BWW Dance Interview: Kevin Winkler, Author of Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical.
Kevin Winkler is the author of Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical (Oxford University Press). Kevin has had a fascinating career as a Broadway dancer, a librarian for over 20 years with the New York Public Library, and regular columnist for the Huffington Post.
Big Deal has received critical praise across the board. Dance critic Joan Acocella, writing in the New York Review of Books, said, "Winkler's book covers Fosse's entire career, and he may be the world's best-informed person on that subject."
The Wall Street Journal said, "Writing with authority and economy, Mr. Winkler helps readers see more deeply into the movements that pass brilliantly before their eyes."
American Theatre wrote, "Winkler [provides] excellent analysis of Fosse's dance vocabulary.
Any reader who digests Winkler's work in its entirety will come away able to dissect Fosse dances with ease and authority."
Broadwayworld Dance conducted this interview with Mr. Winkler via e-mail.
Q. When did you first become interested in dance?
A. I've always danced. As soon as I began walking at 9 months, I was flying around the house dancing, in gangly fashion!
Q. Who were your first teachers? Any particular influences?
A. I grew up in a small rural area of northeastern Oklahoma, with very few opportunities for dance. I had some lessons as a child at a local dance studio: tap, tumbling, a bit of ballet. But the school closed and there were no other dance options where I lived. I didn't get any other dance training until I was in college in San Diego, where we moved just before I graduated from high school.
Q. Modern or ballet?
A. I didn't know what modern dance was. I liked ballet well enough, but it was the dancing I saw in movies and on TV variety shows-big, showy jazz dancing-that really caught my attention. My favorite movie musicals were ones with lots of dancing with people like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Vera-Ellen, and Ann Miller. My television favorites were the Tom Hansen Dancers on The Red Skelton Show-classy and elegant, so spiffy and spirited.
Q. Did you study dance in college?
A. I was a theater major and dance minor at San Diego State University. That university now has a well-regarded musical theater program with lots of dance opportunities, but when I was there it was heavily tilted towards modern dance. I took as many classes as I could, but everything clicked into place as soon as I found a teacher who taught jazz dance. I had a feel for this style, which I later recognized as a variation on Jack Cole's work. I also realized that I needed more ballet training if I was going to be able to compete professionally, especially since I was playing catch-up. I soon began taking classes at the San Diego Ballet.
Q. You danced in a Broadway show and toured in others. Tell me about that?
A. After graduation, I moved to New York and was a "gypsy" for about 12-13 years. I danced in a couple Broadway shows that closed quickly. And I toured for a long time in Cats. The Broadway revival of Little Me in 1982 gave me the opportunity to dance, very briefly, for Bob Fosse, who came in to restage a number using his choreography from the show's original 1962 production. I also did a lot of summer stock, regional theater, dinner theater, and industrial shows.
A quick story about working with Fosse on Little Me: Fosse was like God to all us dancers and we worked like demons to give him the performances he demanded. It was this personal experience that I used to open my book. During rehearsals I was required to pick up the girl next to me and sit her on my shoulder. At that time, I was very bad at performing lifts with partners-I was skinny and had no upper body strength. (I'd hate to tell you how many girls I dropped during my dancing career. . . .) I was panicked, convinced I couldn't do it. But before I knew it, Fosse was standing in front of me, giving me a count off: "5-6-7-8." I don't know where the strength came from, but I was so anxious to please him that I instantly became super-human and lifted her right up! So I credit Fosse with curing my fear of doing lifts.
Q. What made you decide to go for your MLS?
A. I was working and (mostly) enjoying my career, but before I knew it, I was a 35 year-old chorus boy. Nothing wrong with that-I have a great respect for dancers who continue to work beyond their young years. And I could have gone on dancing for some time. I never had any injuries, and I was always more of a character dancer than someone who could do great athletic feats. But I knew that I would have to make a transition to something else at some point. I reasoned that I would rather make that transition in my 30s rather than wait until I was in my 40s. It would be an easier adjustment, and I'd have more years in my new profession. And I wanted to use my intellect. Librarianship had always been something to which I was drawn. I had supported myself through my undergrad years on a work-study program, working in the college library system. I think the idea of librarianship was always in the back of my mind, and when I made the decision to get my degree at Columbia University, everything fell into place.
