When people think of the work of Bob Fosse, Broadway’s foremost choreographer-director in the 1960s and 1970s, what they are likely to see in their minds is a group of dancers, in bowler hats and white gloves, standing in a stiff configuration and bobbing up and down in a cool sort of way. The dancers may rotate their wrists or splay their fingers, but they don’t stick out too many parts of themselves at one time, and they generally don’t travel around the stage much. They are often dressed in some combination of panties and garters and sheer silks; and even in the live shows, not to speak of the films, they offer you crotch shots galore. Not that they’re planning to do much with their crotches. Most of them would as soon knife you as go out with you. The sex is not sexual but satirical. It’s there to show us that every word we speak is a lie, that every promise will be broken.
That is what Fosse came to think about life, but even he was a child once. He was born in Chicago in 1927, the son of a salesman and a housewife, and he wandered into dance in what, for boys of the period, was the usual way, or the way they later claimed: his sister went to dance lessons, and he accompanied her. She quit; he stayed and became a star.
His teacher paired him with another boy in a tap duo called the Riff Brothers, and they played American Legion halls, amateur shows, and the like, until the other boy dropped out and Fosse went on, to TV—Your Hit Parade, The Colgate Comedy Hour, etc.—and eventually to small roles in movies. He loved dancing, and if you go to YouTube and search for “My Sister Eileen movie 1955, Alley Dance,” you can see this in a duet he performs with another man, Tommy Rall (Fosse’s the blond), both of them in hot pursuit of Janet Leigh. Even next to the excellent Rall, he’s clearly a virtuoso. Bell kicks, triple pirouettes, barrel turns, knee slides, back flips: he can do them all.
Nevertheless, he would have had a hard time making a career as a dancer. He was runty looking and stoop-shouldered, and he lost much of his hair as a young man. His looks also stood in the way of an acting career. His first big role was the lead in a 1951 summer-stock production of the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey. If ever there was typecasting, this was it. Like Joey, a small-time nightclub emcee, Fosse could reel out breezy, lame jokes and get good-looking women to do him favors. This role, to which he returned many times, may have helped to form his…
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