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Robert Fosse, or Bob Fosse as he was also known was a well-known dancer, actor, choreographer, director, and screenwriter. Fosse is best known for his works
How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1961)
. He has also received Awards for his works including Tony’s and he was nominated for an Academy Award.
Robert Fosse was born in Chicago, Illinois, on June 23, 1927 to Cyril Fosse and Sara, “Sadie”, Fosse. Fosse was the second youngest of six. He was “cast” as the defenseless good boy by his mother when he was younger because his brother’s would always go and play football, while Bob wanted to entertain people (Wasson 7). Bob always had to fight for attention, because he was the youngest boy. When Fosse was younger his parents, especially his father had wanted him to be in show business. His father, Cyril Fosse, had been a failure in show business and wanted to see his son succeed. (Wasson 8).
Bob Fosse was asked by his parents to escort his sister, Patsy, to her dance lessons. Patsy never wanted to go to her lessons (Gottfried 9). She loved having him come and insisted that he come every time because he was able to soothe her or scare her into dancing. This led to him wanting to dance himself. His parents, Cyril and Sadie, then decided to enroll Bob in dance lessons at the Chicago Academy of Theatre Arts, run by Fred Weaver (Wasson 10). Fosse fell in love with Fred Weaver, even calling him Skipper, which no one else called him.
Marguerite Comeford was a dance teacher at the Academy and Weaver’s lover. Fosse loved her too because she was the most elegant woman that he knew. She was the one who taught him his first dance steps (Gottfried 10). Fosse could do all of the basic things such as tap, clog, and tumble, but he was much smaller than his classmates (Wasson 12). “Fosse was pigeon toed” (“Bob Fosse Biography”), he had no turn out, no extension and he felt like a girl if he pointed his toes and fingers. Marguerite Comeford complained that Bob did not use his hands the right way when he spread out his arms. He would have his hands facing the audience, which is Asian style, rather than have them face the ceiling or the ground. Fosse would also bend his elbows in and spread his fingers out (Gottfried 11). He became very passionate about his tucked in elbow, spread apart finger, style.
In the late 1930s, the Fosse family was hit with a financial crisis. Cyril Fosse had lost his insurance sales job. He found a job as a traveling salesman for the Hershey Chocolate Company after a period of unemployment. He received little or no pay for this job. In 1937 the Fosse family grew by one more when Sadie gave birth to another daughter, Marianne. In that same year Cyril Fosse realized that he financially could not keep two children in dance lessons and provide for his family of nine, which included his oldest son Buddy’s new wife (Gottfried 12).
The Riff Brothers
Bob Fosse and Charles Grass became dance partners in 1938. Charles was one of Fred Weaver’s most promising ballet dancers and he was also part of a trio before he and Fosse were partners (Wasson 13). His trio lost two members around the same time that Fosse’s father had to pull Bob out of dance lessons. Fred Weaver wanted to help Bob continue taking lessons, so Weaver offered a scholarship loan to Cy Fosse (Gottfried 12). The scholarship loan was. The duo of Charles Grass and Bob Fosse made it easier for Fred to book at different events. This helped to increase the amount of money that Weaver was making in order to keep his business open. The increase in money Weaver was receiving was enough to cover the tuition that Cy Fosse would owe him (Wasson 14). The two, Bob Fosse and Charles Grass, became known as “The Riff Brothers.” Weaver wanted the duo to become junior versions of the Nicholas Brothers. Mrs. Comeford had choreographed the dances with the idea of combining Fosse’s tap with Grass’ ballet backgrounds (Wasson 14). Fred Weaver chose the music for their act and arranged the order of the dances. The duo started rehearsing their new act in the winter of 1938. The act started with a duet, then each boy had a solo, a
nd then they came back together to perform a duet for the finale (Gottfried 15). Bob had the first solo. A traditional challenge tap dance was the dance choice for the finale. They each brought their own tricks and moves into the final dance number to make them look as if they were challenging each other. “Fosse did wings; Grass beat them with knee drops and splits” (Wasson 18). The two would close the dance with wings. “Charles insisted, “We aren’t the floor stomping type like the Berry Brothers or Tip, Tap, and Toe.”
The duo then moved on to tackling turns and other difficult steps that took months of rehearsing to perfect. Bob was left handed, which made turns particularly difficult for him. This made him want to go counter-clockwise, while Charles went clockwise because he was right-handed. In this time period the left- handed people had to conform to the way right-handed things were done (Gottfried 15). Bob had finally mastered the turns after an extensive amount of practice. “’He was starting to be a perfectionist’, said Grass”(Wasson 16). Grass and Fosse practiced their act every day after school for weeks to ensure that every part of the dance was the same from their legs to their arms.
The more popular the Riff Brothers became the more they rehearsed, and they already rehearsed every day. The duo performed on
The Morris B. Sachs Amateur
where they would usually perform their opening act. As they tapped the radio broadcaster would announce to the audience what they were doing step by step (Gottfried 18). Fosse and Grass then started to perform every weekend, rather than every other weekend. They traveled all over the Midwest, doing their homework wherever they could. Fosse said, ‘“I played every two-bit beer joint in the Midwest”’ (Wasson 19). The era of “The Riff Brothers” started to slow down when the two were almost done with High School. “Charles Grass wasn’t Fosse’s best friend, but he was just about the only guy who knew Fosse’s secret” (Wasson 21). His secret, he was in show business.
Fosse had three different wives in his lifetime. Two of his marriages ended in divorce, but the third one remained until his death, although they were separated. His first wife, Mary Ann Niles, was his dance partner. The two were married from 1949 to 1951. One year later he then married dancer, Joan McCracken. Fosse and McCracken were married until 1959, when they got divorced. Bob Fosse’s third wife was the dancer/actress Gwen Verdon. They got married in 1960 and in that same year their daughter, Nicole, was born. Nicole is Fosse’s only child. This marriage was not always happy because Fosse was not only a workaholic, but he was often unfaithful in his third marriage to Gwen Verdon (“Bob Fosse Biography”). The two then separated in the 1970s, but they remained married until Fosse’s death in 1987.
Before Fosse was a choreographer, he was a dancer and an actor. Bob Fosse started dancing in nightclubs during his teenage years, shortly after the hype of “The Riff Brothers.” This is where he was a part of their sleazy/sexy vaudeville and burlesque shows. He liked vaudeville because it was riskier than Broadway shows. He liked the dark, sexual tones that the dances in vaudeville displayed.
When he started to do fewer vaudeville shows, Fosse toured with Joe Papirofsky in his show
in 1945 (Wasson 36).. He had auditioned for the production
Call Me Mister (1947)
and got a part. He was the dance lead in the show (Wasson 44). After
Call Me Mister,
Fosse appeared in many other stage productions such as,
Dance Me a Song (1950)
Billion Dollar Baby (1951)
The Roaring Twenties (1951)
Pal Joey (1952)
. These were all stage productions where he either acted or danced in. Bob Fosse also appeared in films such as
The Affairs of Doble Gillis (1953)
Give a Girl a Break (1953)
. One of Fosse’s more known roles was in a film version of
Kiss Me, Kate
(Kirk, Fiona “Bob Fosse”).
