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Bob Fosse
Born Robert Louis Fosse
June 23, 1927(1927-06-23)
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Died September 23, 1987 (aged 60)
Washington D.C., USA
Spouse(s) Mary Ann Niles (1949-1951)
Joan McCracken (1952-1959)
Gwen Verdon (1960-1987)

Robert Louis “Bob” Fosse (June 23, 1927 – September 23, 1987) was an American musical theater choreographer and director, screenwriter and film director. He won an unprecedented eight Tony Awards for choreography, as well as one for direction. He was nominated for an Academy Award four times, winning for his direction of Cabaret. He was closely identified with his third wife, Broadway dancing star Gwen Verdon. She was both the dancer/collaborator/muse upon whom he choreographed much of his work and, together with dancer/choreographer Ann Reinking, a significant guardian of the Fosse legacy after his death. Fosse is widely considered to be among the most innovative and influential choreographers of the 20th Century.


Early life and career

Fosse was born in Chicago, Illinois, to a Norwegian father and Irish mother, the second youngest of six children.[1] He teamed up with Charles Grass, another young dancer, and began a collaboration under the name The Riff Brothers. They toured theatres throughout the Chicago area. Eventually Fosse was hired for the show Tough Situation, which toured military and naval bases in the Pacific. He later said that he had perfected his technique as a performer, choreographer, and director while serving his tour of duty.

Fosse moved to New York with the ambition of being the next Fred Astaire. His appearance (with his first wife and dance partner Mary Ann Niles (1923–1987)) in Call Me Mister brought him to the attention of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Fosse and Niles were regular performers on Your Hit Parade during its 1950-51 season, and during this season Martin and Lewis caught their act in New York's Pierre Hotel and scheduled them to appear on the Colgate Comedy Hour. His early screen appearances included Give A Girl A Break, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis and Kiss Me Kate, all released in 1953. A short sequence that he choreographed in the latter (and danced with Carol Haney) brought him to the attention of Broadway producers.

Although Fosse's acting career in film was cut short by premature balding, which limited the roles he could take, he was reluctant to move from Hollywood to theatre. Nevertheless, he made the move, and in 1954, he choreographed his first musical, The Pajama Game, followed by George Abbott's Damn Yankees in 1955. It was while working on the latter show that he first met the beautiful, red-headed rising star whom he would marry in 1960, Gwen Verdon. Verdon won her first Tony Award for Best Actress for Damn Yankees (she had won previously for best supporting actress in Can-Can). In 1957 Fosse choreographed New Girl in Town, again directed by George Abbott, and Verdon won her second Leading Actress Tony. In 1960, Fosse was, for the first time, both director and choreographer of a musical called simply Redhead (musical). With "Redhead," Verdon won her third Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, the show won the Tony for best musical and Fosse carried off the award for best choreography. Fosse would partner star Verdon as her director/choreographer again with Sweet Charity and again with Chicago. (Fosse would win the Tony for Best Direction of a Musical in 1973 with Pippin.)

Fosse developed a jazz dance style that was immediately recognizable, exuding a stylized, cynical sexuality. Other notable distinctions of his style included the use of turned-in knees, sideways shuffling, and rolled shoulders.[2] With Fred Astaire as an influence, he used props such as bowler hats, canes and chairs. His trademark use of hats was influenced by his own self-consciousness. According to Martin Gottfried in his biography of Fosse, "His baldness was the reason that he wore hats, and was doubtless why he put hats on his dancers."[3] He used gloves in his performances because he did not like his hands. Some of his most popular numbers include "Steam Heat" (The Pajama Game) and "Big Spender" (Sweet Charity). The "Rich Man's Frug" scene in "Sweet Charity" is another example of his signature style. Although he was replaced as the director/choreographer for the short-lived 1961 musical The Conquering Hero, he quickly took on the job of choreographer of the 1961 musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying[3][4] In 1986 he directed and choreographed the unsuccessful Broadway production of Big Deal, which he also wrote.

