"Bob Fosse was the best thing ever to come out of burlesque, and he would pay for it forever," Sam Wasson writes in his punchy, vital new biography, "Fosse."
That's a big, bold statement, and it holds. What the teenaged Fosse learned while working as emcee and dancer in Chicago strip clubs, the performer, choreographer and director explored in his movement vocabulary until the day he died, 60 bruising years after he was born on Chicago's North Side in 1927.
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There are several Fosse books out there already, including one pretty good one (Martin Gottfried's "All His Jazz") and one that's lame and factually challenged (Kevin Boyd Grubb's "Razzle Dazzle"). Wasson's previous work includes a Blake Edwards appreciation, "A Splurch in the Kisser"; and "Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman." His new book is not only the best of the Fosse biographies available; it's one of the sharpest showbiz chronicles in years.
Fosse was born in 1927 and inherited from his mother a "jalopy heart," as Wasson puts it. At age 7, the youngest of the five Fosse kids accompanied his reluctant 10-year-old sister to dance class, one block south and another east from their home at 4428 N. Paulina St. As one of the misunderstood "sissy" arts of the day, dance was something to keep hidden. "No one at Ravenswood Elementary knew what he did after three o'clock," Wasson writes.
A few ambitious years later, once Fosse got going, very few at Amundsen High School knew what he was up to after dark. His parents didn't, either, or they knew and didn't care enough to offer an opinion. Fosse's mentor and business manager was Frederic Weaver, who ran the Chicago Academy of Theater Arts, and Weaver sent Fosse and his other promising students off to paying gigs. All kinds: from USO war bond shows to Masonic Temple one-offs. Fosse then worked solo as an emcee (the war had taken away all his competition) and dancer on what was known as the "burlesque wheel," in some of the grimiest, most predatory joints in Chicago.
Wasson doesn't spend much time with his evocation of Fosse's early years, but what's there is choice — and vivid. He gets wonderful detail from Fosse's onetime friend and "Riff Brother" dance partner Charles Grass, who recalls a very young Fosse at dance class. "He was always told to keep his fingers together and his hands down, but up they'd go again, his palms out, his fingers spread. That was his style even then. He was doing Jolson and Eddie Cantor."
He did a lot of others, too, onstage and off. Strippers in the burlesque clubs messed with Fosse, in ways he always bragged about, nervously, in public years later. But the experience roughed him up and taught him to use as well as be used. The sexual life of Fosse, along with the drugs, is well documented in Wasson's biography, but it's never there just to spice things up between analyses of the early stage work Fosse racked up as a dancer ("Make Mine Manhattan"), the early movies ("Give a Girl a Break," "Kiss Me Kate," "The Affairs of Dobie Gillis"), the later Broadway triumphs as choreographer ("The Pajama Game" came first, and his second-act opener, "Steam Heat," will never, ever die) and director-choreographer ("Chicago," most indelibly).
Fosse directed five feature films: "Sweet Charity," "Cabaret," "Lenny," "All That Jazz" and "STAR 80." All are about tarnished naifs who'd be lucky to get through it, whatever "it" is, alive. "All That Jazz" is a fond self-portrait of a raging narcissist and compulsive control freak, and it ends with the zipper going up on a body bag. Fosse's greatest film work can be found in "Cabaret" and "All That Jazz." Wasson writes with care and feeling about the creation of these films, and about the terrifying sinkhole of "STAR 80," about the murder of a centerfold and the twisted showbiz lust of the murderer, with whom Fosse identified in all sorts of control-freakish ways.
Wasson's a delightful stylist, practically hitting the heights of Clifford Odets argot, as in this line about the third Mrs. Fosse (out of four), Broadway star and tragedy-in-the-making Joan McCracken, whose performance charisma Wasson describes this way: She could "smack a guy in the groin, cross his eyes, and take his heart for payment."
Here's a succinct bit on the famous Act 2 "Can-Can" number (not a Fosse show, by the way) performed by the fourth Mrs. Fosse, Gwen Verdon: "Mostly, when people say a number stopped a show, they don't mean the show literally stopped. But when people speak of Gwen Verdon's showstopping Apache number in 'Can-Can' and of the standing ovation she got on opening night, in the middle of the show, they really do mean the actors stopped acting, the stage managers stopped stage-managing, and the producers stopped worrying."
As a creative artist, one of the greatest 20th Century Chicago ever generated, Fosse never stopped worrying. He was dogged by the possibility that he was all flash and no pan. As a performer first and a choreographer and director later, he borrowed from a hundred other performers and jazz-soaked dance men (such as exotic, athletic Jack Cole) and one particular fan-dance woman (Sally Rand, whose fan act Fosse apparently caught at the Century of Progress exposition). In "Fosse" Wasson writes, "Sex and satire: Fosse couldn't get enough."
The book gives us a three-dimensional portrait of a beautiful train wreck 60 years in the making, and it's astutely balanced between what happened onstage or in front of a camera, and what Bob Fosse did in his off-hours to swat away the demons — or invite them in again.
Michael Phillips is the Tribune's film critic. Wasson will join Phillips for a multimedia celebration of Fosse's life and work. 7 p.m. Nov. 21, Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St. For tickets, visit printersrowjournal.com.
By Sam Wasson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 736 pages, $32Copyright © 2015, RedEye