The flick of the wrist. The throw of the hip. Bowler hats, bowed legs, pigeon-toes and slumped shoulders. It’s the undeniable styling of the legendary director/choreographer Bob Fosse.
Now, more than 25 years after his death, and almost four years in the making, Sam Wasson, author of the New York Times bestseller Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, has written Fosse, an epic biography detailing the exhilarating, yet depressing, life of the Oscar, Tony, and Emmy Award-winning legend.
How did this relatively young guy—a visiting professor of Film at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut—get to write a book about one of the greatest choreographers of our time? What was he thinking?
“I was crazy is what I was thinking,” said Wasson. “I wasn’t thinking. I had never written a biography before. I don’t think a lot about biographies, I think about movies. I think story. I wanted to write a book that Bob would love and I know he would not like the book if it didn’t have his warts in there. Bob was such a truth warrior even at his own expense. He would not have liked this book if I went easy on him.”
Though he is too young ever to have seen a Fosse Broadway show with original cast members—Pajama Game, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Pippin, Chicago, Dancin’, Sweet Charity—it didn’t stop Wasson from being intrigued and wanting to write about the man. “I wanted to put Bob on the page. Facts are one thing. Anyone can get the facts. There is something beyond journalism when you do a good biography and capture the human spirit. The goal is to go beyond the photograph. This was a deeply troubled man who did not have a boring corner of his personality,” said Wasson. “Charisma, genius, depression, narcissism, insecurity, everything a writer would want in a character you have in Bob Fosse. I had to do it”
During the development of this work, Wasson spoke to more than 300 people and spent an incredible amount of time working through the Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon Collection at the Library of Congress. This is the first Fosse biography in the last quarter century, and the only one that utilizes unprecedented access to these files that became available in 1992.
One of the greatest moments for Wasson was being able to talk extensively with Ann Reinking, one of Fosse’s great dancers and his long-time mistress. During the course of several years, she provided Wasson not with sensationalism, but with 100 percent openness and honesty. She trusted Wasson and he felt he could ask her anything. She brought Fosse to life in a way only an insider could. She also talked about the fabulous relationship and deep love she had with Fosse’s third and last wife, Gwen Verdon, who was the true love of Fosse’s life.
There were so many others who provided Wasson with intimate details never before discussed, including Dustin Hoffman, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Dreyfuss, Chita Rivera, and Eric Roberts, who had known or worked with Fosse, even going back to dancers in Fosse’s very first dance class. Interestingly, Wasson begins the story at Fosse’s funeral and works backwards. While researching material for the book he was surprised to learn “what a wonderful guy Fosse was, on top of being not a wonderful guy.” Wasson added that Fosse cared very much about his dancers. “He pushed them hard and he wasn’t always in a happy mood. He was under a lot of pressure and that made him a disagreeable figure sometimes to be around. But his heart was definitely devoted to making sure they were happy, wanting them to feel safe, and wanting them to feel good about themselves. He was not a tyrant. He loved his collaborators.”
“He had deep trust issues, so a lot of people came off being hurt by Fosse. However, the people he was devoted to he was unbelievably devoted to,” said Wasson. For a man who never felt he could ever love properly, whose entire life was filled with doubts and insecurities, as well as incalculable success, “this was a real kind of love.”
If you love Broadway and jazz hands, Beyonce’s dance moves in “Single Ladies,” and the musical Chicago, you will not be able to put this book down. Wasson is a great storyteller who isn’t afraid to show the grit behind the “grind!”