dancers who had been in it. I couldn't realize it to the way it was. Gwen said I was very very close, and we were trying to get some other dancers who were in it. But some people were getting nervous with delving into Bob's anti- war ballets. I couldn't believe he did it at the time he did it. Had he done it five years afterwards, it would have been in the '60s during Vietnam. It was uncanny. You didn't see any blood or anything like that. It was satiric and cynical and so sad. And it was angry and it was against any kind of war.

PBOL: What will you and Bebe be doing? Are you doing "Hot Honey Rag" and "Nowadays," which you both performed in the revival of Chicago?
AR: Well, that would be the obvious thing to do. We're trying to think of what we can do that's new because we've been doing that one a lot. I mean, obviously we could do that.

PBOL: The Fosse choreography for "Hot Honey" and "Nowadays" is different than the Chicago revival choreography, right?
AR: "Nowadays" is different, but "Hot Honey Rag" is the same in both houses. So, [Bebe and I] have been talking and we've got a couple of really good ideas and it has to be a surprise, but we definitely will be doing things together. There might be one segue that I might do a little bit different...Bebe and I want to try it because it's sort of a conglomeration of this one number we love. We are definitely doing "Spender" together.

PBOL: Are you a spiritual person?
AR: I think you could say I am. I think it's hard to live without some sort of faith. The reason why I believe faith is important for a person is that it teaches you to trust. If you can't trust, it's harder to love and if you can't love it's harder to be happy.

PBOL: When you're at the Broadhurst, is there a palpable sense of Bob and Gwen?
AR: Yeah. You feel Bob and Gwen all the time.

PBOL: When you were a young dancer, did you want to be Gwen Verdon?
AR: I wanted to be as good as she was. I knew I couldn't be her, because she's unique. She was a real artist. It was beyond good dancing. There was just a spirit in her. She was a master craftsman. If I could be good like that, in my way — she was like a hero. Margot Fonteyn is that way. And Katharine Hepburn.

PBOL: You're still signed to choreograph the Kander and Ebb musical, The Visit?
AR: Yes, that's going to be at The Goodman Theatre [in Chicago]. They're talking to Chita [Rivera]. I think she's a brilliant actress. It's sort of untapped water.

PBOL: Are there more dance possibilities for the character now that Rivera may do it? The role was written for a non-dancer, Angela Lansbury.
AR: Well, the character has a wooden leg. Angela came up with this wonderful idea. There's this number with her entourage. She said, "I wouldn't mind doing some version of a tango." When she said that, my eyes sort of lit up. With Chita, I might try that. But if it doesn't work — it won't be in it. For me, there's obviously not a lot of choreography with this story. But that story has impressed me ever since I was 14. It was one of the first plays I saw at Seattle Rep.