Later career

Fosse directed five feature films. His first, Sweet Charity in 1969, starring Shirley MacLaine, was an adaptation of the Broadway musical he had directed and choreographed. Fosse shot the film largely on location in Manhattan. That decision brought the film a verisimilitude unusual for a musical but well-suited to the poignant story of romance amidst Times Square low-lifes. His second film, Cabaret won eight Academy Awards, including Best Director. Not only did he shoot in Berlin, but he further enhanced the musical's reality by eliminating any musical numbers which could not be justified as realistic performances within the context of the story. The characters of Sally Bowles and the Emcee sang, certainly, but they sang because they were performers in the storyline of the show. The age-old musical-comedy convention of characters breaking into song in a way that doesn't happen in real life was gone. The effect heightened the horrific, tawdry elements of the story, while throwing into even greater relief the pyrotechnics of its two major performances (Liza Minnelli's and Joel Grey's). Cabaret, as filmed by Fosse, focused chillingly on the disparity between reality and illusion. Fosse went on to direct Lenny in 1974, a biopic of comic Lenny Bruce. The film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. But the meteoric successes took their toll. Just as Fosse picked up his Oscar for Cabaret, his Tony for Pippin, and an Emmy for directing Liza Minnelli's television concert, Liza with a Z, Fosse's stamina gave out, and he had to undergo open-heart surgery.

In 1979, Fosse went out on a limb with a film that recalled Fellini's . He co-wrote and directed a semi-autobiographical film All That Jazz, which portrayed the life of a womanizing choreographer-director in the midst of open-heart surgery. Fosse again illuminated the gap between what we pretend and who we might really be, this time exploiting details of his own personal life. The protagonist lived life as if it were a great show, and the film's fantastical style reflected that. All That Jazz won four Academy Awards and earned Fosse his third Oscar nomination for Best Director. It also won the Palme d'Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival. In the summer and fall of 1980, working with "All That Jazz" executive producer Daniel Melnick, Fosse commissioned documentary research for a follow-up feature having to do with the motivations that compel people to become performers, but found the results uninspiring.

In "All That Jazz", Fosse not only toyed with the notion of his own death, but, presciently, he immortalized the two people who would perpetuate the Fosse legacy. These were Gwen Verdon herself and the similarly acclaimed Broadway hoofer of the next generation, Ann Reinking. The help-meet/peer/collaborator played by Leland Palmer in the film is, of course, based on Verdon. Ann Reinking herself appears in the film as the protagonist's lover/protege/domestic-partner, as she'd been to Fosse in real life. She, like Verdon, would become responsible for keeping Fosse's trademark choreography alive after Fosse had passed on. Reinking played the role of Roxie Hart in the highly successful New York revival of "Chicago" which opened in 1996. She also, significantly, choreographed the dances "in the style of Bob Fosse" for that revival which is still running on Broadway as of September 2009. In 1999, Verdon served as artistic consultant on a plotless Broadway musical designed to showcase examples of classic Fosse choreography. Called simply Fosse, the three-act musical revue was conceived and directed by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Ann Reinking and choreographed by Reinking and Chet Walker. Verdon's daughter Nicole received a "special thanks" credit. The show received a Tony for best musical, twelve years after the man had passed on.

His final film, 1983's Star 80 was a controversial biopic about slain Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten. It evoked mixed critical reaction, although Richard Schickel of TIME and Rex Reed gave it rave reviews, and it has acquired a strong cult following.

As a film director, Fosse directed five actors in Oscar nominated performances: Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine and Roy Scheider. Minelli and Grey won theirs for their respective turns in Cabaret.

Fosse performed a memorable song and dance number in Stanley Donen's 1974 film version of The Little Prince. In 1977, Fosse had a small role in the romantic comedy Thieves. (Fosse appears in the film version of "Damn Yankees," which he also choreographed, in which Verdon reprises her stage triumph as the vulnerable-but-sexy "Lola." They partner each other as if they were born to do so, as they must have been, in the deliciously witty mambo number, "Who's Got the Pain.")


Fosse was an innovative choreographer and had multiple achievements in his life. For Damn Yankees, he took a great deal of inspiration from the "father of theatrical jazz dance", Jack Cole.[3] He also took influence from Jerome Robbins. New Girl in Town gave Fosse the inspiration to direct and choreograph his next piece because of the conflict of interest within the collaborators. During that piece, the first he'd directed as well as choreographed, Redhead, Fosse utilized one of the first ballet sequences in a show that contained five different styles of dance; Fosse's jazz, a cancan, a gypsy dance, a march, and an old-fashioned English music hall number. Fosse utilized the idea of subtext and gave his dancers something to think about during their numbers. He also began the trend of allowing lighting to influence his work and direct the audience's attention to certain things. During Pippin, Fosse made the first ever commercial for a Broadway show.

