Director Bob Fosse did not seem to pull many punches in his unflattering self-portrait "All That Jazz," but, as Sam Wasson's incisive new biography "Fosse" shows, there is so much more to know about the man, his times and his toxic creative nerve.
Wasson delivers Bob Fosse in all of his dazzling, flawed glory, and you can almost smell the cigarette burning and feel his seductively lethal gaze. Fosse's legend as a dancer-choreographer-director was only outdone by his legendary status among his female dancers as a great, if exploitive, lover. At the height of his powers in the '70s, winner of the Tony, Oscar and Emmy in the same year, his personal life and health was falling apart.
Wasson's nourish style gives the reader a ringside seat to Fosse's legendary shows "Pal Joey," "Pajama Game," "Pippin," "Chicago," and "Dancin' " on Broadway, and on set for his films "Sweet Charity," "Cabaret," "Lenny," "All That Jazz" and "Star 80." All of the usual subjects in Fosse orbit are around, from his stars Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera to his rivals Harold Prince and Michael Bennett.
The undisputed stabilizers in his life were Broadway legend Gwen Verdon, whom he married and never divorced, and the daughter he had with her. With Verdon he worked not to ruin the best relationship he had privately or professionally, but that didn't stop him feeling lonely enough to call up new cast members of his latest show in the middle of the night for company. She stuck with him, almost, through it all.
Not everyone was a fan. A writer he had brought on to work on "Sweet Charity" felt completely exploited and said that everything Bob did was calculating and deliberate. Wasson does a good job in painting Fosse's psychology as built in, self-aware mechanisms that he sought to control or to let run free. He dropped his psychiatrist and accused him of getting him hooked on amphetamines, but he never attempted to stop using them and depended on them for creative fuel.
Even though "Sweet Charity" got good reviews, it was a box office bomb, which made Fosse persona non-gratis in Hollywood. He lobbied hard to get "Cabaret" when Hal Prince bowed out because of timing conflicts with directing Sondheim's "Company." Fosse was at creative odds with Cabaret's producer Cy Fueur, and did things to defy him creatively and financially on the production. Fosse didn't back down. "Tell me one thing you have done for this film," Fosse attacked. Fueur shot back: "I'll tell you two -- I hired you and I haven't fired you yet."
Fosse was consumed with self-doubt artistically, and even felt he was a professional failure. At the same time, Fosse's ego insisted on its own follow spot. His boozing and smoking and stress level resulted in precarious health and heart attacks. The author drills deeper and deeper into Fosse's psyche, and there are allusions to unresolved traumas, particularly at the hands of his mother, whom he blamed for allowing him to perform in burlesque houses when he was in his teens; he was apparently subjected to sexual assaults from the strippers. Wasson keeps all of these threads on evolving throughout the book with frankness, but without sensationalizing.
It was a singular existence of his own insistence, even as it drove him to unrelenting despair and strings of one- (or two-) night stands, overlapping affairs and full fledged relationships with muses Verdon and Ann Reinking -- not to mention his bromances with the New York writers group headed by Paddy Chayefsky and Herb Gardner.
Wasson's chapter on Fosse's heart attack after his disastrous experience filming "Lenny" and developing "Chicago" for Broadway. In a climatic scene, on the night before his heart bypass surgery, he is drawing up his will with lawyers, Chayefsky and Gardner reading it over as they are breaking each other up with gallows humor. Meanwhile, the specter of mortality is grimly present.
This is also an incisive dance theater book, dissecting Fosse's innovations for the dance stage and describing Fosse's movement template into concrete images on the page. Fosse's dancers were so devoted to him that they even reconstructed a mash-up of his most famous dances to show him in the studio when they knew a show he was banking on was folding.
From every angle, Wasson shows that he was the only one who could be cast to bring Fosse alive on the page. Fosse's life, loves and work was show biz legend, and Wasson pens a page-turner with the scope of a MGM epic and yet as intimate as a backstage hoofer on the skids. "Fosse" is a thoroughly researched boffo showbiz bio.
Hardcover, photos, 736 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt