Robert Louis Fosse was born on this day (June 23rd), 1927. Growing up in Chicago, young Bob Fosse was obsessed with Fred Astaire, the king of Hollywood’s Golden Age of movie musicals. As a boy Fosse would watch his famous films and try to imitate not only Astaire’s tapping feet, but also his debonair style and enchanting charm. At age twenty-five, Fosse landed his own contract with Hollywood’s MGM studios as a dancer in movies such as Kiss Me, Kate, Give A Girl A Break, and The Affairs of Dobie Gillis. One day Fred Astaire bumped into Fosse while on the MGM set. Astaire politely introduced himself and, before walking away, casually kicked a nail that was lying on the ground, causing it to ricochet in an intricate pattern that simply mesmerized Fosse. After Astaire left, Fosse recovered that nail and worked for hours to reenact its choreography—with the same ease and grace of Astaire.
But Bob Fosse certainly didn’t always stand in the shadows of Fred Astaire; he went on to revolutionize American theatre dance. His blend of awesome sensuality, clever humor, cinematic insight, popular references, and a hint of cynicism made musical theatre contemporary, consumable, and controversial. Fosse was one of the greatest dance visionaries of the 20th century. He directed and choreographed over twenty-three films and Broadway musicals and won four Oscars and eight Tony Awards (more than any other choreographer). Additionally, Fosse is the only person ever to have won the “Triple Crown:” a Tony for Pippin, an Oscar for Cabaret, and an Emmy for Liza Minnelli’s television concert, Liza with a ‘Z’—all in 1973.
Today, the signature style of bowler hats, turned-in toes, and stooped shoulders is universally recognized simply as “Fosse.” His innovative, internalized, character-driven style helped define a new vernacular in the art of American Musical Theatre, making “Fosse” a renowned genre of dance all its own. Bob Fosse’s legacy lives on onstage in musicals such as Chicago and Sweet Charity, in pop culture references and inspiration, and through Fosse Master Classes produced by The Verdon Fosse Legacy LLC.
Legendary heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali, died Friday at the age of 74. Bob Fosse was inspired by the brute athleticism and regal artistry of boxing, and he and Gwen attended many of Ali’s big fights together—in a tux and gown, no less! Below is a clip of “The Heavyweight” from the film of “Sweet Charity.” Notice the boxing influences, sounds, movements, and metaphors so masterfully choreographed into the piece.
American Dance Machine performs “Rich Man’s Frug” from SWEET CHARITY
Perhaps, also, Fosse was inspired by Ali’s work ethic, wisdom, and dedication to his craft; “A man who is not courageous enough to take risks will never accomplish anything in life.”—Muhammad Ali
Sunday marked the 30th anniversary of the opening night of Bob Fosse’s final Broadway production, BIG DEAL (4/10/86). Set in 1930s Chicago, the show follows a group of African-American men who attempt to rob a pawn shop (based on Mario Monicelli’s 1958 film “Big Deal on Madonna Street”). The show features some of Fosse’s iconic numbers such as “Dancin’ Dan (Me and My Shadow),” “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” and “Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar.”
While the production closed in just under two months, Frank Rich quoted “[At the end of Act 1,] Mr. Fosse makes an audience remember what is (and has been) missing from virtually every other musical in town. The number is set to the old song ”Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar,” and it unfolds in a Chicago ballroom of the 1930’s called (need I tell you?) Paradise. There’s a big band on a platform, and, somewhere in the blackness below, are two song-and-dance men (the frisky Bruce Anthony Davis and Wayne Cilento) slithering in flickering silver light. The men’s shoulders start to roll, their elbows sharpen, their hands hang limp even as the rest of their bodies gyrate at hard angles. And, just as these gentlemen seem to have merged with the high notes blared by the raucous horns above them, they are joined by a large chorus of bubbly revelers, who, by crossing the stage on a jagged diagonal, somehow manage to liberate both the show and the audience from conventional burdens of time, space and care” (“Theater: BIG DEAL from Bob Fosse,” NY Times).