Q. You worked in the theater division of NYPL. Tell me about that.
A. When I graduated from Columbia, I first worked for Citibank in their in-house research library at corporate headquarters on Park Avenue. I liked doing business research, but there was an element of satisfaction missing. When I had the opportunity to apply for the position of Assistant Curator in the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (LPA), that was another instance where everything fell into place. I was able to call upon my library education and my background in theater. I ended up staying at LPA in a variety of administrative jobs for the next 17 years, and was with NYPL for a total of 22 years.
Q. How did you become interested in Bob Fosse?
A. I grew up where there was no live theater. But we had movies, so that was my introduction to Fosse. I distinctly remember seeing Sweet Charity for the first time when I was a teenager. There was an emotional underpinning to his dances-the way he filmed and edited them, and placed them in the film. They were intensely dramatic in their staging and lighting. There were definitely things at stake! This had a tremendous impact on me, though I couldn't have put that feeling into words at the time. I just knew this was a different kind of movie musical than I was used to seeing.
My second encounter with his work was the movie Cabaret. I was riveted from the moment Joel Grey popped up on screen until the very end when the camera closes in on the Nazis sitting prominently in the cabaret audience. I had never seen a movie musical like this, one that grappled with politics and culture and sexuality. It was as if he were creating, right before our eyes, a new vocabulary for film musicals. It felt like Fosse was giving us the cinematic equivalent of two musicals I was obsessed with at the time, Company and Follies. These shows represented a new approach to musical theater, with songs that stood apart from the narrative, commenting on or critiquing what was going on in the story. What was most interesting to me about Cabaret was his editing style, which allowed him to layer dance into the narrative or the book scenes. For instance, the very opening of the film is "Willkommen," with the Emcee and the Kit Kat Klub performers doing a big on-stage chorus number. It was intercut with the arrival in Berlin of Brian, the character played by Michael York. The effect was that of the performers singing "Willkommen" as much to Brian as to the nightclub audience. There are other, similar sequences in the film. At one point, the Emcee and the dancers perform a Bavarian "slap dance," in which they slap each other on the face and rear ends, and this was intercut with Nazi hooligans beating up the proprietor of the Klub. Or the jaunty, military-style kick line that almost imperceptibly morphs into a goose-stepping Nazi chorus line that is then intercut with Natalia, the young Jewish girl, finding her beloved dog killed on her doorstep and "Jew" written across her front door. All of Fosse's methods for melding song, dance, and story felt entirely fresh and riveting.
Q. How did the book come about?
A. A few years ago at a conference at the University of Maryland, I gave a paper on Fosse's innovations in presenting dance on film. The paper was very well received and, unbeknownst to me, an editor from Oxford University Press was at the conference. When we returned to New York, he called me and said that Oxford had started a new series called "Broadway Legacies," with each book focusing on the achievements of an important Broadway artist. Most importantly, a serious book on Fosse's work was much needed. Based on my paper at the conference, he thought I would be the person to write that book. And that's how the whole project came about.
Q. What kind of research did you do? Go into detail with archives, in-person, etc.
A. First, I felt that I had to speak to the dancers who had worked with Fosse directly. This meant tracking down and interviewing many people who had long since left dancing and the theater. So there was the logistical issue of just getting hold of people, many of whom didn't have email or engage in social media. One of my first interviewees, Harvey Evans, who had been in several Fosse shows in the 1950s, put me in touch with several dancers from that period that I never would have been able to locate. In addition to becoming a good friend, Harvey was invaluable to my research process. One of the challenges in doing these interviews was asking dancers to help me reconstruct dances they had performed 50 or 60 years ago. But I was amazed at how vivid some memories remain!
