Tony Nominee Jane Lanier Talks All Things Fosse & Verdon

by Michael Mahany | 4/25/2019 2:36 AM

Jane Lanier. Photo credit: Roosevelt University.

When Jane Lanier’s students walk into her classes these days at Roosevelt University where she now runs the Musical Theatre dance program, one has to wonder if her students grasp the caliber of talent, collected experience, and sheer tenacity of theatrical perseverance that stands before them?

Lanier, an actress and dancer who earned a Tony nomination for her work performing in the original 1989 production of ‘Jerome Robbins’ Broadway’, is, however, so much more than the numerous awards she’s procured as a performer and choreographer or the notches on her “Broadway belt”. She’s a true theatrical professional, a dedicated educator, and a gifted dance creator.

… oh yeah, and she’s also a former Fosse dancer.

Even today, for those in the industry, being in the mere presence of someone who can claim to have danced for Mr. Bob Fosse himself is a big deal. With the recent success of FX’s miniseries ‘Fosse/Verdon’, however, the expansion and understanding of both Fosse and his former romantic and professional partner, Gwen Verdon’s legacy and influence are becoming far more widely known.

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

The series itself has brought back out into the light the sheer breadth of iconic theatrical contributions the duo gave to their art forms both as a team and individually. It’s also reminded viewers of the darker and sometimes seedier aspects of Mr. Fosse’s life, including his predisposition to extramarital affairs, history of drug and alcohol addiction, and mistreatment of the women in his life.

Photographs from the opening night of ‘Sweet Charity’ in Los Angeles. With Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse. Photo credit: Jane Lanier.

Lanier, who made her second trip to Broadway in the 1986 Broadway revival of the Bob Fosse directed and choreographed production of ‘Sweet Charity’, is a member of that select few who can call themselves Fosse dancers.  On top of that, Lanier also lived through and worked in the midst of the 1980’s male-dominated culture of Broadway, and can attest to not just the pure joy of working for the legendary choreographer himself, but what it was like to survive the times.

Lanier, among her many other Broadway ventures, also starred in the Tony Award-winning 1999 Broadway tribute musical, ‘Fosse’, dedicated to the work of the late choreographer.

In an effort to dig into the factual reality of Mr. Fosse and Ms. Verdon’s legacies, Dance Network has sought out those who knew the pair’s contributions the best — those who danced for them.

Dance Network recently spoke with Lanier who now lives and choreographs in Chicago, and as previously mentioned, runs the Musical Theatre Dance program at Roosevelt University. Lanier, in her interview, provided not just a deep insight into her time working with both Fosse and Verdon, but the often unheard point of view of a young female Broadway dancer working in the 1980s and 90s. She also provided a look into how she’s creating both longevity and sustainability in a business that, unlike any other, can give and take with the whim of an afternoon city breeze.

Read the full interview below.

Dance Network: Jane, first of all, thank you so very much for taking some time out of your busy schedule to speak with us. Obviously, there’s a lot of interest in Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon because of the FX series, ‘Fosse/Verdon’, but before we get deep into your career and work with the famed duo, can you tell us a little about how you started in dance? What drew you to dance initially?

Jane Lanier: My mother put me in ballet class when I was seven. I'd gone to a baton-twirling camp during the summer, but didn't get to be in the parade because I started marching with the wrong foot... everything happens for a reason! I continued studying ballet and was apprenticed to the Ft Wayne Ballet Company when I was 12. Stepping onto the stage for the first time, I remember thinking and knowing I was “Home.”

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

DN: You made your Broadway debut in 'On Your Toes' and came to Broadway a second time in the Tony award-winning 1986 'Sweet Charity' revival (— all this right after you'd just gotten back from some time on the road with 'Sugar Babies’.) So, while you were fairly new to what would become your Tony-nominated, amazing, and incredible career, you had to have known about Mr. Fosse, his style, and his reputation as a choreographer. Can you tell us a little about what it was like for you when you went in to audition for the ‘Sweet Charity’ revival? What was the process like? And, when you found out you got the job, how did you feel?

