THE BOOK SHELF: "Fosse," "West End Broadway," "Mama Rose's Turn" and The Golden Apple

By Steven Suskin
December 8, 2013

This month's column looks at Sam Wasson's comprehensive new biography "Fosse;" "West End Broadway," Adrian Wright's look at American musicals abroad; Carolyn Quinn's "Mama Rose's Turn," a look at the stage mother who begot two leading ladies and a musical fable of Broadway; and the Jerome Moross/John Latouche musical Golden Apple.

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Choreographers Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins dominated the Broadway musical starting in the 1940s, with Gower Champion and Michael Bennett coming along in the 1960s. Arriving in the middle of this quartet, and continuing concurrently with them all, was one of the most fascinating and influential of this fascinating and influential group. Unlike ballet dancers-turned-ballet choreographers de Mille and Robbins, Bob Fosse was what you might call a honky-tonk hoofer. His bent-elbow steps and struts and grinds, the likes of which ballet theatre never saw, continue to inform much of Broadway choreography today, a quarter century after his death in 1987.

Fosse was not one of the group, or one of any group; he seemed to feel the need to battle his way to the top and then keep on battling. This can be seen in Sam Wasson's new biography, "Fosse" [HMH]. This is not the first Fosse biography; there were two shortly after his death, neither of which rank high on my list of show biz life stories. (Prior to the publication of Martin Gottfried's All That Jazz, I found myself on the receiving end of a blistering telephone tirade from Fosse's widow Gwen Verdon. After a full ten minutes of breathlessly spouted insults and complaints, we finally figured out what happened; the star had in front of her the galleys of both the Gottfried book and one of mine, which my publishers had sent in search of a back-of-the-jacket quote. Outraged by Gottfried's treatment of Bob, Gwen — in her fury — dialed my number instead of Martin's.)

Wasson, a film professor and critic, has done a wonderful job of mining and explaining just who Fosse was. He does so at length, in excess of 700 pages, but there is an awful lot to say. He follows the small-time kid hoofer from burlesque to the Army to the nitery circuit, in an act with dancer Mary-Ann Niles. Then came the legit theatre, in the form of the 1949 national tour of the Broadway hit Call Me Mister. Fosse and Niles, as they were billed, served as featured dancers and were married during the Chicago stop.

Even then Fosse was a serial womanizer, which Wasson attributes to abuse when the 14-year-old Fosse — already working in burlesque — was easy prey for overage strippers. Marriage began another pattern for the young dancer. Fosse and Niles reached Broadway in 1950 in the short-lived review Dance Me a Song. Fosse immediately left Niles for star Joan McCracken. (McCracken, who had made a distinctive debut as "The Girl Who Falls Down" in de Mille's 1943 Oklahoma!, moved to a prominent role as the housemaid Daisy in de Mille's 1944 Bloomer Girl, and attained full stardom in 1945 in Robbins' dance-happy Billion Dollar Baby.) The skinny, already-balding dancer quickly left Niles to marry McCracken, who, while starring in a George Abbott show, talked the director into hiring her untried husband to choreograph his next musical, The Pajama Game. Within a year, Fosse followed this up with Damn Yankees — and left McCracken for that show's dancing star, Verdon.

Wasson follows the director/choreographer as he leaves Verdon for a parade of women, many of them Fosse dancers; he also demonstrates how Fosse seemed comfortable not with his countless women but only with a small circle of male writers that included Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon and Herb Gardner.

There is a lot to be said about Fosse's film career, with the failed screen version of Sweet Charity, followed by the ground-breaking "Cabaret," "Lenny" and "All That Jazz," and Wasson is in his element discussing these. I, as a reader, am far more interested in the Broadway Fosse. The author does a very good job in this area, although with a somewhat less authoritative voice; he doesn't seem to question anecdotes related to him in interviews 50 years after the fact and at times appears to be reporting other people's opinions rather than his own. (He acknowledges that he has been highly influenced by the writings of Ethan Mordden, and it shows.) He also tends towards hyperbole, such as his description of New York City when Fosse received his discharge in 1946: "There was a theatre with a big Broadway musical on every corner, and on every corner there was a bevy of chorus girls looking for fun." Every corner?