Bob Fosse fascination with the dark humor and teasing sexual tones in the vaudeville shows, led him to developing them into his adult works. The first show that Fosse solely choreographed was
in 1954 (“Bob Fosse”, PBS: Broadway the American Musical). He spent hours and even days locked in a dance room by himself, working on choreography for this show. He did take time to eat and sleep, but he spent most of the day choreographing. He would put the music on and just dance. He would not think about what move was coming next. He wanted his work to be perfect (Wasson 90). This show made him an overnight success as result of his dedication to perfect his choreography and it also show cased his choreography styles: sexually suggested hip-trusts, humor hunched-shoulders, and turned in feet, and the mime like movements of the hands. His dancers often wore black and white gloves. This was his way of symbolizing Charlie Chaplin. He received his first Tony Award for
The Pajama Game
(“Bob Fosse”, PBS: Broadway the American Musical)
Gwen Verdon said, “I think “Steam Heat” was the first number on Broadway that was pure Fosse” (Wasson 97). She went on to talk about how “Steam Heat” had every part of Fosse; the number captured almost all of his personal characteristics. She said that he could have been any of the dancers. The next production that he did was
Damn Yankees (1955)
. This show brought him more awards and also established his collaboration with Gwen Verdon.
He would always ask politely before wanting the dancers to repeat the dance. “Forgive me, but once more from the top” he would say. (Wasson 93). From his nightclub and television experiences he found it was easier to choreograph solos or duets and found it more difficult to choreograph group numbers. Fosse spent hours trying to figure out the right choreography and picturing the vision he had in his head. Once he mastered this vision he had said that the only way you are recognized as a famous choreographer is if you choreograph dances for groups people will talk about the choreography rather than just the dancer (Wasson 95).
He struggled a lot with his producers and directors, who advised him to tone down or remove the controversial parts to his dances. He wanted to make memorable dances and move above what Hollywood was doing. During the rehearsal process of
, Fosse and Hal Prince had different views on a way a particular number should be done. Fosse wanted to make the number darker and more cynical, where Prince wanted it to be lighter than what Fosse had planned. Fosse disagreed with Prince, saying that he did not understand creation. Fosse became tired of conforming his dances to be proper and decided that he needed to be the director and the choreographer, so he could have complete control over everything. He did not want to make his dances mechanical (Gussow, “Stage View; A Tip of the Hat to Bob Fosse”). He wanted to have a creative vision for each dance number and make them unique. He also wanted his dances to have edge to them and not be soft like directors wanted them to be. As a result of not wanting to conform, Fosse was fired from working on
The Conquering Hero
because of his different style of choreography (Wasson 160).
Fosse’s works have always reflected his life in some way, especially the darkness element to them (Wynn, “His Darkness lit the Stage
the Vocabulary of Bob Fosse'sDances
was Informed by Everything Around Him, Good and Bad”)
. Fosse faced many struggles in his life, such as depression, addiction, and infidelity. He did not talk to anyone about these struggles at first, but he eventually started to go to therapy. He also had some anxieties, for example he felt like he had to please everyone. Fosse was a good husband until he started working on a project. He was a workaholic and always focused on work, “…as soon as I start a project its like nothing else exist” (Wasson 109).
He also made comparisons to sex often. Fosse had a “bizarre sexual experience” when he was thirteen, which made him want to prove that all women could be gotten easily (Wasson 109). This is why Fosse was a start in bed. That was his actual spotlight (Wasson 192). Some of the dark elements in his choreography came from his passion about sex.
Fosse’s choreography reflected not only from experiences in his life but also from his physical quirks (“Bob Fosse Biography”). The subtle things he would add into his dances were references to him, such as certain hat tricks, outward facing palms, etc.
won five Tony awards. One of the awards was given to Fosse and it was best direction. He also won another award for his choreography. Fosse put on a variety show on NBC that starred Liza Minnelli (“Bob Fosse”, PBS: Broadway the American Musical). He choreographed the whole show in 1972 and this also won him an Emmy Award. Two more wildly successful musicals followed. They were
’ (1978). Fosse’s last musical was
Big Deal (1986),
which was not as successful as his previous works.
The late 1960s to the late 1970s was when Fosse decided to create feature films. He created a number of films as well as stage musicals. Fosse only directed a few films, but he had choreographed and acted in more films (“Bob Fosse”, PBS: Broadway the American Musical). He directed
Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Star 80, Lenny, Liza with a Z,
All That Jazz. Cabaret
was Fosse’s biggest film success, winning eight Academy Awards.