In 1957, both Verdon and Fosse were studying with Sanford Meisner to develop a better acting technique for themselves. Fosse believed that, “The time to sing is when your emotional level is too high to just speak anymore, and the time to dance is when your emotions are just too strong to only sing about how you feel."

Personal life and death

Fosse was first married in 1949 to fellow dancer Mary Ann Niles (1949-1951). His second marriage was to dancer Joan McCracken (December 1952-59).[5] His third wife was dancer/actress Gwen Verdon in 1960; they had one daughter, Nicole Providence Fosse, who is also a dancer. He separated from Verdon in the 1970s, but they remained legally married until his death. Verdon never remarried.[3][6] [7]

During rehearsals for The Conquering Hero in 1961, it became known that Fosse had epilepsy, which made him have a seizure on the stage.[3]

Fosse died of a heart attack, at age 60, in Washington D.C. on September 23, 1987, where a revival of Sweet Charity was opening at the National Theatre.[8]

Honors and awards

Fosse earned many awards for his works, including the Tony Award for Pippin and Sweet Charity, the Academy Award for Cabaret and the Emmy Award for Liza with a "Z". He was the first person to win all three awards in the same year (1973). He is also the only person to have won all three awards in the category of "Best Director."

Bob Fosse Way in Chicago.

His semi-autobiographical film, All That Jazz (1979), won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. It portrays a chain-smoking choreographer driven by his Type A personality. In 1999, the revue Fosse won a Tony Award for best musical, and in 2001 the show earned Fosse (together with Ann Reinking) a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreographer.

Bill Henry's 1990 documentary of Fosse's work (Dance In America: Bob Fosse Steam Heat), was produced for an episode of the PBS program Dance in America: Great Performances. The production won an Emmy Award that year.

There was a resurgence of interest in Fosse's work following revivals of his stage shows, the Broadway show Fosse, and the film release of Chicago (2002). Rob Marshall's choreography for the film emulates the Fosse style but avoids using specific moves from the original.

Fosse was inducted into the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs, New York on 27 April 2007. The Los Angeles Dance Awards, founded in 1994, were called the "Fosse Awards", and are now called the American Choreography Awards. A length of Paulina street in Chicago at roughly 4400 north received the honorary designation of Bob Fosse Way.


Stage productions



  1. ^ "Hardcover in Brief". The Washington Post. 18 November 1990. Retrieved 2008-08-07.  
  2. ^ Cutcher, Jenai (2005). Bob Fosse, The Rosen Publishing Group, ISBN 1404204466, pp. 21, 27
  3. ^ a b c d e Gottfried, Martin (1998). All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse. Da Capo Press. pp. 49, 65, 81, 85, 104, 116, 124-125, 130, 139. ISBN 0306808374.  
  4. ^ "That's Dancin: Fosse on Broadway, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"
  5. ^ Sagolla, Lisa Jo. The girl who fell down:a biography of Joan McCracken (2003), UPNE, ISBN 1555535739, p. 204: "They were wed in a simple civil ceremony by New York's deputy chief clerk at 3:30pm on December 30, 1952"
  6. ^ Berkvist, Robert."Gwen Verdon, Redhead Who High-Kicked Her Way to Stardom, Dies at 75"The New York Times, originally published October 19, 2000, accessed August 8, 2009
  7. ^ Pacheo, Patrick."Remembering Gwen Verdon -- Bob Fosse's inspiration was perhaps Broadway's greatest dancer", Nov 03, 2000, accessed August 8, 2009
  8. ^ Irvin Molotsky (1987-09-24). "Bob Fosse, Director and Choreographer, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-05-21.  
  9. ^ "Liza with a 'Z". The Internet Movie Database. 2008. Retrieved 2009-01-22.  

Further reading

  • Beddow, Margery (1996). Bob Fosse's Broadway. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. ISBN 0435070029.  
  • Grubb, Kevin Boyd (1989). Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Work of Bob Fosse. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312034148.  

External links

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