JL: I got my first pre-Broadway tour at 19 doing ‘Colette’ with Diana Rigg, followed by the National Tour of ‘Sugar Babies’ with Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney. I made my Broadway debut at 21 when I joined the company of ‘On Your Toes’.  A lot of my friends and choreographers I had worked with told me that I'd be a great 'Fosse dancer'... it became my dream to be just that. I finally met him when I was doing the TV special, ‘Night of 100 Stars II'... I went to a call for a replacement for the ‘Dancin’’ Tour on a Sunday afternoon. As we did passe jumps one at a time across the room for his first cut, I was praying that I wouldn't get cut! He remembered me from ‘100 Stars’ and I made it through to the end of that call, but didn't get the job. He asked those of us who were left to come to the ‘[Sweet] Charity’ audition. Between Equity and non-eq, 700 women auditioned. About 90 of us were given a callback. The callback was an all-day affair, including a lunch break. Maybe 30 of us women remained, plus 30 guys, and it was time to sing. I was still new to New York City and only knew a couple of people waiting in halls of the Minskoff rehearsal studios and the place was buzzing as Cy Coleman was now 'in the room’. (Laughs) I didn't know who that was at the time.  I was only nervous because Bob Fosse was in the room! When I went in to sing, Bob slowly walked around me in a semi-circle. My 'big choreography' at the end of the song was to walk forward and raise an arm. When I finished Bob said, "to walk towards a table like that, most people would walk backwards. Give her sides.” I got to read and then we were put into two groups. We were told we'd hear in two weeks. The longest two weeks of my life... I came home one day and there was a message on my answering machine. Mr. Fosse called himself to tell me I'd gotten the job. I just sat and sobbed tears of joy. 

A photograph of the Broadway cast of the 1986 ‘Sweet Charity’ revival on opening night. Photo credit: Jane Lanier.

DN: What an incredible story! So, once you began work on ‘Sweet Charity’, can you give us an insight into what rehearsals were like? How did Mr. Fosse run things? What was his relationship like with his dancers? Was it a creative process for you all, or did he have every step set before he walked in the door?

JL: We rehearsed the show in Los Angeles. Bob was there for the first few days or so and began to teach us “The Frug.” I can still 'see' him doing those steps...He left and Gwen took over, along with the director John Bowab. As this was a revival, all of the choreography was being recreated by Gwen along with our dance captain Mimi Quillin. 

Bob came back to see a run through of the show a couple of weeks later. The next day, or so it seemed, John was gone and Bob took over as director. 

He was very kind and respectful to all of the company members. Taking someone by the hand and asking them if they could please move to a new position. He changed “Rhythm of Life” several times and also “I Love to Cry at Weddings”. Creating new staging, fixing, making things 'better' as 20 years had passed since he staged the original show. 

We all worked extremely hard. No one ever 'marked' a step, even during our breaks. We were expected to always dance full out, but no one wanted to do anything else. When you get to be in a room with Bob and Gwen, you give 300%. Period. There were a lot of sore bodies and one morning I remember I had to roll out of my bed onto the floor and crawl into the shower. I couldn't even walk... but it was heaven and one of the best experience I ever had in my career. I still proudly wear 'the Fosse mantle’ — the mantle is for those dancers who were chosen and cast by him. It was my dream come true.

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DN: Throughout 1986 and 1987 while the 'Sweet Charity' revival ran, what did you learn about showbiz? What sort of impact did Mr. Fosse have on you during that time?

JL: I learned how to do eight shows a week for well over a year. We had clean up rehearsals every Thursday throughout the run to make sure the show was maintained to the very high standards that he set. Again, no one complained. It was an honor and a privilege to be in a Fosse show. 

I learned so very much working with him... things that helped make me who I was as a performer and who I am now as a director/choreographer. His work ethic. His constant desire to make things better, to never be satisfied, to always strive for more. To not be afraid to try new things, to explore some darker/less comfortable/not necessarily commercial ideas and themes. To think outside the box. To try and find my voice as an artist. I will be forever grateful.

A photograph of the Charity, Nickie, and Helene understudies in 'Sweet Charity' with Bob Fosse, onstage at the Minskoff Theatre. Photo credit: Jane Lanier.

DN: As you know, the new FX series, ‘Fosse/Verdon’ has been making a splash throughout the dance and theatre world, and the biggest takeaways from the show so far have been not only the tumultuous relationship Mr. Fosse had with Gwen Verdon but also his habitual infidelity, and frankly, mistreatment of women. Though the two had been well separated (but, never officially divorced) by 1986’s ‘Charity’ revival, during your time working with Mr. Fosse, do you recall ever witnessing any uncomfortable interactions with Ms. Verdon? Or, for that matter, Ann Reinking — with whom Fosse had been romantically involved — when she came and joined the show?

JL: No, I never saw Bob treat Gwen or Anne with any disrespect.

When Debbie Allen left ‘Charity’ and Ann came in to replace her, I remember Gwen rehearsed and put her into the show.  I remember wondering how strange that must have been for Gwen and wondering how she did it.

DN: Do you remember Mr. Fosse's reputation of having extramarital affairs as something that was talked about among the dancers at the time?

The opening sequence from the film ‘All That Jazz’. Video: 20th Century Fox.

JL: As for his ‘reputation’ — yes everyone knew and talked about it. More importantly, Bob himself made ‘All That Jazz’ and his “affairs" were a part of the movie including that line from the opening sequence. A dancer is cut by ‘the choreographer’ and there’s a shot of her talking to another dancer afterward and says something like (and I’m paraphrasing) “and I even slept with him.”

