Feasting on Fosse

  • by John F. Karr
  • Wednesday May 30, 2018
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Two recently published books are a Bob Fosse feast for musical theatre enthusiasts (aka, show queens, a fun but less politically correct nickname). One is an exciting dance-by-dance biography of Fosse's work, and the other caters to those Fosse fans who are simply ca-razy for every tidbit about Broadway's longest-running American musical (22 years and counting), "Chicago."

We know "Chicago" as a musical, but it started life in 1926 as a stage play. Then came a 1927 silent film, a 1942 talkie starring Ginger Rogers, and only then the 1975 Fosse musical for Broadway, followed by the 1996 revival that made the show a global phenomenon, and finally, the 2002 Oscar winning movie version. The show's had quite a history, most of it as colorful as the show itself.

There have been multiple books about Fosse, from the straightforward biographies of Kevin Boyd, Martin Gottried, and Debra McWaters, to the flashiest best of the lot, Sam Wasson's "let's all go to hell in a handbasket" "Fosse." Margery Beddow was a Fosse dancer, which makes her slim volume, "Bob Fosse's Broadway," highly informed.

And now, Ethan Mordden devotes an entire book to "Chicago," called "All That Jazz - The Life and Times of the Musical Chicago" (Oxford University Press, clothbound, $29.95). Just imagine, a whole book devoted to this single glittering, hard-as-a-diamond show, which I've always viewed as an American "Threepenny Opera."

Mordden's lively book validates his standing as the supreme historian of the B'way musical. Especially when he delays the entrance of his titular subject to provide a fascinating chapter or two of musical theatre history, as the genre's developing sophistication took it from sheer froth into vehicles that could deal with political reality. But don't worry, Mordden's as fun as usual, as when he praises "the show's Weillian orchestration, suggesting the dance band engaged for Sadie Hawkins Night in Mother Courage's bordello," or when he conjectures Barbara Stanwyck as a Ginger Rogers replacement.

Having provided a context, Mordden finally arrives at the show's inception. He'll tell you all about its real-life origins, for yes, Roxie and Velma were actual people. He'll explain why "Chicago" is a synecdoche as a symbol of American culture. And why "Chicago," he writes, "is an exhibition piece in the development of our elite yet populist and idealistic yet subversive national art form, the musical."

And now I suggest you make a rush for the book that has superseded all the others to become the #1 champ on my Fosse shelf, Kevin Winkler's "Big Deal - Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical" (Oxford University Press, clothbound, $29.95). Winkler was a professional dancer, and spent a couple decades as curator and archivist at the New York Public Library. Meaning he knows dancing, and he's done his homework. He knows Fosse's shows more intimately than other biographers, and most importantly, describes choreography from within the dances, making his descriptions seem like newsreels. He describes them with such you-are-there clarity that I feel like I've actually seen nearly unknown shows like "Redhead," "New Girl in Town," and even the failed "Pleasures and Places." This is a choreographic biography of immense value, which also provides much pleasure in the reading. Winkler gives Fosse's work its social and political context, and even delves into Fosse's candid, personal thoughts on his own potential homosexuality, and how he used the sexuality of his gay male dancers to inform his shows. Winkler finds that Fosse's greatest contribution to show dancing was not his unique style, but that he made actors out of dancers, engaging their thought process in approaching their steps, thus making their performance dramatically coherent.

One disappointment is that neither of these books explains why the "Chicago" revival and other recent Fosse dances are credited not to Fosse, but usually to Ann Reinking, "in the style of Fosse." The only dance in the "Chicago" revival that has actual Fosse choreography is the rather simplistic "Hot Honey Rag." But even without an explication of that salient fact, "Big Deal" is the real deal. Don't miss it. I'll leave you with a fun fact: in real life, Hunyak ("not geeelty") was acquitted.