I worked a great deal with Fosse's personal papers and business records which, along with those of Gwen Verdon, are housed at the Library of Congress. Like anyone with a good, healthy ego, Fosse kept everything, which is a real gift to a researcher. That made digging through his papers a particular pleasure, since they provided great insights into his personality and creative process. With Fosse, I could almost feel the creativity emanating from the pages! One of the great finds in his papers was his choreographic notes. These notes were spotty: for some shows, there was quite a bit, for others, very little.
Q. What about films, especially the early Broadway shows?
A. I was fortunate that Fosse's earliest shows, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, were made into feature films with Fosse recreating his original choreography. There were the odd TV performances, such as a tribute to director George Abbott in 1955 that included the current Damn Yankees cast in the complete "Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo," and also "Her Is," a number from The Pajama Game that was not included in the film version. But other important shows, like New Girl in Town and Redhead are completely lost. Some of Fosse's work was recreated by one of his stage assistants for the film version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. There are a few dances from Little Me that were captured on TV, and the American Dance Machine's invaluable recreation of "Rich Kids' Rag" is available in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at LPA. Starting with Sweet Charity, the dances were more easily available. Gwen Verdon did two complete numbers on Ed Sullivan's TV variety show, and Fosse himself directed and choreographed the film version.
As for early TV footage, including his dance act with his first wife, Mary Ann Niles, I relied on the Paley Center for Media here in New York. And there's a lot of this footage available on YouTube. Fosse was notoriously tight with his work, and would not allow his shows to be videotaped by the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at LPA. So the shows from his great 1970s period and later-Pippin, Chicago, Dancin', Big Deal, and the 1986 revival of Sweet Charity-were never captured, which is a tremendous loss. But Pippin was filmed for television and there are various private copies of some of the other shows. And his films are easily accessible.
Q. What was new in the Fosse technique as compared to Robbins?
A. Robbins came from the world of ballet and his work was grounded in the vocabulary of classical dance. Fosse came from the world of vaudeville and burlesque, of popular dance styles, and he brought this vocabulary to his work. But he also had a lifelong urge to push himself to expand his vocabulary. That was one of the reasons he valued strong ballet technique in the dancers he hired.
Q. Did Fosse have any particular physique in mind for his dancers?
Q. He favored women who were tall and leggy (check out the original cast dancers in Pippin and Chicago, for instance), but he also loved the gamine type of dancer like Carol Haney and of course, Gwen Verdon. His male dancers, who could be seen as stand-ins for Fosse himself, were often short and slight or ruggedly pugnacious.
Q. What was it about Gwen Verdon that made her such a muse to Fosse?
A. Fosse and Verdon first worked together on Damn Yankees in 1955. By this time, Verdon had spent the bulk of her performing career working with Jack Cole. She had danced for him and with him, and was his trusted assistant. And as she herself said, her standards were high. She hated dancing that didn't say anything. She referred to it as "dancing wallpaper." It was dancing that kept moving but didn't go anywhere. At this point, Fosse had done exactly one show as a choreographer, The Pajama Game. He knew that Verdon was tough, and he was still new as a choreographer. So there was skittishness on both sides. But from the beginning there was alchemy between them. She later said, "I just fell into Bob's work." It felt completely natural to her. It was sexy-and it was no problem for her to convey sexiness, to exult in her sexuality-but it was also funny and had great wit. I think dancing Fosse was fun for her, an opportunity for lightness and humor that perhaps Cole's work didn't always provide. And she was at her dancing peak. She could do anything he asked of her, and they fed off each other's creativity. They had a kind of spiritual connection in dance. I wrote in the book that when she left the stage after Chicago, she took with her something that went missing in Fosse's work after that. She took with her a lightness, a sense of whimsy and humor. Something that might look low or tawdry, suddenly became funny, quirky, sexy-cute when she did it. He gave her much, but she gave him much, as well.