I’ve always said I was one of the few dancers at that time to have been hired by him that didn’t sleep with him.... which is an exaggeration, but that was his reputation and who he was.

Photographs of Jane Lanier in costume from ‘Sweet Charity’. Photo credit: Jane Lanier.

DN: Looking back on how things were for you and your fellow female performers then, what did you think about all of it?

JL: It was a different time then, in the 1980s. Bob had a magnetism that made you want to be around him. Made you want him to notice you. A lot of women may have thought that sleeping with him would further their careers, or they were just attracted to him, but ultimately it was your choice whether you did or didn’t.

DN: So, squaring these issues through the lens of 2019, how do you think things have progressed?

JL: I think things have progressed for the better. Women are standing up for themselves and speaking their truths. Sharing their stories to help empower women who have not been able to speak out before. The #MeToo movement has freed us from a kind of shame associated with ‘being taken advantage of’, mainly from the men who hold and use their power and status over women. Calling them out and making them take responsibilities for their actions. What was 'status quo' is no longer, and we're on the path towards a higher ground for all of us, not just the selected few.

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DN: In 1999, you starred in the Tony award-winning tribute musical, 'Fosse', on Broadway for which you earned a Drama Desk nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. What did it mean to you to star in the production? What was your experience working with Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking on the piece?

Opening night of ‘Fosse’. Valarie Pettiford, Gwen Verdon, Jane Lanier, and Ann Reinking. Photo credit: Playbill.

JL: On opening night in New York, I was standing in the wings waiting to make my first entrance trying to fight my emotions and tears... I never thought I'd really dance again, let alone open and star in a new Broadway show. 

I had kind of 'retired' from dancing. I was living in Los Angeles, doing mainly plays and some TV and had become a full-time mom to my two beautiful sons. One day out of the blue, Gwen called me and asked me to audition for 'Fosse'. I hadn't danced or even taken a class in 5 years...

It was hard. Hard to be away from my sons during those rehearsal hours and for performances. There were a lot of changes — in the show, with the producers, and within the cast. But a piece of me that I had 'put away' was back. And that felt good and right.

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DN: What was it like to re-build those iconic numbers?

JL: It was great to get to work with Gwen again! Learning and performing those iconic numbers, especially “Steam Heat", was amazing!

Jane Lanier recording the cast album of ‘Fosse’. With Ann Reinking and Valarie Pettiford. Photo credit: Masterworks Broadway.

DN: These days, you're also doing a lot of work as a choreographer yourself, having not only helped set the revival of 'Guys And Dolls' in 2009 with Sergio Trujillo, but also setting the award-winning choreography for your production of 'The Wild Party' in LA, choreographing the film 'Not Your Time' with your 'Fosse' co-star Valarie Pettiford, and staging a production of 'Chicago' at Drury Lane in Chicago where you now run the musical theatre dance program at Roosevelt. How much, do you think, your work reflects your time with Mr. Fosse? How much does it reflect the work of the other major choreographers, like Jerome Robbins for instance, with whom you've worked?

JL: I love what I'm doing now! Paying it forward and passing down all that I learned in my career to this next generation of performers. I'm very influenced by Fosse and Robbins, and all the other wonderful choreographers and directors I had the privilege to work with.

I think the main thing about my work as a choreographer that reflects both Fosse and Robbins, is my focus on storytelling through movement. That always comes first when I'm working on a piece. What's the story I want to tell? How do I move the story forward through my concepts for a number in a show? I come to the work from an actor's point of view first. The actual steps are the last thing that happens.

Lanier choreographing "Super Trooper” from 'Mamma Mia' at Drury Lane in Chicago. With Susie McMonagle, McKinley Carter, Elizabeth Ledo and Lanier's assistant, Anna Roemer. Photo credit: Jane Lanier.

DN: As a Tony-nominated performer, award-winning choreographer, and established educator, you've accomplished extraordinary things in your career — what do you envision the future holding for you as an artist?

JL: I just want to continue to grow and learn as an artist. To do the work. I try and find new things to create to stretch myself. To get out of my comfort zone and open new doors. I like being busy. I'm also constantly looking at the curriculum for this newish program that I'm heading at CCPA, making sure that what we teach and give to our students makes them really ready to graduate as true triple threats. 

A photograph of the ensemble of the 1986 revival of 'Sweet Charity' performing "The Rich Man's Frug". Photo credit: Jane Lanier.

Watch the full video of the 1999 production of ‘Fosse’ taped for PBS here. (See Jane’s version of “Steam Heat” at the 47:45 mark).

Special thanks to Jane Lanier for taking the time to speak with us. Stay with Dance Network for more on the legacy of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon.

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.