An ace choreographer and imaginative director of slick Broadway musicals and darkly provocative movies, Bob Fosse was a pathological self-doubter, industrial-strength womanizer, chain-smoking amphetamines addict and uncompromising, often cruel, artistic collaborator.
By LISA JO SAGOLLA
Special to The Star
(Disclosure: Fosse is not a sympathetic character in my biography of his second wife, dancer Joan McCracken.) Yet if taking an extended, behind-the scenes ride through the roller-coaster life of such a troubled soul appeals, you can do no better than Sam Wassons smashing biography, Fosse.
A massive tome, it provides enthralling tales from every phase of Fosses 60-year life: his youth as a hoofer in cheap burlesque houses where he was fondled backstage by rascally strippers; his disappointing Hollywood dance career; his emergence as a genre-defining choreographer with such shows as The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees and Sweet Charity; and his singular achievements as a stage and screen director.
In 1973, Fosse became the only person to win the triple crown of directing awards: an Oscar for Cabaret, a Tony for Pippin and an Emmy for Liza With a Z.
Delving deeply into Fosses sexual escapades, multiple marriages and self-destructive behaviors, Wassons spicy book draws significantly on Martin Gottfrieds seminal 1990 biography of Fosse, All His Jazz, adding fresh information from personal interviews and archival materials from the Library of Congress that were unavailable to Gottfried.
Despite some deficiencies as a reference book an index that doesnt include show or film titles and a photo captioned with an erroneous production date Fosse identifies and expounds brilliantly on the key themes of its subjects remarkable life. Fosse died of a heart attack in 1987.
Thanks to Wassons discerning research and deft authorship, we learn how Fosses obsessions with death and sleazy show biz razzle-dazzle fueled both his artistic successes and personal dysfunctions. We grow to understand the important role that film played in capturing the essence of Fosses choreographic statements. And we marvel at the extraordinary nature of performer/muse/wife Gwen Verdons lifelong devotion to Fosse.
The books photographs mostly poor-quality candids provided by Wassons interviewees do little to illustrate Fosses captivating visual style.
Local readers, however, may enjoy the images of 1969 Shawnee Mission East High School graduate Sandahl Bergman performing in All That Jazz, Fosses autobiographical film. Bergman stepped into the part when fellow Kansan and childhood chum Cheryl Clark walked off the picture, refusing Fosses demand that the role be danced topless.
Though somehow fitting its subjects back-alley persona, the first third of Wassons book feels written by someone who spent too much time with Mickey Spillane. Everything is described in the language of a hard-boiled noir detective, making summative emotional impact a priority over nuanced analysis or rich, historical-period detail.
Yet Wassons snappy style and enormous talent for crafting punchy, evocative similes make for fun-filled reading. Describing dancer Carol Haney, Wasson pens, she looked like jazz sounded. Broadways 1962 Sid Caesar vehicle Little Me is described as a Chinese-food musical spun on a lazy Susan.
And this: With a quick wink to the second balcony, McCracken could smack a guy in the groin, cross his eyes, and take his heart for payment.
As the narrative shifts into Fosses later life, Wasson switches to a streamlined, straight-ahead prose style, skillfully interweaving large amounts of revealing personal-interview data and smart discourse on Fosses cinematic work.
Wasson writes much more knowledgeably about movies than dance. While he sketchily contextualizes Fosses accomplishments within the overall history of the Broadway musical and mid-20th-century film, Wasson doesnt adequately situate them within the evolution of dance in stage and screen musicals.
Never explained is the monumental influence of Fosses choreography, a seductive movement vocabulary that dominated the look, creation and practice of theatrical dance for at least 50 years.
Lisa Jo Sagolla is the author of The Girl Who Fell Down: A Biography of Joan McCracken.