As FX's 'Fosse/Verdon' Sets To Premiere, Who Was Bob Fosse?

by Michael Mahany | 4/9/2019 3:23 AM

Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse. Photo credit: Martha Holmes.

Even three decades after his passing, Bob Fosse is arguably still the most revered and celebrated choreographer in Broadway history. 

Not only did Mr. Fosse win eight Tony Awards during his illustrious career, but he also won an Emmy, Tony, and Oscar — all in one year, 1973 — a feat unmatched by any of his contemporaries or subsequent Broadway choreographic successors. 

While his iconic style is still to this day, immediately recognizable, thoroughly soul touching, and distinctly unrivaled, Fosse also harbored inner demons. His personal life left him, at times, struggling, and a seemingly unending appetite for sex not only made the relationships he fostered difficult to maintain but also left a stain on his reputation that many choose not to discuss.

With tonight's premiere of FX’s ‘Fosse/Verdon’, Dance Network thought it proper to gently profile the late choreographer and delve into who he was as an artist and dancer, acknowledge the sheer volume of iconic art he created in his 60 years, and explore some of the sides of the man that often go unspoken.

More: 'Fosse/Verdon' Recreated Those Famous Dance Scenes With An Epic Team

The Early Years

Robert “Bob” Louis Fosse was born June 23, 1927, in Chicago, Illinois and at a young age, found a love and a talent for dance, music, and theatre. Very early on working in the burlesque and vaudeville theatres, Fosse began to cut his teeth on the fundamentals of performance, comedy, and the art of holding an audience.

After a stint in the military, Fosse moved to New York City and began dancing in Broadway shows. After a few gigs in New York during the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Fosse was signed to a contract with MGM in 1953. During his time on contract with the studio, he appeared as a dancer and performer in three films: ‘Give A Girl A Break’, ‘The Affairs Of Dobie Gillis’ and ‘Kiss Me, Kate’.

Bob Fosse.

Fosse was given his first chance to choreograph on Broadway in 1954 when he was asked to set the dances for George Abbott and Jerome Robbins' new musical, ’The Pajama Game’. Largely due to the notice he received from a small section of dance he set in the film, ‘Kiss Me, Kate’, Fosse’s work on ‘The Pajama Game’ turned out to not only launch his choreographic career but also paved the way to his first Tony award for Best Choreography. The musical also served as the breakout vehicle for Fosse’s ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ dance partner, Carol Haney, whom Fosse had insisted Abbott hire. Haney went on to win the 1955 Tony award for Best Featured Actress in a musical for her work on the show.

The Height Of Success And The Development Of Style

After Fosse’s first Tony win, he went on to work again with director George Abbot, this time on 1955’s, ’Damn Yankees’. For his work on the musical, Fosse won his second Tony Award for Best Choreography, but moreover, he met Gwen Verdon, who in 1960 would become his third wife.

Fosse often stepped back and forth between theatre and film in the late 1950s.

Having both appeared in and choreographed the dance sequences for the 1955 film, ‘My Sister Eileen’, Fosse’s famed ‘Alley Dance’ — performed alongside dancer, Tommy Rall — has since become one of the choreographer's most beloved film dance pieces.

Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall in ‘My Sister Eileen’. Video: Columbia Pictures.

Fosse also choreographed the film adaptations of 1957’s ‘The Pajama Game’ and 1958’s ‘Damn Yankees’.

In the early years of his choreographic career, Fosse began to develop, experiment with, and hone what would become his signature style. 

With his naturally turned-in knees, pigeon toes, and slouched shoulders, Fosse’s style began to adopt these unique postures as a fundamental base on which his dances were created. 

Fosse’s adoration of his idol, Fred Astaire, inspired him to often add props to his choreography, and the use of hats was reportedly due to his insecurity with premature baldness.

More: It's World Theatre Day! Here are 3 Ways Dance Makes Theatre Even Better

Nevertheless, the masterful Fosse used his idiosyncrasies to his advantage, infusing his dances with intense storytelling, distinctly specific movement, and his unique and never-before-seen physically aesthetic tropes.

“The work is fragile,” Fosse dancer, former partner, and award-winning choreographer, Ann Reinking said in an interview. “If you don’t do it with the specificity it needs, it can fall apart.” 

Ann Reinking performing “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” from the film, ‘All That Jazz’. Video: 20th Century Fox/Columbia. 

“[The style,] it was extremely musical… the music is the groundwater, but he would catch every little thing,” Gwen Verdon told NPR in a 1993 interview. “If you moved your little finger, there would be a ting on a triangle. So — and there was an economy to the movement, you didn't just sort of blast out and dance. It was isolation and discipline.”

Fosse was nominated for an astounding 20 Tony awards, in categories ranging from Best Choreography and Best Direction, to Best Book of a Musical, and even one for Best Actor in a Musical for his work in 1964’s ‘Pal Joey’.

His major stage highlights include the choreography to the musicals ‘Bells Are Ringing’, and ‘New Girl In Town’, and the direction, choreography, and occasional book writing to shows like ‘Redhead’, ‘Little Me’, ‘Sweet Charity’, ‘Pippin’, ‘Chicago’, ‘Dancin’’, and ‘Big Deal’. He also directed and choreographed a successful Broadway revival of ‘Sweet Charity’ in 1986 — while the subsequent 1987 national tour marked his final contribution to the stage.

