Bob Fosse

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Director, choreographer, dancer and actor for films and stage, renowned for his innovative staging (and all that jazz).
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b. Robert Louis Fosse, 23 June 1927, Chicago, Illinois, USA, d. 23 September 1987, Washington, DC, USA. A director, choreographer, dancer and actor for films and stage, Fosse was renowned particularly for his innovative and spectacular staging, with the emphasis very firmly on the exhilarating dance sequences. He studied ballet, tap and acrobatic dance from an early age, and, while still a youngster, performed with a partner as the Riff Brothers in vaudeville and burlesque houses. After graduating from high school in 1945, he spent two years in the US Navy before moving to New York and studying acting at the American Theatre Wing. He then toured in the chorus of various productions before making his Broadway debut as a dancer in the revue Dance Me A Song (1950). He worked on television and in theatres and clubs for a time until Hollywood beckoned, and he moved to the west coast to appear in three films, Give A Girl A Break, The Affairs Of Dobie Gillis and Kiss Me, Kate (1953). On his return to New York, he gained his big break when author and director George Abbott hired him as a choreographer for The Pajama Game (1954). The show was a massive hit, and Fosse was much in demand - for a time at least. He met Gwen Verdon while working on Damn Yankees in 1955, and they were married in 1960.

He choreographed Bells Are Ringing in 1956, and worked with Verdon again on New Girl In Town a year later. From then on, with the exception of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (1961), he directed his shows as well as staging the dancing. Fosse’s dual role is considered by critics to be a major factor in the success of highly popular productions such as Redhead (1959), Little Me (1962), Sweet Charity (1966), Pippin (1972), Chicago (1975) and Dancin’ (1978). Throughout all this time he moved back and forwards between New York and Hollywood, working on films such as My Sister Eileen (1955), The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958), all three of which were well received. However, Sweet Charity (1968), which Fosse controlled completely in his role as director and choreographer, was hammered by many critics for Shirley MacLaine’s over-the-top performance, and particularly for the director’s self-indulgent cinematography, with its looming close-ups, zooms and blurred focus effects. Fosse was in the wilderness for some time, but all was forgiven four years later when Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, won eight Academy Awards, one of which went to Fosse. It was a box-office smash, and Fosse also satisfied most of the purists by confining the dance sequences to appropriate locations such as a beer garden and nightclub, rather than flooding the streets of Berlin with terpsichorean tourists.

In the early 70s Fosse was applauded for his direction of Lenny, a film biography of the comedian Lenny Bruce, that starred Dustin Hoffman. In the light of Fosse’s recent heart problems, his record as a workaholic, and his lifelong obsession with perfection, many observers thought that All That Jazz (1979) was intended to be Fosse’s own film autobiography, with its ghoulish, self-indulgent examination of life and death. However, no one denied the brilliance of the dance routines or the outstanding performance of Roy Scheider in the leading role. In 1983, Fosse wrote and directed his last film, Star 80, which also had a lurid, tragic theme. Three years later, he wrote, staged and choreographed his final Broadway musical, Big Deal - which was, in fact, far less than its title suggested. It represented an inappropriate end to a brilliant career, in which Fosse had created some of the most imaginative and thrilling dance routines ever seen on Broadway or in Hollywood, winning eight Tony Awards in the process. In 1987, he revived one of his most successful shows, Sweet Charity, and died shortly before the curtain went up on the night of 23 September. A fascinating documentary entitled Bob Fosse - Steam Heat, was made by the US company WNET/Thirteen in 1990. The source of one of his greatest triumphs, Chicago, was revived to great acclaim on Broadway and in the West End in 1996/7. The choreography of Ann Reinking (b. 10 November 1949) was created, with great respect and affection, ‘in the style of Bob Fosse’. His incredible wit and vitality were remembered again early in 1999, when a retrospective of his dance numbers entitled Fosse opened on Broadway. The show was directed by Richard Maltby Jnr. and Reinking, and choreographed by Reinking and Chet Walker.