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.
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