Remembering Bob Fosse


Robert Louis ‘Bob’ Fosse (June 23, 1927 – September 23, 1987)

Susan’s thoughts on Michael Jackson have got me thinking about 20th century dance and choreography, and it hasn’t taken long for my thoughts in this line to land upon Robert Louis Fosse, a/k/a Bob Fosse, a man whose dance style: sexual, stylized, cynical, exciting, has had and continues to have an incalculable influence on the worlds of dance, of music, and of pop-culture generally.

Fosse, famed as a director as well as a choreographer, and as both for some of the best-known plays/movies of recent decades, was born near the summer solstice, on June 23, 1927, and he died too young, in 1987 at age 60. We’ll blow out his birthday candles in his absence.

He died of a heart attack in a hotel room just as his musical, Sweet Charity, was opening at the National Theatre nearby.

21 Years of Sweet Charity

Here’s a clip from Sweet Charity that bears all the marks of Fosse’s distinctive style. Sweet Charity had been around for twenty years itself by the time of that D.C. opening night. It premiered on Broadway in January 1966 (after a tryout in Detroit, Michigan). That first Broadway run continued for 608 performances, and was nominated for nine Tony Awards. Fosse was its choreographer and director.

The composer for the songs of Sweet Charity, including the best remembered of these, “Hey, Big Spender,” was Cy Coleman, the lyricist was Dorothy Fields. The book was Neil Simon’s, and they were all happily ripping off Frederico Fellini’s Nights of Cabira.

sweet-charityFosse was the choreographer again when Sweet Charity was remade for Hollywood, as a 1969 movie starring Shirley MacLaine and John McMartin. As a financial proposition for Universal Pictures, it was a disaster: it cost Universal $20 million to make, and the company recovered only $8 million of that at the box office.

But the critics and the industry itself had a high opinion of this movie. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and one Golden Globe. The Golden Globe nomination was for MacLaine’s performance, the Oscar nominations included one for Best Score/Adaptation.

One reviewer, Addison Verrell of Boxoffice Magazine, called it “one of those pathos-comedies about love’s labors lost that give Kleenex stockholders reason to rejoice” – a chick flick, if you will, but one where the “tuneful score, razzle-dazzle choreography and … tarty ladies” will keep the men in the audience interested as well.

Fosse was again choreographer/director for the 1986 Broadway revival, with Debbie Allen and Michael Rupert as the female and male leads. This production won the Tony for best revival, and led to the DC opening with which we began, the one that coincided with Fosse’s demise.

In the spirit of old-time show business, “the show must go on.” And the show did go on that day. The cast didn’t receive news of Fosse’s sudden death until after their final curtain that night and their standing ovation.

Fosse was doing much else in those final twenty years of his life, other than shepherding various productions of Sweet Charity.

Life is a Cabaret, Ol’ Chum


Harold Prince

He had a huge success with the movie Cabaret, for example. This was loosely based on a 1966 Broadway musical of the same name. Fosse had had nothing to do with the stage version of Cabaret: that was directed by Harold Prince (portrayed on the right) and it was choreographed by Ron Field.

But Fosse did his own thing with the movie. Here’s Joel Gray getting things started.

Not only did Cabaret win the Academy Award for 1972, it did so by beating out some very formidable competition, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

Cabaret as a movie starred Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles. The underlying material goes back through many incarnations to the novella – or a loosely connected group of stories – Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, first published in 1939.

goodbye-to-berlinIt is a semi-autobiographical account of Isherwood’s own time in the titular city, where he lived from autumn 1930 to early 1933. It has a very pretentious opening. The first paragraph describes the street Isherwood could see from his window, and the second paragraph of the book begins, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

Well, sorry … but nobody is a camera. And even a camera isn’t a passive receptacle. If he had actually photographed that street for us with a real camera the result would still have been a work of selection and thus of choice, of activity. No less so than a dance routine is a stylized presentation of human movement.

Yet Isherwood immortalized Goodbye to Berlin with its second chapter or story, the one entitled simply “Sally Bowles,” the one that introduces the young woman of that name, first seen “dressed in black silk, with a small cape over her shoulders and a little cap like a page-boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head.”


Still, I digress. Our subject today is Mr. Fosse’s legacy, and I cannot conclude even the briefest of forays into that subject without mentioning Chicago, a cynical almost Brechtean musical about a woman who kills her lover and tries to frame her husband. The frame fails, and she is arrested … no, I won’t spoil the ending for those who don’t it.

danceOn a specifically choreographical note, let me say that the “happy hands,” as well as the turn-inward knees of the still above, are characteristic features of Fosse’s choreography, in Chicago and elsewhere.

Chicago opened on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre on June 1, 1975 and ran for 923 performances, closing in late summer 1977. John Kander and Fred Ebb, portrayed below, were responsible for the music and lyrics. Gwen Verdon played murderess Roxie Hart and Jerry Orbach played her lawyer, Billy Flynn.


John Kander and Fred Ebb

Here’s a clip of a performance of the finale. [That’s Glen on the right side of the screen as Roxie and Chita Rivera on the left side as another Chicagoan murderess, Velma Kelly.] Poetry in motion. And with all due respect to the two wonderful on-camera performers here, it was Fosse who originated the motions.

The Kander and Ebb lyrics include the life-is-fleeting lines:

“In fifty years or so/ It’s gonna change you know/ but now it’s heaven/nowadays.”

Gwen chuckles as she speaks those words (at 3:46 of this clip).

We all have reason to chuckle at the least, in appreciation, as we contemplate Fosse’s legacy, 86 years after his birth.

Let’s leave the subject with a return to Sweet Charity. The following clip is of Shirley MacLaine – at a moment when her character believes she’s landed a heck of a sugar daddy – singing and dancing to “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” You’ll see that Fosse as director wasn’t averse to using camera tricks for the big screen.

With a trick hat.



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