From the Deep Archives – It’s Showtime, Folks: “Fosse” at the Peace Center

Theatre preview originally published in MetroBeat

It’s all in the fingers, held apart with hands outstretched, elbows tucked in, full of energy. Dancers call it Fosse hands.

Bob Fosse choreographed every detail of a dance routine — the drooping eyelash, the bowler hat cocked at a rakishly precise angle, the pinky finger curled at just the right moment. You don’t see a lot of big chorus lines and beauty pageant smiles in Fosse numbers. You do see a lot of skin.

Bob Fosse died in 1987, at age 60, but his work lives on in the musical tribute that bears his name. Fosse – the Musical premiered in 1998, won three Tony awards in 1999 (including Best Musical) and arrives in a touring production at the Peace Center, January 2-6. The show has no plot: it’s more of a journey, an evening of song and dance highlights from one man’s extraordinary career, work that encompasses theatre, film, television and even ballet. Directed and co-choreographed/co-conceived by Fosse protege Ann Reinking (Tony Award-winner for Chicago) and co-directed by Richard Maltby, Jr. (yet another Tony Award-winner for Ain’t Misbehavin’), with dance recreations by Chet Walker (yet another protege), Fosse also benefits from the experience of Fosse’s wife Gwen Verdon, herself a legendary Broadway star (with, yes, many Tonys under her belt), who served as artistic advisor to the production until her death in 2000. As Reva Rice, principal dancer in the touring show, told me in a recent telephone interview, the recreation of Fosse’s choreography came from “as close to the horses’ mouth as you can get.”

“Ann Reinking actually put the tour together during four weeks of hands-on rehearsal,” Rice explained. “And I had the honor of working with Gwen Verdon before she passed away.” Both Verdon and Reinking have championed Fosse’s work since his death, leading the popular revival of Chicago just a few years back. Then came Fosse, which closed its Broadway run on August 25, 2001, after over 1,100 performances. The show continues, at least through February, on the road.

“The tour show is shorter, more streamlined,” Rice says. “We have the same material, but the transitions are a lot different. I literally open up each act, to introduce you to that period the act covers, where on Broadway, my part is split up quite a bit.”

Rice first starred on Broadway (and later in Las Vegas) in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s roller skating musical, Starlight Express, all in all, a gig lasting seven years. For the past five years, she has been working with little break — first in the touring show of Smokey Joe’s Cafe and then, after being allowed a whole three days off, joining the Broadway cast of Fosse, followed directly by the touring production. It’s been a great experience for her.

“On Starlight, you just had to be athletic and be able to roller skate–you didn’t necessarily have to be a dancer. And Smokey Joe’s was all-singing. So this is really the first show where I’ve had to pull out my dancing shoes.” Rice trained primarily as a dancer and, in fact, always thought of herself as more of a dancer than a singer. “But then at auditions,” she explains, “I found I was on the same par as those who were calling themselves singers–and there’s more opportunities out there for singer/dancers than just dancers.”

Of course, a show like this presents Rice with physical challenges, and she finds herself hitting the gym 3 or 4 times a week. “After you’ve been doing a show for so long, you start to even out, so you’ve got to find something else to keep yourself up to par, so you still get that first time energy out there on stage when it’s the five hundredth time you’ve done it.” Performing Fosse’s material makes that freshness especially important, since energy is such a major component of his style. He liked to choreograph detailed, deliberate movements that can really tax a performer.

After joining the show, Rice found that she was “very familiar with [Fosse’s] work and didn’t know it. I had choreographed numbers in college that, if you looked at Fosse’s repertoire, I’m sure you could see the similarities, but I didn’t know I’d been influenced by the things I’d seen that were his. But when I got into this show, I realized that this man’s responsible for all the stuff that I’ve been doing.”

His influence has been wide-ranging, and Fosse takes us through the different eras and media in which he worked over the years. From some of his earliest stage and television work as the dance team of Fosse and Niles to his last big Broadway production, Big Deal, the show covers some of his best-known and least-known work.

In general, Rice likes “his earlier stuff, like The Pajama Game. More classic stuff.” As for this show, however, “Mein Herr” (from Cabaret) and “I Gotcha” (from “Liza With a Z”) are her favorite numbers “because you have to sing, dance and act.”

“If you just sing it, it doesn’t work,” Rice told me. “If you just dance it, it doesn’t work.” This goes to the heart of Bob Fosse’s real brilliance. He was instrumental in making the singing and dancing integral to the show, not just an added attraction. “The idea is to make the movements consistent, make the actors’ movements blend with the dance movements,” Fosse told biographer Martin Gottfried. Fosse’s goal was to make musicals all of a piece, “not scenes directed by one man and dance numbers staged by another.” Think of Oklahoma, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that epitomizes the old way of staging. While they helped propel the story along, Agnes DeMille’s dance numbers, almost mini-ballets of themselves, occurred with an entirely separate dance company, while the actors were usually offstage completely. Fosse finally made it all blend together into one seamless whole.

Bob Fosse grew up in Chicago where he began dancing at the age of eight. By age nine, Fosse and Charles Grass (an acquaintance from dancing school) were appearing on vaudeville stages as a tap-dancing duo called The Riff Brothers (Dancers Extraordinary). Until they were well into their teens, the Riff Brothers played burlesque houses, dance halls and strip clubs — the seedier side of show business that would figure prominently in Fosse’s later work.

That was the beginning and end of Fosse’s dance training, the end of any formal education. After high school, Fosse spent a year in the Navy, where he continued dancing in the entertainment division, then launched straight into a Broadway career. Fosse often lamented his lack of formal education, once saying that everything he knew he’d learned from “Hollywood Squares.”

He began as a performer, dancing in forgettable shows with titles like Call Me Mister and Make Mine Manhattan. But soon enough, he was back in nightclubs, tap-dancing with his first wife, Mary Ann Niles, then moving on to television, where the duo secured a recurring gig on Your Hit Parade, a weekly Top 40 countdown type show. Fosse and Niles came up with new dance numbers each week to accompany renditions of popular songs. By 1952, Hollywood itself had beckoned, and Fosse (already divorced and remarried) came running. For a time, he thought he could succeed Gene Kelly in the movies. But if his dancing sizzled in Give a Girl a Break and Kiss Me Kate, his acting merely sufficed. He had some great moves, but he lacked that special indescribable quality that makes someone a Star. Technically, he could dance circles around Kelly and Astaire. But they had Star Quality, and Fosse could only help bring that Quality out in others, never himself. Sure, he’d perform on occasion over the years, but it was behind the scenes where Fosse would really come into his own.

It really started on Kiss Me Kate. He was given the chance to choreograph one section of a larger number. During the song “From This Moment On,” Fosse and Carol Haney leap onto the screen, showcasing the very beginnings of the Bob Fosse style. Film director Stanley Donen once described this style as “delicate and small, with no major physical or athletic moves” and “From This Moment On” begins with just such a small, delicate move, one that Fosse would employ for years: snapping fingers. He loved rhythms, syncopation, percussion. In Fosse shows, dancer’s moves would often be punctuated by rimshots and other percussive undercurrents. Kiss Me Kate gave him a chance to start playing with this vocabulary. But in his next work, a jump from bit player in a movie musical to full-fledged choreographer of a Broadway show, Fosse really came into his own. In 1954, he was hired for a musical called The Pajama Game, and it not only transformed Fosse overnight into a major player on the Broadway scene, but it also provided the first signature dance number in the full Fosse style.

“Steam Heat” has all the trademarks: white gloves, derby hats, finger snapping, hand claps, raised shoulders, syncopation and “Fosse hands.” Packed into the script as a show within the show, “Steam Heat” even foresaw Fosse’s later insistence on reality within the dance numbers. That is, Fosse wanted the dance numbers to grow organically from the script, from the characters themselves. In “real life,” people don’t usually burst out dancing and singing spontaneously. Fosse tried to make such musical outbursts real. If a character in the play was singing and dancing, it was because the character herself was on stage, usually in some sort of seedy nightclub. A good example of this is within Fosse’s tour de force, the film version of the musical Cabaret. In it, the musical numbers take place almost exclusively within the nightclub that is itself the major setting of the play. The characters are performers, and they sing and dance only when they are performing for patrons of the club. In effect, they’re performing for two audiences; the fictional people within the club, and us, the viewers.

