Sunday, May 5, 2019

It Was A Fine Affair

So, this should be interesting, since Fosse by Sam Wasson covers subjects that are both entrancing and downright vile on occasion.

As you could probably guess by the title, the actual subject matter is Bob Fosse, dancer, choreographer, director, writer, womanizer, heel, etc. One gets the impression her rode the wheel round and round, his highs high and his lows almost a bottomless pit.As a side note, the FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon was based on this particular volume, although there are a few events in the series that didn't appear in the book. The series also has the advantage of being a visual medium, allowing you to see what they're discussing as well as using some of Fosse's own visual tricks to get their point across. On the other hand, the book delves much deeper into Fosse's entire life, although his women are almost sidelined in the narrative. Which is a shame, since it would appear that Gwen Verson and Ann Reinking both kept his legacy alive and helped translate what went on in Bob's head to the people he was working with.

Anyway, we start in Fosse's childhood, growing up in Chicago during the Depression, and essentially going to dance class in place of his sister. He had the talent, and his teacher wound up playing his agent, sending Fosse and his good friend, Charles Grass to every vaudeville and burlesque outfit he could get them bookings at. Which, by the sound of it, wound up being every seedy theater that would accept them. Eventually Bob got drafted for the War, where he joined the Entertainment Corps. Part of me remains amused at the idea of bawdy performers entertaining their way across the South Pacific. Eventually, he was discharged and wound up in New York, where he wound up meeting and partnering and marrying Mary Ann Niles. While they toured together, Bob essentially outgrew her and started courting the also married Joan McCracken. Whom he ended up divorcing Mary Ann to marry eventually.

Joan, an established actress managed to get more than a few doors opened for Bob, which eventually lead to his big break, choreographing The Pajama Game. Success and love wasn't enough, as Fosse's extra marital affairs eventually doomed this marriage, although the final straw came with Damn Yankees and Gwen Verdon.

Since I can't get video to work, here's Verdon and Fosse in the movie version. 

Verdon and Fosse wound up marrying after her divorce and having Nicole, who eventually wound up in the original Broadway cast of Phantom of the Opera.

 Fosse started getting more involved in the actual control of creating a musical with Sweet Charity, which sadly unleashed "If My Friends Could See Me Now" on an unsuspecting world, later used to sell Carnival Cruises with Kathy Lee Gifford lip syncing for her life on a cruise.

Fosse and Verdon's marriage was a success on a creative level, but a mess on the personal level. Indeed, while they never divorced, they did separate during the filming of Cabaret after Gwen, having flown round trip from Germany to New York and back to get a gorilla costume arrived to find Bob in bed with several German girls.

Mein Herr

Sadly, Gwen's career stalled while Bob's continued to grow. He won an Oscar for Cabaret, a few Tonys for Pippin and Emmys for Liza With a Z. (The book goes into great detail with how Liza was filmed, with multiple cameras essentially making it one big take.) Pippin was evidently a bit of a fight, since Schwartz, who wrote it, wasn't fond of Fosse's rather ironic take on an earnest story. It also introduced Fosse to Ann Reinking, the other major girlfriend in the legacy.(Seriously. I lost track of everyone he was attached to throughout.)

Not the Manson Trio I was looking for, but....

To help boost ticket sales, Bob ended up shooting the famous Manson Trip in Pippin as a 1 minute commercial spot to boost soft sales later in the run. They also did a TV movie version of Pippin for Home Video, which everyone hated. (By all accounts, it was like Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" video's original cut where the dancing was cut in favor of faces.)

We hear about his movie ventures, Lenny with Dustin Hoffman, All That Jazz, which was semi autobiographical, and Star 80, which was really really depressing.

We hear about Dancin', which was sort of a revue of Fosse's style.

We hear about Broadway in the 80's when the big British set pieces came over and corporate sponsorship of shows became the rule instead of the exception.

We meet his friends, like Neil Simon and Paddy Chayefsky (of which one really sad story emerges. A deal was struck after Bob;s first heart attack that if Paddy died first, Bob would tap dance at his funeral, if Bob died first, Paddy would deliver the longest eulogy ever. Paddy dies first, and Fosse indeed tap dances.) We see Fosse do more drugs than all of Height-Ashbury in 1969. We get a brief moment of the dancers in the Dancin' tour dealing with AIDS and how Rock Hudson changed their attitudes. We hear about his rivalry with Michael Bennett, and how that eventually changed like the Nederlander/Schubert rivalry as two old War Horses learning to not fight.

Ultimately though, the book is a really vivid portrayal of the creative person, and the destruction that is the flip side of creation. It also raises questions about it's protagonist, in this more modern era, of whether or not what he achieved justified what he did to create it. (Frankly, had he been around in the past 20 years, we'd not know his work, since he'd have been fired from every show he was part of for his antics. Sexual harassment of the ladies, telling a child actor to stand there naked and get aroused while being harassed by strippers.... the drugs....) And that is up to the reader, on whether creation that benefits all is worth the personal destruction required to achieve it. 

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