Fosse's Genius: Working Even As He Was Dying The choreographer known for jazz hands and the bump and grind was not afraid of death as much as he feared not being brilliant. Host Scott Simon speaks with Sam Wasson, author of Fosse, a new biography about the iconic dancer, choreographer, screenwriter and director.

Fosse's Genius: Working Even As He Was Dying

Fosse's Genius: Working Even As He Was Dying

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The choreographer known for jazz hands and the bump and grind was not afraid of death as much as he feared not being brilliant. Host Scott Simon speaks with Sam Wasson, author of Fosse, a new biography about the iconic dancer, choreographer, screenwriter and director.


This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.


SIMON: The bowler hat, cocked just so; the jazz hands, splayed; the slouch and shoulder roll; the turned-in knee; the turned-around chair; the cane used for everything but walking; the bump and grind spun into a kind of poetry - the signature genius of Bob Fosse.


SIMON: Bob Fosse was the guy who put swagger, swoon and hotcha into dance. He was a dancer who became a choreographer, a choreographer who became a director. He won eight Tony Awards, including "The Pajama Game" and "Sweet Charity," an Academy Award for directing "Cabaret" - incidentally, beating out Francis Ford Coppola and "The Godfather." And he more or less invented "Chicago" - the Kander and Ebb musical, that is.

Sam Wasson, who wrote the best-seller "Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M., Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's," and is a visiting professor at Wesleyan, has written a big, new biography with a much shorter title: "Fosse." Sam Wasson joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

SAM WASSON: Hi, thank you.

SIMON: What do you think it was like to be directed by Bob Fosse?

WASSON: Heaven and hell, I would say. Hell, in the sense that he didn't let you get away with anything. He pushed and pushed you. He beat the talent out of you. He knew more about what you could give than you did. And that's not an easy environment to be around. The heaven is that he was most always right, and he pushed you to your best work. So if you could survive that day with Bob, you walked out onto the street probably as tired as you've ever been, but with the pride of your life.

SIMON: Yeah. In many ways, the most significant friendship he had - and I'm going to put Gwen Verdon in a separate category - who was beyond friendship; beyond love, really - but he had this three-way friendship: Paddy Chayefsky, the writer; Herb Gardner, the playwright. Reading your book, I long to be a fly in the pickle bin on their table at the Carnegie Deli...

WASSON: Me, too.

SIMON: ...when they would have lunch every day.

WASSON: Thank you for saying that, yes.

SIMON: So how did they help each other?

WASSON: Well, it's a fabulous combination. I mean, you have Fosse, who is this short, skinny, dancing elf; and Chayefsky, who's this enormous, Jewish, grizzly bear intellectual - Laurel and Hardy if you, you know, if you put them together. The combination is really razzle-dazzle, with Fosse; and content, with Paddy. Fosse always felt - I mean, Fosse felt insecure about everything. And one of the sources of Fosse's insecurity was that he felt he never really generated anything; that his talent was just in pulling the wool over their eyes, in doing tricks and having a couple of fancy steps. So a guy like Chayefsky is the exact opposite of that. No B.S. with Chayefsky. He is a writer. He is the real thing. He's not an interpretive artist; he's a generative artist.

He starts with the blank page. Fosse starts with someone else's work. So Bob was utterly in awe of what Paddy could accomplish, and tried to bring a little of that to his own work - which is not really easy when you're dealing with musical comedy, which is essentially a light, novelty entertainment.

SIMON: So that's a good intro into talking about Fosse when he as directing the film "Cabaret" - Kander and Ebb again - smoking, astonishingly, 100 cigarettes a day.

: Yeah.

SIMON: "Cabaret," that's a showbiz story set inside a nightmare regime. Nowadays, we would say: What great material for Bob Fosse. But I'm struck by the fact that it seems like when they were making the film, not only was he smoking his brains out, nobody seemed to know they were working on one of the great films of all time.

WASSON: Well, they knew they were having a great time working on the movie, but they were frightened - as anyone would be - trying something new and by the way, with no money. This was a tiny, little production company. Liza Minnelli was not yet a star and they were, of course, dealing with probably the most difficult material ever to be musicalized, up until that point - and arguably, to this very day. And that is, of course, the Nazis. How do you sing and dance about the Nazis, unless - Mel Brooks had one answer to that, and this is a very different answer. How do you take it absolutely seriously?

So the combination of all of those things was a huge roll of the dice. So no one had any idea - aside from the fact that they were having a fabulous time - that they were working on, arguably, the greatest movie musical of all time.

SIMON: So in this story, Bob Fosse wins the Oscar for "Cabaret." He wins a Tony for "Pippin," an Emmy for directing "Liza with a Z." This is a, you know, a three-peat that hadn't been done before. And his heart begins to give out. If you could set the scene with his profound good friends, Paddy Chayefsky and Herb Gardner, in his hospital room the night before he has open-heart surgery.

WASSON: Ah, that's - I'm glad you singled that out. I'm a little nervous telling the story. Well, one of the things about Paddy and Herb and Bob that made them so beautiful and so fun to be around, was that they laughed at everything. I mean, it didn't matter how dark it got. In fact, the darker it got, the more of an invitation that was to find something to laugh about, which is actually another way of thinking about Bob's work.

So to put Fosse in the hospital having just had a heart attack, facing open-heart surgery the next morning - bypass surgery - he's sitting there with Paddy. Paddy's going over Fosse's will, which he has just rewritten. And Paddy, of course, reads every single word of every single page of the document, expecting to find himself in there. He realizes Fosse's left him out. And Paddy looks up from the will and looks to Fosse and says: I'm not in here. I'm your best friend of 10 years; where am I? And Fosse says: Well, Paddy, I don't worry about you. You're going to be fine. I wanted to make sure Gwen was OK, and Nicole was OK...

SIMON: Nicole's his daughter.

WASSON: Nicole's his - yes, exactly. I wanted to provide for my family. I don't worry about you. You know I love you. I got to provide for these other people. And Paddy looks up and says: (Bleep) you, live.


WASSON: Which is - and Fosse - so that gives you a flavor of what these guys were. And Fosse laughs so hard and the, you know, all the tubes are plugged into his nose and the heart machine starts beeping and - I mean, it was a constant party in Fosse's room.

SIMON: Well, and I'm struck by something you said because I guess he said he was under anesthesia, and began to get some ideas for a film. And he said: Even as I'm dying, I'm working.

WASSON: Yep. That's the whole story of the guy, right there.

SIMON: He didn't expect to live past 60, did he?

WASSON: No. I think you could say Bob knew from as early as he knew anything that he was going to die young. I mean, the heart disease was chronic in his family. And he smoked 100 cigarettes a day; took Dexedrine the better part of his life; didn't eat well; worked all the time and in 1974, suffered a heart attack. So the writing was on the wall there. There was never any illusion that Fosse knew how he was going to die. It was only a question of when. And we see that, of course, in "All That Jazz." I mean, he makes a movie about his own death, which turns out to be pretty close to the way that he dies.

And still, Fosse would shrug his shoulders and, you know, keep his head down on work. He didn't really care. What he cared about was work. Death scared him, but not as much as the thought of not being a genius scared him. That was the most important thing.

SIMON: Sam Wasson - his new book, "Fosse." Thanks so much for being with us.

WASSON: Thank you.

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