What's New on the Rialto
Kevin Winkler, Author of
Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical
Interview by James Wilson
James Wilson: Maybe we could begin with a description of how this treatment of Fosse's life and career differs from other biographies.
Kevin Winkler: I've always loved Fosse's workI don't know any dancer who doesn'tand I've read everything I could get my hands on about him. But much of it left me dissatisfied because of a tendency to focus on the sensational aspects of his personal life. And just when they got to what I consider the "good stuff"really digging in and analyzing his workthey would back off or discuss it in a superficial manner. I was interested in how he constructed his work, what influences and experiences he drew upon, and on how he, in turn, had influenced newer generations of choreographers. No one had written about his career in that way, so I thought that there was a gap that a book like this could fill.
KW: Robbins came from the world of ballet. He had a long association as a choreographer with George Abbott, and was looking to transition to direction himself. When Abbott was putting together The Pajama Game, Fosse was given the opportunity to choreograph the showhis first show as a choreographer. Robbins was brought in on the project as a kind of insurance policy. He was given co-director billing alongside Abbott, with the understanding that he would step in if Fosse had problems. And he did step in. Of course, Fosse broke through with "Steam Heat" and other dance numbers. But he had never choreographed big ensembles or staged numbers where people simply sang to each other. There were times when he got in trouble and needed some help. There was one number that he was having trouble with, and Robbins came in one afternoon and staged it. Fosse said it was embarrassing, but he nevertheless stayed and watched and learned. He said he learned more that afternoon about musical staging than any time in his life. And he was a fast study. That was the last time he ever needed that kind of assistance.
Robbins was also a real defender of Fosse's work. There was a point out of town when Abbott wanted to cut "Steam Heat." It wasn't a book song, it was a specialty number, and Abbott thought it slowed things down. But Robbins insisted, "You cannot cut that number. It's just too good." So he stood up for Fosse, in a meaningful way. And the two of them established an opening night ritual where they exchanged a set of cuff links. From then on, when one had a show opening, the other would gift him with the cuff links, and they would trade them back and forth. So there was respect and a kind of friendship.
KW: Robbins came up in musicals with George Abbott, choreographing things like On the Town, which originated with his ballet "Fancy Free," but also Call Me Madam and High Button Shoes. He was steeped in musical comedy. So they had that in common. He was a brilliant stager of musical numbers, and I think Fosse learned a great deal from him.
JW: In the book, you quote Frank Rich describing Robbins' West Side Story staging, saying how the whole show just seems to dance. Similarly, when Fosse begins to direct, we see the muscle in full flex. The entire show has Fosse's imprint throughout.
KW: In Redhead, Fosse's first show as a director, the whole show danced. Even the scenery danced! And that was Robbins' influence. At the same time, it was also a repudiation of the George Abbott model, which was very much scene-song-dance, scene-song-dance. When Robbins broke from Abbott and became a director, he took the best of Abbott, but then brought his own total staging concepts to his work. And Fosse did the same. Fosse was influenced by both of those men. They were incredibly important to him in the early days of his career. Abbott was nothing if not practical and efficient. He established the director as the leader, the undisputed final authority on a show. If a song, a scene, or even a laugh didn't drive the show forward, it had to go. It didn't matter how good it was. Hence, the "Steam Heat" incident. Fosse absorbed this method and became ruthless in streamlining his shows, to the extent that, in Chicago, he cut an entire role [that of agent Henry Glassman, played by actor David Rounds] when the show was in previews. From Robbins he got the understanding of what it meant for one person to fully stage a show, that dance movement could inform words and songs, and it could be one whole entity in a way that it never was with Abbott.
JW: What were some of the biggest challenges in doing this work, in terms of working with the archives and relying on the recollections of the dancers?
KW: With the dancers, I was asking them to help me reconstruct dances they had performed 50 or 60 years ago. So that was a great challenge. But I was amazed at how vivid some of their memories were. Some dancers remember individual steps, some have broader remembrances of the experience. The choreographic notes, in some cases, were very specific, which was a big help. In other instances, they were vague to the point of not being helpful at all.