Q. In the early musicals, especially those before Sweet Charity, Fosse was more of a choreographer than a director. How did he take to this role?
A. Fosse clashed with director George Abbott and producer Harold Prince over the "Red Light Ballet" in 1957's New Girl in Town. Abbott called the ballet, which depicted Anna Christie's experiences working in a bordello, "just plain dirty." Since the always director had the final word, Fosse felt that he needed to direct if he was to have full control over his work. He next directed and choreographed Redhead in 1959, partially because of Gwen Verdon, who was a major Broadway star at that time and demanded him as her director. In Redhead, the whole show-even the scenery-danced. It was a repudiation of the George Abbott model, which was very much scene-song-dance, scene-song-dance. When Jerome Robbins, who had choreographed several shows with Abbott, became a director, he took the best of Abbott, but then brought his own total staging concepts to his work. And Fosse did the same. Fosse was influenced by both of those men. Abbott was nothing if not practical and efficient. He established the director as the leader, the undisputed final authority on a show. If a song, a scene, or even a laugh didn't drive the show forward, it had to go. Fosse absorbed this method and became ruthless in streamlining his shows. From Robbins he got the understanding of what it meant for one person to fully stage a show, that dance movement could inform words and songs, and it could be one whole entity in a way that it never was with Abbott.
Q.1966 was the Fosse year. How did he finally come to the point of Broadway king? What events led up to this?
A. 1966 was the year Fosse created Sweet Charity, an American adaptation of Federico Fellini's 1957 film Nights of Cabiria, as a vehicle for Gwen Verdon. Fosse had always contributed in small ways to the books of his shows, by creating scenarios for his dances and writing dialogue as lead-ins to numbers. Here, he began writing the show's book, but ultimately relinquished those duties to Neil Simon. Nonetheless, in Sweet Charity, Fosse's voice as an author was very much in evidence, and it was the first of his shows to really be thought of as "a Bob Fosse musical."
I would argue that 1972 was the year in which Fosse truly came into his own as a multi-faceted artist. The international success of Fosse's film version of Cabaret that year kicked off the busiest, most productive decade of his career. His achievement of the triple crown of show business awards-the Oscar (for Cabaret), Emmy (for Liza with a Z), and Tony (for Pippin), all in one year-remains unprecedented and nearly impossible to imagine another director repeating. Fosse and the 1970s were made for each other, with the mood of the decade reflected in both his life and his work. Three factors marked Fosse's work in the 1970s. First, he became a minimalist in dance terms, refining his style to its essence, and more fully embracing eroticism. In was during this time that Fosse's center of gravity shifted to the pelvis. Two, Fosse took the role of director-choreographer further than anyone by making his contribution-his concepts and staging-the focal point of his shows, and overshadowing the contributions of their composers and writers. Finally, Fosse's shows during this period were constructed around stylized staging concepts that emphasized a show business framework. Chicago told its story through a series of vaudeville numbers that conjured popular entertainment acts of the 1920s. Chicago was directed, designed, and performed to force the audience to confront the dishonesty beneath the benign sentiments expressed in the songs. Its story of jazz era killers who seek celebrity through manipulation of the media was clearly meant to echo the present. Revived in 1996 and choreographed in his style, Chicago found new relevance in the wake of sensational crimes of the 1990s by Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco, the Menendez Brothers, and mostly notably, O.J. Simpson. The rise in celebrity status based on reality television and social media, and the deployment of "fake news" and "alternative facts" in the current political landscape has kept Chicago relevant into the twenty-first century. It is now the longest-running American musical in Broadway history and recognized as the quintessential Fosse show.
Q. What can we expect from you in the future?
A. I am currently in the early stages of research for a new dance-related book, but I'm always a bit superstitious to talk about things at this early date. But I will say that I'm quite excited about this new project, so stay tuned!
Photo: Rick Stockwell