Even so, we learn a lot more about Fosse and his shows than we knew before, in great part due to the contributed memories of a bevy of Fosse dancers. We also get a clear picture of Fosse as a tortured, self-destructive genius who never quite believed that he was as good as he truly was.

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Two years back, I expressed great delight in Adrian Wright's "A Tanner's Worth of Tune" (which you can read about here). There are numerous sources for facts and details about Broadway musicals, but all too few places to find information about West End musicals. Whenever I have questions about 20th-century musical theatre in London, I first turn to Wright. Now, Wright has given us a companion: "West End Broadway: The Golden Age of the American Musical in London" [Boydell]. As implied, this gives us detailed reports on the London productions of Broadway shows from 1939 through 1972. Were they close copies or hazy reproductions? Did they succeed, or not, and why? How were they received, and what was the context and competition of the time? Also included are revivals and — most invaluably — shows written by Americans which never reached Broadway. It can be mighty difficult to find information on these titles, and here it is. The last year covered by the book includes two of them: Harold Rome's Gone with the Wind (with a libretto by Horton Foote, of all people) and Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' I and Albert. "West End Broadway" is perfect for browsing, packed as it is with things we never knew, and packed with photos as well.

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I have not had the opportunity to fully read "Mama Rose's Turn: The True Story of America's Most Notorious Stage Mother" by Carolyn Quinn [University Press of Mississippi]. A quick look through the book, though, turned into a lengthy look through the book. Rose Hovick, mother of June and Gypsy — and if you don't know who June and Gypsy were, you are in the wrong place — was quite a character. Tales of creating and shepherding a kid act on the Pantages and Orpheum circuits. Tales of transforming her daughter into the most famous stripper in burlesque. Tales abound of blackmail, murder, husbands, girlfriends and endless tangles with her showbiz daughters. Can all of this be accurate? Quinn dutifully includes it all, even the facts she finds implausible. Rose, Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc were — each of them — so adept at fictionalizing the past that the truth is often a mere impediment.

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On the printed music front, here's something extra special. At last month's Columbia University celebration of the Centennial of composer Jerome Moross, I discovered that Alfred Music published a complete vocal score of The Golden Apple several years back. I quickly got myself a copy and have spent the last week at the keyboard in Olympian splendor. (Mt. Olympus in Washington State, that is.) The Golden Apple, in case it has passed you by, is a one-of-a-kind musical comedy by Moross (1913-83) and John Latouche (1914-56), resetting the Odyssey in Washington circa 1900; Odysseus and his men are just home from the Spanish-American War. ("Oh Theodore/Oh Theodore/the Roosevelt that we adore" sing the soldiers, in six-part harmony.)

The show opened at the Phoenix Theatre in 1954, transferred up to the Alvin, and easily picked up that season's New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The score is inventive beyond bounds; it is regularly overlooked, in part because of an original cast album which captured much of the show but presented it in truncated fashion laced with narration. (The one standard to emerge was the languid "Lazy Afternoon.") I feel optimistic, though, that The Golden Apple will resurface in full glory over the next several years. As for the vocal score, it is much appreciated. For many years, the music was available only in an unwieldy, handwritten rental score that was in places indecipherable. The new edition, edited and carefully corrected by Larry Moore, is clear, clean and playable, all 538 pages of it. (The original Porgy and Bess vocal score runs 559.)

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Seeing as how the holiday season is here, this seems like the proper place to cite our favorite books of the year. The following tomes are more than highly recommended, and you can see why: "The Leonard Bernstein Letters" [Yale]; "On My Way: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and Porgy and Bess" [Norton], Joseph Horowitz's fascinating examination reconstruction of the creation of Gershwin's folk opera; and director Jack O'Brien's fascinating and friendly memoir "Jack Be Nimble" [FSG]. And for those of you who wish you knew and/or understood Shakespeare better than you do, Ken Ludwig has taken a break from writing plays to give us How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare [Crown].

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)