JW: What were some of the best or biggest surprises for you?
JW: Were there particular casting stories that you found interesting?
KW: One of the fascinating things about researching Fosse's work was discovering the casting notes. It's always interesting to see how a show takes shape, and the various changes it goes through before getting to the final cast. For instance, the role of Mary Sunshine in Chicago was always intended as a soprano role, and high on the list of actresses they initially wanted was Barbara Cook. The role was described as a sweet, suburban den mother type, with a soprano voice. But at some point in the casting process, they stopped drawing up lists of sopranos and began working with an agent who represented drag performers. They started auditioning people like female impersonator Craig Russell, Andy Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn, and nightclub comedian Michael Greer. And then they saw a man named Michael O'Haughey, who had a five-octave voice. So I guess it was like that moment in The Producers: "That's our Mary Sunshine!" And he was billed only as M. O'Haughey in order to not give away the twist of the role being played by a man.
JW: Which is what they still do with the actors playing the role in the revival.
KW: Right. In 1972, Pippin was intended as what we might call a "youth musical." It arrived in the wake of Hair, which exploded on the scene in the late 1960s. Lots of shows tried to replicate its youthful sound and energy. And Pippin was written by a very young Stephen Schwartz. So the plan originally was to cast the leading roles not with people who were the usual suspects along Shubert Alley, but with those from the pop-rock-folk worlds. For the role of Pippin, they were interested in people like Arlo Guthrie, John Denver, Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits, and David Cassidy from The Partridge Family. For the role of Catherine, they were interested in Carly Simon or Judy Collins. They sort of got someone like that with Jill Clayburgh, who had a similar quality. And for Fastrada, the duplicitous, sexy stepmother, they were interested in Bette Midler, who was then an emerging star, r&b singer Freda Payne (remember "Band of Gold"), and Paula Kelly, who had danced for Fosse in the movie version of Sweet Charity. So they were exploring colorblind casting for that role.
JW: What are some misconceptions about Fosse?
KW: The word I would use to best describe Fosse is decent. He had a high regard and affection for performers, particularly dancers, and he treated them with great respect. For example, his correspondence files are filled with long, earnest letters from teenage dancers asking for his guidance on their careers, training, and professional opportunities. And in every instance, he answered them honestly and encouragingly. He always counseled them to study ballet to gain a strong dance technique; to not drop out of high school ("the theater will still be here," he often said); and to take every opportunity to perform and learn about being on stage. I was also surprised to find letters and notes of thanks from dancers who had auditioned unsuccessfully for him. They praised his attentiveness and his patience in allowing them to learn a dance combination fully before they performed it for him. "I truly felt that you saw and considered me thoroughly," said one dancer, who noted that Fosse was unusual among other choreographers in that regard. I think it's important to acknowledge this aspect of Fosse, because he's so often identified with darkness and cynicism. But he was also supportive and kind. And truly decent.
JW: How would you describe Fosse's dance vocabulary? He actually said he had a limited dance vocabulary? Would you agree with that?
KW: Yes, I think he did have a limited dance vocabulary. But I don't think of that as a negative. It actually speaks to his great talent, that he was able to take what was arguably a limited dance vocabulary and create so many interesting and varied dance numbers. We sometimes think a choreographer has a limited dance vocabulary if he or she is not grounded in ballet. But I don't think his vocabulary was any more limited than other director-choreographers who didn't come from the ballet world, like Gower Champion or Michael Bennett.
JW: He was such an artist of the theater, and I think primarily that's where his fame resides. People think of him as a choreographer, as a theater director. But as you've said, he hasn't gotten his due as a film director.
