Professor Michelle Sherrill
Bob Fosse is credited one of the most brilliant choreographers of his time. His unique style of jazz choreography captivated many audiences during his career. His simplistic movement and turned-in feet technique would create a new distinctive style of dancing that would make his work memorable. However, like many figures in the history of dance, Fosse had his ups and downs as not only a choreographer but also in his personal life. Many of the people who got the opportunity to work with Fosse remember him for his addictive personality, but it was undebated that he was a brilliant choreographer and director. His overwhelming fear of failure meant his dancers had to give it their all when working with him. Fosse’s work has left a legacy for future choreographers of new generations to follow. His unique style has brought jazz dance to the spotlight like never and till today his pieces are being showcased in front of hundreds of people and inspiring upcoming directors and choreographers.
Bob Fosse was born to Sara Alice Stanton and Cyril K. Fosse in Chicago on June 23rd, 1927. Fosse had four brothers and one sister. He was diagnosed with epilepsy at a very young age and later would have suffered from having pneumonia twice. His parents mutually decided that their son would benefit from taking dance classes at the Chicago Academy of Arts alongside his sister, Patricia (Gottfried 9). They hoped these dance classes would improve their son’s health. As Bob became more involved with taking dance classes, not only did his health improve but his passion for performing on stage grew. He was mainly inspired by Fred Astaire, a Broadway star whose dancing abilities impressed hundreds of people. Bob Fosse would eventually be paired alongside Charles Grass, another dancer from the academy. Their stage name became “The Riff Brothers”. Their talent brought them to perform at local burlesque clubs. Bob would be a student at day and a performer at night (“Bob Fosse”). It was 1943 when Bob found himself pleading to his parents to let him enlist in the army to fight for his country. He was drafted as a navy entertainer for returning soldiers and after his service, Fosse decided to look for his opportunities as a dancer in New York City (Barson 1).
In New York city, Fosse would lend his first dancing lead role in the piece, “Call Me Mister”. His dance partner, Mary Ann would later become his romantic partner and eventually, they married in 1947. Fosse and his wife would make their first production together for the piece, “Dance Me a Song” in 1949. Fosse’s upbringing success as a dancer and a happy marriage did not stop him from beginning an affair with lead dancer Joan McCracken when they worked alongside each other for the piece. Eventually, in 1951, Fosse and Mary Ann mutually decided to end their marriage. Fosse continued to pursue his dancing career with McCracken and later married her (“Bob Fosse”). Fosse’s style of dancing was very different compared to other dancers as he had very turned in feet and knees. He was among the best dancers, yet somehow, he was not having his big break in dancing. After trial and error, while starring in films, Fosse came to the realization that he was not going to be successful as a dancer. The film, “Kiss Me Kate” was a piece Fosse would remember for the rest of his life. Although his part in this film was minimal, he convinced the director to allow him to choreograph a section in the film. This piece showcased who Bob Fosse was. His turned in knees and feet would now become his trademark for the rest of his career. After his section was performed, his work caught the eye of famous Broadway director, George Abbott. Fosse was introduced to Abbott and became hired for his next piece, “The Pajama Game”.
Prior to Fosse’s work in “The Pajama Game”, his wife, Joan, was diagnosed with diabetes and later was told she had a heart murmur (“Bob Fosse”). Despite his wife’s’ health complications, Fosse continued his work as the leading choreographer for “The Pajama Game “. It was 1954 when Fosse found himself choreographing his first musical ever. The piece, “The Pajama Game”, truly showcased the type of choreographer and director that Bob Fosse was. His most noted section in this musical was called “Steam Heat”. This piece was danced by Carol Haney, Buzz Miller, and Peter Gennaro (Gottfried 78). Throughout this piece, the dancers made various sound effects. Two of the most evident was the hissing of their mouths and the shuffling of their dance shoes. The styling of the dancers was a combination of Charlie Chaplin aesthetic with Fosse’s own personal style. The dancers were styled in black suits, white button-down shirts, black top hats, and black dance shoes. Throughout the number, it was evident that Fosse incorporated his unique style of dancing:
“…they turned, edging sideways toward where the footlights would be. With each raising a shoulder, they toss the hats in unison, catching them simultaneously. The rhythms are jazzy and syncopated…” (Gottfried 78).
One noticeable aspect of this number was the simplicity of the moves. Although the dance steps were simple, the way they were executed and controlled by the dancers made the number remarkable. For the first time in his career, Fosse knew where he belonged.
The following year marked a significant year for Fosse’s career and his personal life. His next successful musical in his career as a choreographer was “Damn Yankees”. The piece was a musical comedy that was inspired by the book written by Douglas Wallop. The musical was about a salesman who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for becoming a successful famous baseball player (Gottfried 94). The female lead role for this piece was dancer Gwyneth Verdon. Her mother Gertrude was a former dancer of the Denishawn School, a well-known dance company during the modern era established by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn (Gottfried 88). Verdon’s childhood was very similar to Fosse’s. As a child, she had an illness that required her to wear special shoes to straighten out her legs (Sacksteder 1). Both Fosse and Verdon grew up around vaudeville clubs and taking dance classes at an early age. Their most noted collaboration within the musical was “Who’s Got The Pain?” This piece was created by Fosse himself. The piece’s main direction was to center it around the theme of mambo dancing. The styling of this piece reflected that very well. Fosse and Verdon were styled in bright yellow Caribbean shirts with black tight bottoms, and Fosse’s trademark hat (Gottfried 100). Anyone watching this piece could see the chemistry between Fosse and Verdon. The movement in this piece was very similar to what Fosse did in his first musical, “The Pajama Game”. His famous turned in movements appeared natural for Verdon to do. After the musical opened, Fosse continued to work with Verdon and they eventually developed an affair. The affair between them would end his marriage with his wife Joan McCracken. They divorced each other in 1956 but stayed in touch.
Fosse’s relationship with Verdon quickly developed to more than an affair and they eventually decided to get married on April 3, 1960. The following year for Fosse was devastating. His mother and ex-wife Joan both died from heart disease complications (“Bob Fosse”) Their deaths affected Fosse both physically and mentally. He began to increase his intake of smoking and drinking. He became more obsessive towards his work and wanted every aspect of it to be perfect. Despite the tragic events, Verdon and Fosse welcomed their first child, Nicole Province in 1963. That same year, Fosse’s dad died of heart disease. This further affected Fosse and left him in a dark place. His next musical was “Sweet Charity”. While finalizing a piece in the musical, Fosse became overwhelmed and found himself unable to finish choreographing the piece. Thankfully, his wife was able to support and motivate him to finish creating the piece. “Sweet Charity” was later made into a movie, but the production failed to sell out. The failure of this production pushed Fosse to overwork himself and become more addicted to drinking alcohol and smoking. After taking a break from directing, Fosse was offered a job a director for the musical “Cabaret”. This musical was Fosse’s new chance to start over again. While directing this musical, Fosse was intrigued by dancer Liza Minelli. They eventually developed an affair which soon led to the end of Fosse’s marriage with Verdon dissolved and they separated but never officially divorced each other (“Bob Fosse”).
The success of “Cabaret” gave Fosse a chance to get back on his feet and start directing again. His next successful production was in 1972 when he directed “Pippin”. Once again, Fosse began an affair with one of the dancers, Anne Reinking. After finishing “Pippin”, Fosse would become the first person in history to earn an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony, all within the same year (Barson 1). His success further pushed him to work harder than ever and eventually he allowed it to affect his health. The failure of his past marriages and his wife and parent’s death contributed to his ongoing depression and led him to drink and smoke excessively. Fosse began to take the amphetamine Dexedrine. While co-directing the musical, “Chicago,” Fosse suffered two heart attacks. However, having two heart attacks did not stop Fosse from continuing his production. The musical was about two woman who murdered their partners and used their attractive appearance to convince the press they were not guilty. One of the numbers that stood out from this musical was “Cell Block Tango”. This piece showcased the stories of the different woman who found themselves facing difficulties in their affairs, relationships, or marriages. Fosse was able to showcase his childhood dancing career in this piece. Much of the movement was very sensual and it very well reflected his love for women. The next production was “Dancin”. The production was a successful hit and earned him another award for his remarkable choreography. The following production was in 1979, the musical was called, “All That Jazz”. The musical reflected much of Fosse’s own personal life. In this musical, the themes portrayed the themes of alcoholism, infidelity, death, and show business. All the characters in this number were either portraying one of the themes or someone in Fosse’s life. This piece was one of Fosse’s more personal pieces (Bob Fosse).
Although Fosse was gaining back his success as a director and choreographer, his health was beginning to concern his close friends. Fosse had unfortunately experienced death within his family during his career. It was obvious that Fosse had developed what some saw as depression. Fosse had developed a personality that was very hard to work with at times. His perfectionist personality often overworked his dancers and him as well. His ex-wife Gwen Verdon grew even more concerned when she realized Fosse was mixing his medications with Dexedrine. Fosse and his team had traveled to Washington D.C. to showcase the musical “Chicago” and the revival of “Sweet Charity”. The events that awaited them would forever change their lives. Fosse and ex-wife decided to go back to their hotel and change. Unfortunately, they never made it. While turning a corner to reach the hotel, Fosse collapsed and suffered a fatal heart attack. Fosse was rushed to the nearest hospital and was pronounced dead. (Gottfried 3-5). His death was a tragic event that would impact everyone who knew him.
Bob Fosse’s death was truly unexpected and devastating for hundreds of people. Although Fosse wasn’t as famous for his dancing, his career as a choreographer was one of the greatest contributions jazz dance has had. His unique technique of turned-in knees and feet, the sideways movements, and the “Fosse Hands” would become his trademark movement. Fosse’s style would shine a spotlight on jazz dance to his audiences. His piece, “Chicago” continues to be showcased in Broadway theatre. Even though Fosse was known to have an obsessive personality, the people who worked with him accepted it because he was such a brilliant choreographer with the biggest passion for delivering perfection to his audiences. Even if he had multiple affairs during his three marriages, all of Fosse’s partners were grateful for getting the opportunity to be part of his life. Fosse left a legacy that continues to influence today’s most successful choreographers. Jazz dance would not be what it is today without the truly talented Bob Fosse.
Barson, Michael. “Bob Fosse.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 16 Aug. 2017, www.britannica.com/biography/Bob-Fosse. Accessed 3 May 2018.
Bob Fosse: Dancing on the Edge. Biography.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. Accessed 2 May 2018.
Gottfried, Martin. All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse. Bantam Books, 1998.
Sacksteder, John. “Gwen Verdon: Biography.” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/name/nm0893862/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm. Accessed 2 May 2018.