His Broadway heart
by John F. Karr
A new biography of Bob Fosse was unexpected. And the massive Fosse, by entertainment writer Sam Wasson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $32), is unexpectedly fabulous. Here's a biography in which the tone of the writing matches the life of the subject. Not for Wasson your academic, inevitably dull day-by-day trod, but a life written with rhythm and speed. Man, I've never before read any bio – much less, one 600 pages long – that was such a page-turner. Flash, that's what Fosse's got.
Here's a typical Wasson punch-up: "All those nights in all those shitholes had burned red sequins into Fosse's eyes." Wasson calls Jack Cole "the slithering id of American exotica"; writes of play-writing trends, "Albee, the Ernst Lubitsch of bad feelings, did to happy families what Oh! Calcutta! did to pants"; wraps up the movie Cabaret as "the bejeweling of horror"; slips into 42nd Street lingo when he calls Broadway the place "where dreams were torn like tickets"; and finally, in my favorite bit of Wassonia, shows us Fosse dancing, "shooting up his hands, throwing his limbs wide then snapping them shut, like a starfish going sardine."
Yet Wasson's isn't the sort of razzle-dazzle that's a cover-up. He's got insight; it's almost painfully acute the way he's inside the emotions and psychology of artists and performers. It's possible there's never been a show-biz bio as aware as this. Martin Gottfried could quote critic reviews in his 1990 bio All His Jazz, but Wasson doesn't need them. He can put the effect and meaning of dancing into words.
Wasson's chapter headings are a countdown of Fosse's sparring with the specter of death. Even more closely charted are the self-doubt and cynicism that were implanted when the barely pubescent kid hoofed it in hell. "Bob Fosse was the best thing ever to come out of burlesque," Wasson writes, "and he would pay for it forever." It's where an abject sexual humiliation was irrevocably twined with his life's calling; his crown jewel, cursed. It made him feel betrayed by his dancing and subsequent choreographic and directing success, so that his fame came wrapped in fraudulence. As for love, he'll do anything to woo his women and wow his audience, but when he earns the real thing, he flees. Because love is what wounded him in the first place.
Fosse knew he could knock out a number. But like those damn kids of Captain Von Trapp, he had to ask, Did it mean anything? Wasson explores the heart of Fosse's effort – how his essentially antic form, musical comedy, could match shows like Gypsy and West Side Story for guts and impact, without forfeiting the silliness essential to its very being. Wasson won't rate Fosse in comparison to his peers, Champion and Bennett. But there's this telling summation of A Chorus Line: "Abundant with joy, the musical laid bare what Fosse made a career prestidigitation: a big Broadway heart." For Bob Fosse, no amount of red sequins could disguise that heart was always bloodied.
A postscript. Margery Beddow's Bob Fosse's Broadway is little-known, and priceless. A dancer, Ms. Beddow worked with Fosse on three of his shows, and danced in the rest. Beddow's better than a front-row seat. She puts you right up there with the dancers, on Fosse's stage.