Fosse was also the screenwriter for
All That Jazz
Star 80. All That Jazz
was a semiautobiographical film that Fosse used to talk about his heart attack, which he had while at a rehearsal for
(“Bob Fosse”, PBS: Broadway the American Musical)
Fosse had always had a darker side to his choreography and himself, but after his heart attack he became even darker. He did not move or create numbers as fast as he could before the heart attack. When he came back to the set of Chicago, the tone of the show changed. The tone went from cynical, to sinister. This was because Fosse had stopped going to therapy and he stopped trying to solve his problems (Wasson 346). He just decided to accept all of the, which in turn lead to his change in the darkness of his choreography.
Bob Fosse died on September 23, 1987. He suffered a heart attack just after rehearsing for a revival tour of one of his more popular works
(Gottfried 5). He died at 7:23 in the emergency room of George Washington University hospital with his wife Gwen by his side.
His third wife Gwen Verdon had began reconstructing Fosse’s choreographies in the early 1990s (
Greenaway, "Bob Fosse, Lord of the Dance:").
Verdon and one of Fosse’s former dancers worked together to create a musical that would help to pay tribute to Fosse and his works. The musical title
opened in 1999 and ran for 1,093 performances (Kirk, Fiona
Signature Fosse poses
“Bob Fosse”). They used some of his styles in this musical to honor him, as well. There have been revivals of
and a few other shows of Fosse’s. The film version of
that was released in 2002, which stars Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta Jones has earned six Oscars. On April 27, 2007 Fosse was inducted into the National Dance Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York. There is a portion of Paulina Street in Chicago, that was designated “Bob Fosse Way.”
Fosse had achieved what he had wanted to from the beginning. He became a well-established choreographer whose works are still widely known today. One critic said of Wasson’s biography on Fosse, “…It’s all here: accounts of [Fosse’s] monstrous, masterful directing style; explosive personal battles behind his Tony winning triumphs;” Choreographers and dancers know Fosse choreography when they see it because of how distinguishable it is. While the road to his success was not an easy one, like many he embraced every obstacle he had and never backed down. He wanted the world to know who he was and many years later, the dance world still honors him. Another critic said, “…The book gives us a three-dimensional portrait of a beautiful train wreck sixty years in the making, and it’s astutely balanced…”
Call Me Mister
Make Mine Manhattan
Dance Me a Song,
Billion Dollar Baby
The Roaring Twenties,
The Pajama Game
Bells are Ringing,
New Girl in Town,
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,
Pleasures and Palaces,
Liza with a Z,
1972 made for television
The Affairs of Doble Gillis,
Give a Girl a Break
Kiss Me Kate
Liza with a Z
My Sister Eileen,
The Pajama Game
, 1969 (also directed)
, 1974 (also directed)
The Little Prince,
All That Jazz,
“Bob Fosse Biography” Bio. 2011. Web. 13 April 2015.
“Bob Fosse” PBS: Broadway The American Musical. 2015. Web. 29 March 2015.
Gottfried, Martin. All His Jazz. Da Capo Press. 1998. Print.
Greenaway, Kathryn. "Bob Fosse, Lord of the Dance:"
: D5. Sep 23
Web. 1 Apr. 2015.
Gussow, Mel. "STAGE VIEW; A Tip of the Hat to Bob Fosse."
New York Times
Edition (East Coast) ed.Oct 04 1987.
Web. 1 Apr. 2015 .
Kirk, Fiona. "Bob Fosse."
04 2006: 94,95,97.
Web. 15 Apr. 2015 .
Wasson, Sam. Fosse. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, n.d. Print.
Wynn Rousuck, J. "His Darkness Lit the Stage the Vocabulary of Bob Fosse's Dances was Informed by Everything Around Him, Good and Bad."
: 3E. Sep 17 2000.
Web. 1 Apr. 2015
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