At the same time, there was a move to incorporate popular music as a kind of aural wallpaper for movies. So you'd see montages where there would be a song that may or may not have anything to do with the story, but would serve as aural accompaniment to the moment. Sometimes it might be a hit recordlike the songs from Simon and Garfunkel in The Graduate. Fosse took these things that were happening in films and TV and brought them together in All That Jazz. For instance, you have that brilliant opening audition sequence scored to George Benson's recording of "On Broadway." It's obviously not the music the dancers are dancing to in the audition, but it provides an aural foundation for the sequence. If you're already doing a song that doesn't really have anything to do with the dancing, you can slice it up and speed up the editing, and it's liberating in a way. And that's a template that was used almost immediately when MTV first began broadcasting videos two years after All That Jazz arrived. Of course, it became more refined over the years. But you can see the seeds of that kind of approach to music and dance in Fosse's work, and you can also see what preceded it, and what influences he drew upon.
JW: In the early chapters of your book, there seems to be some tension between Fosse the performer and Fosse the choreographer. Was there a sense of frustration that Fosse wasn't able to be a star performer and was becoming known as a choreographer?
KW: Fosse began his career as a dancer and his earliest ambition was to be a nightclub dancer. Later he went to Hollywood and was in movies, where he hoped to be the next Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. It became very clear, very early on, that he had a statement to make as a choreographer. But I'm not sure he had a statement to make as a performer. In the early days of his choreographic careerthe mid-to-late 1950sthere was indeed that tension you mention. It was in the 1950s that he played the role of Joey in Pal Joey. He did it in summer stock a number of times. He did it twice at New York's City Center, and got a Tony nomination. So the ambition to continue performing was always there. He was interested in playing roles in shows that he directed and choreographed, like Redhead and The Conquering Hero. But cooler heads prevailed and producers realized that he would be spreading himself very thin if he did that. It seems to me that as his success grew as a choreographer, and then as a director, the urge to perform dissipated somewhat. But he jumped at the chance to play a role in Stanley Donen's film, The Little Prince, in the 1970s. There was still that fire, but I think he saw that his great success as a director and choreographer took precedence over the desire for the performer's spotlight. Also, he was a dancer, and he knew that at some point you don't dance as well as you once did. He was realistic about where he could make his statement.
JW: It seems that Fosse and Verdon were destined to be together. But you state that they were initially wary of working together. Could you explain their reluctance and their first meeting? And how do you account for their eventual yin-and-yang relationship?
KW: Their first time working together was on Damn Yankees in 1955, and yes, they were apprehensive at first. Verdon had spent the bulk of her performing career working with Jack Cole. She had danced for him and with him, and she was his trusted assistant. And, as she herself said, her standards were high. She hated dancing that didn't say anything. She referred to it as "dancing wallpaper." It was dancing that kept moving but didn't go anywhere. At this point, Fosse had done only one show as a choreographer, The Pajama Game. So there was skittishness on both sides. They got together at a dance studio to feel each other out, so to speak. There he taught her the complete "Whatever Lola Wants" number. He had choreographed it down to the very last detail, even to the moments when she slicked her hair back, or scratched her leg. And from the beginning there was an alchemy between them. She said later, "I just fell into Bob's work." It felt completely natural to her. It was sexyand it was no problem for her to convey sexiness, to exult in her sexuality. But it was also funny. It had wit and a sense of whimsy. Also, wit and whimsy were not part of Jack Cole's vocabulary. His work was striking, dramatic, fierce. I can't help but think that dancing Fosse was fun for her, an opportunity for lightness and humor that perhaps Cole's work didn't always provide. And she was at her dancing peak. She could do anything he asked of her, and they fed off each other's creativity.
Kathryn Doby, Fosse's longtime assistant, who worked with them on Sweet Charity ten years later, said that they didn't even have to talk much to each other. He would suggest something, she would jump on it, and off they went. They had a kind of spiritual connection in dance. I also wrote in the book that when she left the stage after Chicago, she took with her something that went missing in Fosse's work after that. She took with her a lightness, a sense of whimsy and humor. Something that might look low or tawdry suddenly became funny, quirky, sexy-cute when she did it. He gave her much, but she gave him much, as well.
JW: You also note that she became a repository of Fosse dance, and she went on to assist and teach other dancers his work.
KW: Yes, her body and mind became a repository for his work. She was often referred to as the greatest Fosse dancer, and I think that is absolutely true. She also had a talent for passing on his work in the most openhearted and generous way. What choreographer could ask for anything more: a wonderful performer on which to build your work, who would then pass it on with respect and authenticity.
JW: I was surprised to learn from your book that Fosse was involved with the musical Funny Girl. How did you learn about this?
KW: What I loved about working with the Fosse papers at the Library of Congress was that virtually every project he was ever involved with has some documentationeven projects that he later left and didn't complete. Most people don't know that at one point he was heavily involved with Funny Girl. Jerome Robbins was set to direct and choreograph the show, and was working closely with bookwriter Isobel Lennart, who was an accomplished screenwriter but had never written a stage show. The show was being produced by Ray Stark, with Jule Styne writing the music and Bob Merrill the lyrics. Robbins was concerned that the show's book was not up to par, and because of that he felt he needed a very strong, seasoned actress in the leading role. He favored Anne Bancroft. Jule Styne and Ray Stark were strongly in favor of Barbra Streisand. The parties came to an impasse and Robbins left the project and was replaced by Fosse. But Robbins made it clear that his contributions to the book could not be used by his replacement, so Fosse came in with a real disadvantage. He worked on the show for five or six months. He later claimed that he was responsible for casting Streisand, which is not technically true. With Robbins out of the picture, Streisand was the obvious choice. But she was signed for the show while Fosse was working on it.
There were a couple of changes Fosse made to the show that are interesting. "People" was originally intended as a trio for Fanny, Nick Arnstein, and Eddie Ryan, Fanny's vaudeville dance coach, who in early drafts carried a torch for her. So it was meant to be a love song for three people. Fosse reshaped the song as a solo for Fanny. The beginning of the show also went through numerous changes. At one point, it was to open with Fanny as a member of the chorus, messing up and falling down, and generally demonstrating that she couldn't blend into an ensemble. Robbins' script had her making up at the top of the show. She's doing one of her Indian numbers, so she's got on garish Indian make-up. She turns around and looks in a mirror and says, "Hello, gorgeous." Fosse started the showactually during the overturewith stagehands setting up the stage of the Ziegfeld Follies. Fanny enters the moment the overture ends, walks up to a mirror and, as herself, not in Indian make-up, says, "Hello, gorgeous." And that's the iconic first moment in the show. Everyone remembers it from the movieit's very dramatic.
Fosse didn't get along with Ray Stark, so he eventually left the show. But in leaving he was more generous than Robbins, and said that the production could keep all of his contributions to the script. So he's responsible for "People" as a solo and for that iconic opening image of Fanny in the mirror. It's intriguing to think about this: If Fosse had stayed with the show it would have been just as big a hit, and it's possible that Funny Girl would have been the vehicle by which he made his film debut as a director. We'll never know this, obviously. But as I say in the book, he left just enough of his fingerprints on it to tantalize us with what his Funny Girl might have been.
JW: It's also fascinating to think of Barbra almost as his Liza muse. I wonder if they would have had a similar working relationship.
KW: And who knows, he might have directed other films with Streisand. That could have been a star-director relationship that might have been spectacular.
JW: I can see them working together because both of them are so driven and so detail oriented, that I think she would have appreciated his attention to detail.
KW: It's just one of those things we'll never know.
Kevin Winkler enjoyed a career of more than twenty years as a curator, archivist, and library administrator at the New York Public Library, prior to which he was a professional dancer. He has published articles and contributed to books on performing arts libraries and archives, LGBTQ performance, films, and dance. Kevin blogs for the Huffington Post and is a MacDowell Colony fellow.