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Choreographer Bob Fosse Is the Forgotten Author of Modern Musicals

Fosse’s signature style influenced everything from Michael Jackson to today’s musicals

Bob Fosse was a mean dancer himself–here he is playing the snake in 1974's "The Little Prince." (Screenshot/Youtube)
smithsonian.com

You might not have heard of Bob Fosse, but you’ve almost certainly bumped into some of his sexually charged, athletic choreography.

Cabaret. Pippin. Sweet Charity. Although the words and music were written by others, Fosse’s dance brought shows to life “with a choreography that was in-your-face sinister and brassy,” writes Amy Henderson for Smithsonian.com. But it wasn’t just his choreography, according to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture: it was the way he brought dance to life on-screen as well as on the stage. Fosse, born on this day in 1927, helped shape modern musicals.

The award-winning filmmaker choreographed his first musical film in the 1950s, but his talents really came to the fore in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the encyclopedia writes. It was then, during the sexual revolution, that his trademark style of dance–marked by blatant sexuality, and full of signature moves like the sideways shuffle, jazz hands (yes, those jazz hands) and turned-in knees–became a staple of a new kind of musical. He was known for the Fosse Amoeba, which incorporated several of these moves.  

The dancer Fosse himself most admired was Fred Astaire, writes Henderson. Like Astaire, Fosse’s choreography looks simple–but it isn’t. “Bob Fosse’s choreography is known for being deceptively complex,” writes Lauren Wingenroth for Dance Magazine. “On the surface, it looks simple and minimalist, but it’s actually incredibly difficult to master all of his subtle nuances.”

Fosse was also a well-known stage choreographer. Among many other projects, he choreographed the 1975 musical Chicago and many of his moves were used for its more-successful 1996 revival, which remains the longest-running American musical on Broadway. The International Broadway Database describes the 1996 version's choreography as "in the style of Bob Fosse."

He was originally set to direct and choreograph a film version of Chicago, as he had done with Cabaret and other musicals he turned into movies. But after Fosse died in 1987, nobody wanted to make a film version, writes Rick Lyman for The New York Times. Finally, first-time director Rob Marshall took on the Academy Award-winning 2002 film. Marshall, also an experienced choreographer, stated in interviews that he and his team "did not want the film to imitate Fosse's stage production, but wanted to retain its essence while opening it up and modernizing it," according to Turner Classic Movies. The film is dedicated to Fosse, among others.

In this number, the influence of vaudeville and Fosse-style moves is easy to see:

The roots of Fosse’s signature style were actually in burlesque. As a young teenager, writes Henderson, he had a tap act that he performed in burlesque houses.

He translated that style to the screen in ways that directly foreshadow modern musicals and music videos, writes Bruce Handy for Vanity Fair. “You could make a case that Fosse invented modern film grammar–the flashiness, the quick cutting, the atomization of scenes, the f---ing around with time,” he writes in an interview with Fosse biographer Sam Wasson.

Fosse’s ground-breaking use of these strategies showed “dance through the camera lens as no one had done before,” writes the pop culture encyclopedia, “foreshadowing the rise of the MTV-era of music video dance.” For all this, Fosse himself never directed a music video–though Michael Jackson courted him to choreograph Thriller. Jackson's style mirrored Fosse's in a number of ways.

Wasson thinks that Fosse’s sexy choreography was as much about the trauma of starting as dancer in a strip club as a thirteen-year-old kid as it was about anything else. “You think about almost any woman in a Fosse film–any woman is sex and scary,” he writes. “That’s what gives those numbers their power.”

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