After his Tony-award winning success with The Pajama Game, Fosse moved on to Damn Yankees where he launched the career of the woman who would become his third wife, Gwen Verdon. A sexy redhead, Verdon stopped the show as Lola, the devil’s own consort. She credited Fosse with that success. “He choreographed everything,” Verdon told Fosse’s biographer Martin Gottfried. “The flirtatious quality, the accent, the minuscule things like that–where you push your hair back, when you breathe, when you blink your eyes and when you just move your little finger.”

This success led to star vehicles for Verdon, all choreographed and, eventually, directed by Fosse. He won Tony award after Tony award, refining his style from show to show, leading him to Sweet Charity, the play that marked the pinnacle of Verdon’s career and helped launch Fosse into yet another successful career: directing movies.

Sweet Charity contains one of Fosse’s most enduring creations, “Rich Man’s Frug.” Set in a nightclub (again, maintaining the “reality”), “Frug” shows dancers visually askew, moving at differing angles from each other, not forced to dance the same steps. It’s a piece about style and flash. It became the new signature of the Fosse school of dance. But while the film version of Sweet Charity, directed by Fosse, failed at the box office, it eventually led to another assignment, directing the movie version of a little musical called Cabaret.

Stanley Kubrick called Cabaret “the best movie I think I have ever seen.” Flawlessly combining music, drama and dance, Cabaret shows Fosse at his peak, an artist in full command of all his resources. Even that was just a beginning, though, for 1972 saw Fosse creating some of his most spectacular work. After Cabaret, he directed and choreographed the Broadway musical Pippin and also directed, choreographed and co-produced the television special “Liza With a Z.” All three were critically and commercially successful, and helped him to become the first (and, most likely, last) director in history to win the Oscar, Tony and Emmy awards in a single year.

The next few years became almost legendary as he simultaneously directed another film (a Lenny Bruce bio-pic starring Dustin Hoffman) and launched another signature Broadway musical, Chicago. These years became the raw material for Fosse’s 1979 film, All That Jazz, another synthesis of drama, music and dance. Starring Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon (a thinly veiled version of Fosse himself), All That Jazz is a sometimes overblown but always watchable examination of one man’s failed attempts to direct his own life and, ultimately, his own death. Scheider’s Joe Gideon runs himself down with the pressures of juggling an ex-wife, a mistress and a loving daughter, all the while directing both a Broadway show and a film biography of a comedian. Gideon greets himself in the mirror each morning, cigarette dangling from his lips, elbows in, hands out, fingers outstretched (Fosse hands). “It’s showtime, folks,” he says, trying to gear himself up for yet another day.

One of the numbers Gideon choreographs within the film really highlights what Fosse himself did to overhaul musicals like Pippin and Chicago, taking lightweight material and injecting them with sex, substance and style. “Take Off With Us” starts out as an airheaded little ditty about flying, but in the hands of Joe Gideon, it becomes an erotic ballet. Bodies writhe, clothing rips, the music is transformed into something sultry and sophisticated. It’s a real insight into Fosse’s own methods.

In life as in the film, Fosse suffered a near-fatal heart attack during this period and underwent heart surgery (vividly depicted in the film with footage of an actual heart operation). It slowed him down a bit, but he kept on, earning still more Academy Award nominations (including one for directing All That Jazz) and winning several more Tonys. His last Broadway show, Big Deal, became his only real flop, much as his last film, Star 80, about the murder of Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten, met scathing reviews and dismal box office.

After his death in 1987, Fosse’s longtime girlfriend and protege Ann Reinking became a champion of his work. In 1996 she successfully mounted a stellar revival of Chicago which is still playing to packed houses on tour and on Broadway. This success led to Fosse – the Musical, a tribute and summation of the man’s career. Fosse gives us glimpses into the style that shook up Broadway dancing. In it, you’ll see recreations of pivotal moments in Fosse’s career: his break out turn in “From This Moment On” from Kiss Me Kate; “Hey, Big Spender” and “Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity; “Steam Heat” from The Pajama Game; “Take Off With Us” from All That Jazz. There’ll be writhing bodies, bowler hats, rimshots and Fosse hands; a regular overload of Fosse. Which is probably just the way he’d like it.

“I smoke too much, I drink too much, I do everything too much,” he once said. “It’s just the way I am.”

It’s showtime, folks.

Fosse-the Musical plays January 2 through 6 at the Peace Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $60/$50/$45. Call 864-467-3000 or 800-888-7768 for reservations.

 

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