The Sour Smell of Success: Self-Doubt and Fear of Death Haunted the Sensational Career of Bob Fosse

By Bloom, Michael | American Theatre, February 2014 | Go to article overview

The Sour Smell of Success: Self-Doubt and Fear of Death Haunted the Sensational Career of Bob Fosse


Bloom, Michael, American Theatre


FOSSE

By Sam Wasson, Eamon Dolan Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, New York, 2013. 722 pp., $32 hardcover.

T BEGINS WITH THE END--A LAVISH PARTY thrown by the deceased for his friends at Tavern on the Green. Chapters are titled in years that count down to the fatal stroke. And the epigraph is the subject's, "How much time do I have left?"

For a biography of Bob Fosse, a man who thought about his mortality every day, it seems entirely appropriate that death haunts nearly every page of Fosse. It's all the more surprising, then, that Sam Wasson's capacious book is a compulsively readable anatomy of a singular artist and his artistic pathology. Twenty-five-percent heavier than Martin Gottfried's groundbreaking 1998 All His jazz--to which it owes a sizable and acknowledged debt--Fosse is free to amplify the deadly battle between outsize talent and self-destructive excess. Gottfried had the advantage of interviewing colleagues and friends now no longer living, such as George Abbott, Sid Caesar, Stanley 'Donen, Buddy Hackett, Jerome Robbins and Robert Whitehead. But, like Gottfried's book, Wasson's Fosse is meticulously researched, especially on the subject's Hollywood years and personal life.

"Bob Fosse was the best thing to come out of burlesque, and he would pay for it forever," writes Wasson, zeroing in on the grimy primal scene of the artist's aesthetic and psychological impulses. In a situation out of Dickens, Fosse's father siphoned off some of the boy's earnings to pay for dance classes, while his mother was too ill to keep her son from playing the back-alley clubs. Scared and alone at 15, the young dancer became the strippers' toy and they his den mothers. From time to time he would return to the dime-a-dance clubs "like a shell-shocked veteran," because they were his first professional and personal nests, complete with feathers, G-strings and ready sex. "It was schizophrenic," admitted Fosse, who was both drawn to the girls and hurt by them. Years later his psychiatrist connected the dots between the burlesque years and his need to prove that every woman was a whore. In the clubs he also acquired a taste for drugs that would infect the rest of his life.

In quick-step prose, Fosse diagrams the development of a dance vocabulary, starting with Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor by way of burlesque. Taught to keep his palms down and fingers together, Fosse built a style out of the opposite--splayed fingers and palms open, along with slouched shoulders, bent knees, slithery hips, canes, gloves (he hated his hands) and bowlers (baldness made him insecure). Hands shooting up and then back in like tentacles anticipated the lightning moves of Michael Jackson, who more than once tried to get Fosse to direct his music videos.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

If the evolution of his dance style would continue at Least through Chicago, the Fosse sensibility began to emerge in the "The Red Light" ballet, a whorehouse number in New Girl in Town (eventually sanitized against his wishes) and the cynical unmasking of patriotism in The Conquering Hero. His wounded soul would next find congenial material in Sweet Charity. Later, with suicide front and center in Pippin and seedy cabaret life intertwined with Nazism, Fosse's aesthetic had become a full-blown nihilism in perfect synch with the era of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. Just as sleaze corrupted him as a boy, corruption became a lifelong artistic obsession.

IT WOULD BE HARD TO ARGUE WITH WASSON'S assessment that Cabaret reinvented the movie musical. Less clearly established, despite the book's length, is Fosse's theatrical legacy, other than his dance style. He may have "raised the bar on blackness impossibly high," but West Side Story and the stage version of Cabaret had already made claims on the seriousness of the art form. It doesn't help Fosse's case that Harold Prince is quoted as saying Fosse "unabashedly stole Cabaret" to create Chicago. …

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