BWW Review: BIG DEAL, BOB FOSSE AND DANCE IN THE AMERICAN MUSICAL By KEVIN WINKLER
In his chronicle of Bob Fosse, author Kevin Winkler dresses his perspective in a wide range of tones. From critic to apologist, and academic to nostalgic pro, his hat swapping gives Fosse's career a sense of human variety. Such flexibility is no doubt necessary for engaging with a figure that was at once so artistically aberrant/exposed and yet simultaneously so iconic/mythic. Big Deal, Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical published by Oxford University Press flips between an anecdotal ground floor and social macro views of Fosse's career. What results is a biography that is as often a fawning homage as it is distanced analytic of this artist and his oeuvre.
With chapter titles denoting his career, Winkler surveys Fosse's entry into the uniquely American position of Director-Choreographer, which was developing at this time. He examines how Fosse's start in low-grade vaudeville flavored his showbiz aesthetic. Any part of the "personal" that can be divorced from his oeuvre is left to other biographies. Though, with Fosse's history of having relationships that were simultaneously sexual and professional, and his openly autobiographical artistic influences, this didn't leave too much off the biographic table. On a professional level, Fosse's collaborative capacities lack the romanticized selflessness known with musical theatre. Instead, he constantly struggled without control of his work and Winkler manifests this frustration with the evolutions of unions, contracts, and increasingly astronomical Broadway budgets.
Winkler offers perspectives on well-known Fosse works, which, regardless of your familiarity, will make them seem new. In describing the "Willkommen" number from Cabaret Winkler states "They perform Fosse's tacky, step-touch, jazz-hands choreography with the committed hard sell of the second-rate. With lights bursting around the stage, the number's climax achieves a tawdry excitement." This recognition of tack isn't derogatory, but a worthwhile insight into an artist's aesthetic. Hard-sell kitsch is not a bug but a Fosse feature, and Winkler takes the time to honor it whenever it rears its head.
If you're hoping for a "warts and all" look at the career of an artist, you won't find it here. Or, rather, you won't find anything here Fosse didn't criticize himself worse for. If you smell an underlying misogyny in Fosse's capacity to burn through female relationships, or in his penchant for pranking female actors to get the emotional result he wants, Winkler doesn't exactly take Fosse to task on these points. However, in his defense he doesn't find it charming, and makes a point to frame the majority of the female relationships in their professionalism, and sense of mutual consent. After steering through his time in the spotlight with Sweet Charity to All That Jazz Winkler moves to Fosse's remorsefully rushed final works, and subsequent death.
Winkler's view on Fosse's legacy is complex. He admits that the 1999 musical revue Fosse, widely believed to have restored the choreographer's legacy, actually accentuates the repetitiveness of the choreographer's movement vocabulary. With the assertiveness of someone who was there, he is able to acknowledge simultaneously the virtues of revivals currently giving a pedestal to Fosse's aesthetic, while noting that something is missing. Perhaps that's unavoidable; with even Fosse's most big budget shows seeming impossibly trim today. He asserts that there is a je ne sais quoi in Fosse's showmanship and a technique to his form that has been far too distilled from this unique artistic voice, to fit a vague Broadway ubiquity. It is ultimately a compelling argument. Fosse's movement is often displayed though, perhaps, we're still shy from his energy, theatricality, and sensuality.