The chorus boy's revenge

How Bob Fosse made art from his craving for celebrity.

THE MOST GIFTED artists are rarely the most interesting. The struggle between ambition and ability can be more engaging than any polished perfection of form and technique. That struggle has rarely been exemplified in purer form than in the career of the choreographer Bob Fosse.

Fosse

Paramount Theater, July 25-August 6

No matter how many bodies a choreographer assigns to his movements, the one he ultimately draws on for inspiration is his own. Fosse was not blessed by nature with a great dancer's body: His was skinny, angular, long-limbed, gawky. His sparse, no-color hair was already disappearing in his teens. A magnetic "look" can compensate mightily for physical irregularities, but Fosse didn't shine in that department, either. His head was small, his features bland and forgettable.

Fosse overcame these limitations with his determination to dance. He made himself visible—constantly contracting and extending his spidery limbs, overcoming his lack of fluidity by breaking the movement flow into a string of sharp, freeze-frame silhouettes. You can see the Fosse instrument on display in any number of old Hollywood musicals, sometimes featured (third-billed after Bobby Van and Tommy Rall as Ann Miller's three hoofing suitors in Kiss Me, Kate!), but more often as a side-boy backing up a star (Carol Haney in The Pajama Game's "Steam Heat," Gwen Verdon's "Whatever Lola Wants" in Damn Yankees), or even in the chorus (How to Succeed's "A Secretary is Not a Toy").

The Fosse "style"—what one English critic called the "snap-that-finger, tilt-that-pelvis school of American choreography"—worked for Fosse and for some other leathery, whip-thin dancers like Chita Rivera. It tended to look decidedly odd on more conventional and full-figured performers, even on his wife and longtime muse Gwen Verdon. However, it was a collaboration with the fullest-figured of them all that finally made Fosse himself a star.

Liza Minnelli was at best a mediocre dancer, but she was almost suicidally game. In her naked longing for center stage, she became Trilby to Fosse's Svengali, the conduit for his frustrated drive to occupy the spotlight. First "in character" as Cabaret's untalented chanteuse Sally Bowles, then under her own steam the next year in the TV special Liza with a Z, Minnelli/Fosse offered us a new kind of showbiz personality, one for whom talent or personal magnetism were wholly secondary to the impact of sheer need to be looked at. In these performances, celebrity became its own subject matter and Fosse's style of choreography found its true function, in service of the ultimatum: LOOK AT ME!!!

ON FILM AND TV it worked like a charm, but when Fosse tried to take the formula back to Broadway, his just-launched supertanker almost ran aground. Chicago, which opened in June 1975, was Fosse in full spate. It was he who persuaded Cabaret creators John Kander and Fred Ebb to musicalize the sordid tabloid tale of a starstruck '20s murderess, he who developed the idea of "framing" the story with the seedy paraphernalia of burlesque. "Life is a cabaret, old chum," sang that show's Sally, but for Fosse that wasn't a strong enough statement; for him only the sour reek of the strip club was enough.

Early 1970s Broadway wasn't quite ready for that message, and Chicago almost closed before Minnelli was persuaded to step into the star role to zip things up. Even then the critics found the flavor of the piece too relentlessly, sophomorically cynical to take quite seriously. What a difference a quarter-century makes: When Chicago was revived last season, it was greeted as a refreshing blast from the past, its self-contradiction—celebrating the cult of celebrity in the guise of condemning it—now utterly ignored.

Chicago was unquestionably the high point of Fosse's career, and in its light one can see that everything that preceded and followed is wholly of a piece. In a way, it's unnecessary to put together a greatest-hits collection of his best-known numbers like Fosse. The man had one subject, just as he had, basically, one set of steps to express it. When you watch the "Hey, Big Spender" number from Sweet Charity, with its dime-a-dance dames sneering at their customers even as they contort two-dimensionally to entice them, you've really seen everything he has to offer.

Still, the whole show, however inadvertently, offers something more—a vision of how, in the course of the last 50 years or so, "show business" has narrowed down to an exercise in two-handed solipsism. Only in performing for you do I become real to myself, say Fosse's dancers; only by watching us can you be sure you exist.

 
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