Spotlight on Bob Fosse

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By JORDAN LUSINK, Communications Coordinator

The Pajama Game is touted as THE show that catapulted Bob Fosse to stardom. It was his first solo choreography credit, and he won his first Tony Award© for Best Choreography for the original production in 1954; however, his legacy as a choreographer extends before and far after his involvement with The Pajama Game.

Perhaps the first hint that wider audiences first had that Fosse was bound for great things was in a short choreographed number in the 1953 film version of Kiss Me Kate, starring Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson and Ann Miller. Fosse portrayed one of Bianca’s suitors, Hortensio, and during the number “From This Moment On,” Choreographer Hermes Pan allowed Fosse to choreograph his own section of the dance break. You can see this small snippet of Fosse’s dance with Carol Raney below.

Just the following year, in 1954, The Pajama Game premiered on Broadway, choreographed entirely by Bob Fosse, who had been brought to the attention of producers courtesy this under 2 minute bit from Kiss Me Kate. The show itself won three Tony Awards, including Fosse’s win for Best Choreography. His choreography for “Steam Heat,” which was replicated in the movie version a few years later, is widely considered classic Fosse.

In 1955, again just one year later, Fosse worked on another show by George Abbott: Damn Yankees. (Fosse met Gwen Verdon on Damn Yankees, and would marry her in 1960. They were together until 1971, when they separated.) Damn Yankees was nominated for nine Tony Awards, winning seven of them, including Fosse’s second for Best Choreography. Take a look at Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon performing “Who’s Got the Pain” in the 1958 film version of the musical, which Fosse also choreographed.

In 1957, Fosse choreographed New Girl in Town, which was written and directed by George Abbott and was specifically designed as a vehicle for rising star Gwen Verdon. Although he was nominated for a Tony for Best Choreography, he did not win this time. (Don’t worry – Fosse ended up with eight statues, so it all worked out in the end.)

In 1960, he tried something new with the production Redhead: director AND choreographer. The show is set in London in the 1880s and is a murder mystery set in a wax museum. It starred – you guessed it – Gwen Verdon, and won six of the seven Tony’s for which it was nominated, including Fosse’s third win for Best Choreography.

In 1963, Fosse was the director/choreographer for Little Me, a musical with a book by Neil Simon and starring Sid Caesar. It was based on the novel Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of that Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television, which was an illustrated autobiography of an imaginary diva. Nominated for 10 Tony’s, it won the singular award for Best Choreography. In 1964, Bob Fosse was nominated for a Tony for his portrayal of Joey Evans in Pal Joey, a role previously performed by Gene Kelly on stage and later performed by Frank Sinatra on film.

In 1966, Fosse again served as director/choreographer for Sweet Charity, which has arguably two of the most recognizably “Fosse” dance numbers: “Big Spender” and especially “Rich Man’s Frug.” Charity Valentine was portrayed by – wait for it – Gwen Verdon. The original production was nominated for nine Tony’s, but the only award it won was Best Choreography. (That makes five statues for Fosse so far, in case you’re keeping track.)  A movie version was released in 1969, also directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, starring Shirley MacLaine. Here’s a clip from the movie version of “Rich Man’s Frug.”

1973 was truly the year of Fosse. By year’s end, Fosse had won an Oscar, a Tony (well, two Tony’s) and an Emmy, a feat few people achieve in their lifetimes let alone in the span of a year. He won two Tony’s for Pippin (Best Direction of a Musical and Best Choreography), an Oscar for directing Cabaret (starring Liza Minnelli) and a directing Emmy for Liza With a Z. As a 2011 Hollywood Reporter article noted, his Oscar win for Cabaret meant that he beat, among others, Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather. Here’s “Money” from Cabaret, performed by Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey.

In 1974, Fosse performed this number in the movie version of The Little Prince.

In 1975, Fosse directed and choreographed Chicago. During rehearsals for the show, Fosse suffered a heart attack and had to have open-heart surgery. Despite all of his medical complications, he was nominated for three Tony Awards for Chicago: Best Book of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical and Best Choreography. Unfortunately, he didn’t win any of those this time around, though you can catch a bit of the show in this performance by Jerry Orbach during the 1976 Tony Awards.

Fosse started to slow down following his heart attack. He directed and choreographed Dancin’, a musical revue, in 1978, for which he won penultimate Tony, followed by the film All That Jazz, a semi-autobiographical work, in 1979. Watch the first almost-six-minutes of the film below.

His final major work before his death in 1987 was Big Deal in 1986, for which he won his eighth and final Tony Award.

The lasting legacy of Fosse’s work cannot be overstated. He has been named as a particular influence by numerous pop culture icons, including Michael Jackson and most recently Beyonce, who evoked Fosse style in her choreography for the “Single Ladies” music video. Perhaps most importantly for our purposes, Fosse is widely considered among the top 10 musical theater choreographers that are need to know, along with other innovative greats like Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd (who choreographed one of my personal top 5 musical numbers, the Barn Raising Dance from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), Gene Kelly and more.

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