More: Stanley Donen -- Dance Film Icon, Gone At 94

Fosse spent a good portion of the 1970’s making movies. His first feature film was 1969’s ‘Sweet Charity’ starring Shirley MacLaine. In the monster year that was 1973, Fosse won an Academy Award for his direction of the feature film, ‘Cabaret’, starring a young Liza Minnelli. (He also won the 1973 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for ‘Pippin’ and three Primetime Emmy awards for his work directing and choreographing the television special, ‘Liza With A Z’, also starring the blooming Minnelli.) 

“Big Spender” from ‘Sweet Charity’. Video: Universal Pictures.

Fosse also directed 1974’s ‘Lenny’, 1979’s semi-biographic film ‘All That Jazz’, and 1983’s ‘Star 80’.

Unspoken Controversy

Fosse, often in outside relationships, would marry three times throughout his life.

First, in 1947, he wed Mary Ann Niles, a dance partner with whom he had an act in New York City. After a short-lived marriage with Niles, he married dancer Joan McCracken in 1952, but their nuptials only lasted until 1957. 

In 1960, he wed Gwen Verdon  with whom he was already having an affair  and the two would stay married until his death in 1987. Though Fosse and Verdon separated in 1971, they never officially divorced, always remained close, and often worked together. The couple had one daughter together, Nicole, who would go on to dance and consult on her father’s legacy.

Later, Fosse would refer to Verdon as his "best friend", and was fulsome and unrestrained in his love for their daughter, Nicole.

Fosse had a strident reputation as someone who was involved in extramarital relationships and as a man willing to use his power to make often unwanted advances on female dancers. It’s been reported that these outside affairs ultimately lead to his separation from Verdon.

‘Fosse/Verdon’ executive producer, Steven Levenson, acknowledged in an interview with the New York Post that these issues are dealt with in the series, but notes that the show is trying to tell the story “without putting our 2019 lens on it,” 

“Bob clearly abused his power,” Levenson said. “But there was nobody around him was calling him out for it… These were things people didn’t talk about.“

One of the stories reportedly told in the series, details an event when a young dancer named “Sherry” (played by actress Alexis Carra on the show) fought back against Fosse’s unwanted sexual approach by kneeing him in the groin. The story goes on that Sherry, who had been hired to dance in ‘Pippin’ was fired after she turned down Fosse.

“When [Sherry] fights back, it’s a real shock to Bob,” Levenson said. “He feels aggrieved. He feels like the victim. Fosse once said, ‘If I could just have a bed next to the dance studio.’ To work and have sex was the ideal thing.”

An Undying Partnership And A Lasting Legacy

Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon worked in their traditional choreographer/performer partnership on at least five stage musicals and one film, though they collaborated on countless projects. 

When Fosse suffered the heart attack outside the Willard Hotel in Washington DC that would soon take his life, he collapsed into the arms of Verdon. His death fell on the same evening the ‘Sweet Charity’ revival tour was opening at the National Theatre, just down the street.

Without a doubt, Fosse’s style and legacy have stretched far beyond the era in which he lived and created. The 1996 revival of ‘Chicago’, choreographed by Ann Reinking, was set “in the style of Bob Fosse”, his tribute musical, ‘Fosse’, won the 1999 Best Musical Tony award, and many of today’s Broadway choreographers utilize the creative practices, artistic standards, and theatrical innovations established by the masterful dance-maker.

Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon performing, “Who’s Got The Pain?” from 1958’s ‘Damn Yankees’. Video: Warner Bros.

“Not any one person has the definitive lock on ‘this is what the style is’ because it was so complicated and so complex,” Bebe Neuwirth, an actress who appeared in the 1986 revival of ‘Sweet Charity’ and won a Tony for her performance of Velma Kelly in the 1996 Broadway revival of ‘Chicago’, told Dance Network in a 2018 interview. “There’s the person who does the eccentricity very well… there’s the person who does the lyricism and sensuality very well… there’s the person who does the acting very well.”

“[The style is] very very deep and complicated —he probably wouldn’t cop to that, but I think so,” Neuwirth added. “A very elegant vocabulary, style, and aesthetic.”

More: 2 WOD Stars To Choreograph The Broadway Bound Britney Spears Musical

Fosse’s style and artistry have become touchstones in the musical theatre world, and as we’re about to see with the new FX series, the iconic, colorful, and tragic story of his life and legacy are still very much alive.

Will the 2019 audience view the story through a #MeToo lens? Will the general reputation of Fosse’s legacy remain unchanged at the conclusion of the series? While it's difficult to say, one thing, however, is for certain: the theatrical contributions Fosse made to his art form were vast, and if the past indicates the future, they certainly aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Stay with Dance Network for more about Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, including a profile of Ms. Verdon, upcoming interviews with former dancers, and more.

Michael Mahany serves as Dance Network’s New York City correspondent. He is also a professional actor, singer, dancer, writer, and host. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, or Facebook.

Keep Reading