Bob Fosse? Growing up I had really no idea who he was. Three things changed that over the years. First was seeing “Pippin” live on Broadway in 1973; second was the explosion of feature films made available via VHS and Beta tapes; third was the expansion and availability of almost every film or video made via streaming.
Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were my tap dancing heroes. I think my favorite tap film is “It’s Always Fair Weather” staring Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd. The film bombed at the box office, which is too bad. The whole film is funny and ironic. The scene of the three soldiers tap dancing with garbage can lids is always a treat to watch. It’s a classic. It was choreographed by Gene Kelley and Stanley Donen.
“My Sister Eileen” was a funny black and white film from 1955. It featured dancers Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall. In the Competition Dance between Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall, Fosse was the credited choreographer. In the Competition Dance in “Kiss Me, Kate” between Tommy Rall, Bobby Van, and Bob Fosse, Fosse is the un-credited choreographer.
Here is a segment of the Competition Dance from “Kiss Me, Kate”
Gwen Verdon, Musical Theatre, Bob Fosse – Comments by Lavinia Hart
When my husband and I were in our courting days, we were talking about our first memorable event in watching THEATRE. Mine was a spectacular, uncanny rendition of “TINY ALICE” at Central Washington State; his was seeing Gwen Verdon perform in “REDHEAD” on Broadway. He was a young teen and his Aunt Jane who lived in New York City took him because she wanted him to see the real deal. He remembered in great detail and his glee in describing Ms. Verdon’s performance was vivid.
His description was my introduction to her, beyond knowing her name from theatre lore. Years later I was asked to direct “Sweet Charity” at Wayne State University. My choreographer, the magical coach and teacher of movement and dance in the department, Ms. Nira Pullin, was an experienced Fosse devotee. She had taken workshops in New York and her own wit and sense of humor captured the fun of Fosse. We were in the final stage of casting. I wanted an ACTRESS who could sell a song and be a quick study dancer. Nira wanted to cast a young woman who was an excellent dancer, could sing beautifully but was not as funny as my choice. Nira knew my sense of humor and my love of comic actors. She advised me to depend more on the humor coming from Fosse and less from the “book”. Thank the powers of theatre that I listened to her and we went with her choice. The humor in “SWEET CHARITY” belonged to the actress and the specific and idiosyncratic moves of Mr. Fosse. I found there was very little for me to do as a director. I led the creative team, managed the rehearsal schedule, blocked the scenes without music and learned a whole lot from watching Nira work with the cast on all the musical numbers.
Gwen Verdon was a dancer first. She had a natural gift for clowning. But the focus on partnering with Bob Fosse’s humor as an artist is what catapulted them both to fame. If you watch clips of her work dancing with him, you’ll see her out-Fosse Bob! What he is going for is fulfilled by her joy of knowing what to do with those moves. Nira understood this. She, like my husband, saw “the real deal” in Gwen Verdon and passed that knowledge on to my gigantic cast of enthusiastic undergraduate actors. For all, including their director, it was an unforgettable experience.Lavinia Hart
While Lavinia and I worked on this article, my wife, Peg wrote her own article about dancing. Check it out – thesubtimes.com/2021/06/03/doomed-or-delighted-to-dance/
“Merely Marvelous is a celebration of the art and life of Broadway’s greatest dancing star, Gwen Verdon. She overcame many obstacles, including rickets, the Hollywood system, a loveless first marriage and a difficult second marriage to choreographer/director Bob Fosse, to become a multi-Tony Award-winning performer. Gwen’s life is told through interviews with family members and theatre associates as well as a mine of rare footage from her Broadway and Hollywood careers. Merely Marvelous is the story of a brave woman who rose to the very top of her profession.”
Gwen Verdon was mostly a non-entity to me. I’m not that much of a baseball fan, so I skipped the musical “Damn Yankees.” However, a recent documentary, “Merely Marvelous” put me into the Gwen Verdon camp. Her mother refused to let the doctors break Gwen’s legs (a common technique at the time). Symptoms of Rickets are feeling weak, bad muscle tone, bowed legs, and widening of the wrist and ankle bones. Gwen’s mother had special shoes made for her and practice, practice, practice. Gwen said he couldn’t recall a time when she couldn’t dance. And dance she could. The documentary shows her dancing in films before she was old enough to do it legally and get paid. She was pregnant at seventeen. She came back strong after she turned eighteen and began getting parts on Broadway and in films. On opening night for Can-Can she got a seven minutes plus standing ovation. They had to usher her back on stage. She was upstairs changing into her next costume. There’s no Broadway footage of Gwen Verdon doing the Can-Can with music, but I paid my dues with and loved “Whatever Lola Wants”.
Pippin opened my eyes to the dancing style of Bob Fosse. I really enjoyed seeing Ben Vereen as the story teller and the choreography of the dancers. Jazz hands were featured in the song Magic To Do –
Since then I’ve enjoyed more of the dancing as I mentioned from “My Sister Eileen,” and “Kiss Me Kate.” But with the documentaries of “Merely Marvelous” and “Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime!” I’ve tired of the same Fosse controlled movements and the bowlers. It seems “old hat.” Now, I notice the pigeon toes, the sloping shoulders and the small marching steps, but Gwen Verdon shines even more. Bob Fosse is still the man, however. Check out “Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime!”- imdb.com/title/tt10326262/
From a post I did on Facebook a few weeks ago, the favorite tap dance sequence on film was Gene Kelly dancing and “Singing the Rain.” The tap was recorded later and dubbed over the sound of the rain. So, who recorded the tap sounds? Gwen Verdon.
“It takes quite a few dancers to change a light bulb… Five, six, seven, eight!”
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.