News

Black (Musical Theater) History Month

In Honor of Bob Fosse’s Ninety-First Birthday By Peter Filichia

“Was I ever eager, pushy, needy, scared, hungry, confident. I felt there was nothing I couldn’t do.”

So said Bob Fosse in 1985. Considering that this was one year before he brought one new musical to Broadway – and a revival only five days later – he should have said “There’s still nothing I can’t do.”

True, that new musical didn’t succeed with critics or with audiences; Big Deal closed after a mere sixty-nine performances. And yet, that’s the title that Kevin Winkler chose for his Fosse biography. For whatever the fate of the show, Fosse was indeed a Big Deal on Broadway.

We learn that Jerome Robbins didn’t necessarily think so. When they co-choreographed Bells Are Ringing, Fosse was given “Hello, Hello There” to stage, but Robbins was summoned to improve the number, which he apparently did.

More to the point, Winkler quotes a letter that Jerome Robbins wrote to an unidentified dancer: “One terrible part of the show is that Bob Fosse, who did most of the dances, managed to eke out a bad second-hand version of dances I had already done, so that it looks like I have just copied myself and repeated badly what I once did well.”

Jerome! Don’t you know that if you want something done, do it yourself (as a movie song from Bells Are Ringing later informed us).

Even if Robbins was right, Bob made a spectacular recovery, for less than a year later, the film of The Pajama Game allowed Fosse to expand his stage “Once a Year Day” to make “a human jigsaw puzzle.” No less than Jean-Luc Godard claimed that this was one of the best production numbers in any musical film.

At that point, Fosse was still well-regarded as a performer. When the film of Damn Yankees was in production and the original dancer wasn’t working out, Fosse was asked if he’d step in and perform “Who’s Got the Pain?” with Gwen Verdon. Fosse said he would – if the production would buy him a toupee.

They did and he did.

Winkler establishes that Doris Day got the ball rolling on Fosse’s next show: New Girl in Town. She wanted to star in a musical movie of Anna Christie, so Bob Merrill wrote a score. When the project fell through, Merrill looked to Broadway – but retained merely two songs, essentially started from scratch and came up with a terrific new score with Gwen Verdon singing quite a bit of it.

Co-producers Frederick Brisson, Robert E. Griffith and Harold S. Prince (as he billed himself then) wanted Fosse as their choreographer, but Damn Yankees had just finished filming and Fosse said he’d do it only if they’d allow him to first take a six-week vacation.

They said yes, and we can see why. In a mere three years, Fosse’s name was on five hits: three Broadway musicals and two films. He’d be worth waiting for.

What they and George Abbott wouldn’t do, however, was green-light New Girl’s “Red Light Ballet,” which they deemed as “too dirty.” (Um, the show is about a prostitute …) So in order to make it less lascivious, Fosse sped it up. Slow, serious music, Winkler writes, “makes people very nervous” for the dance “gets too graphic, too sensual. They don’t mind if it’s moving.” (And while the actual “Red Light” choreography is considered long lost, Winkler does his best to reconstruct it in three generous paragraphs.)

Nevertheless, Abbott and Prince still demanded it excised, so Fosse made the decision never to work with them again.

(And he didn’t).

By now, Fosse knew that if he were to get everything he wanted in a show, he’d have to direct, too. So when Redhead reared its head, he demanded both jobs.

“Gwen backed me,” Fosse admitted. She really believed in me. She simply said ‘He’s my director. Bob Fosse is my director.’”

He’d soon be her on-again, off-again lover-slash-husband.

As it turned out, Fosse’s pre-production suggestions to the book were considered so valuable that even before rehearsals his librettists insisted on giving him 1% of the subsidiary rights “in consideration of the contributions you have made.”

Fosse whipped up many a vigorous dance; Harvey Evans said “We would come off ready to vomit, it was so exhausting.” He won his third Tony for choreography (and would he have won one for New Girl had the ballet stayed in?). But he didn’t win Best Director of a Musical – because, believe it or not, the category didn’t exist. It would the following year; did Fosse’s terrific achievement on Redhead make the Tony committee say, “You know, we’ve got to start acknowledging direction of a musical”?

Although Hugh Lambert was the choreographer of record on How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Fosse came in to rescue “Coffee Break,” which Frank Loesser labeled “an ominous cha-cha” on his sheet music. Fosse had an office worker so coffee-deprived that he jumped into the orchestra pit, and in case you doubt this happened, Winkler provides a picture of him mid-air.

Rudy Vallee originally sang “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” until Fosse revised it as a soft-shoe. That, however, was not what Loesser had penned, so Fosse had to run it by him. “It’s brilliant,” said Loesser, who rewrote to accommodate Fosse’s vision.

For Little Me, Sid Caesar demanded that he not be assigned more than three songs. He got four, which is why his rendition of “Real Live Girl” lasts only sixty-eight seconds – and why Fosse got the chorus involved. When the number was seen for the first time and went over splendidly, Fosse, standing at the back of the theater, literally did a cartwheel. It was his favorite Little Me number. (What’s yours?)

In this same chapter, Winkler offers one of his many smart and detailed observations: “Be a Performer” and “Dimples,” which chart Belle Poitrine’s transition from murder suspect to vaudeville star, is “a capsule preview of Chicago.”

When he and Verdon were offered Cabaret, both said “We don’t see it as a musical.” Little did Fosse know that it would become one of his most acclaimed credits, albeit through the movie version. And yet, that film wasn’t quite a musical in the conventional sense, was it? (To be fair, Winkler says that co-producer Cy Feuer came up with many of the new script ideas that Fosse embraced.)

By the time Fosse began work on Sweet Charity, he had come to a realization: “In a show like this, in every minute-and-a-half something has to work. And if it doesn’t work after a minute-and-a-half, then whatever happens three minutes later has to be twice as good.”

And speaking of good, Winkler quotes Fosse as saying “The happiest times that I ever had with Gwen were when we were working together. I think it even affected sex.”

We’ll never know, but through Kevin Winkler, we do know once again that Bob Fosse was a very big deal.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.