Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dancing A Paradox

Reality: That was the bullshit. But show business—singing and dancing and all that jazz—held the absolute truth.

Sam Wasson's new biography of Bob Fosse (titled, simply, Fosse) came out a few weeks ago and got some incredible buzz (mostly among the people I follow on Twitter who would buzz about this sort of thing) so I decided to check it out even though I already know a lot about Fosse and have already read one excellent biography of him (Martin Gottfried's All His Jazz).

I imagine biographies of artists -- especially performing artists -- are hard to write. You have to describe the art and somehow get inside the creative process, which the subject may or may not be on record talking about, and if he is it may or may not be bullshit. A general assumption that anyone reading the book already has some knowledge about its subject is probably fair. And necessary. You can't describe in detail every show Bob Fosse ever worked on. Well, you could, but it would be endless. It's about a man's life, not cast album liner notes.

That said, I'm not sure who this book is for, exactly. I consistently found there either wasn't enough detail or there was too much. More accurately I suppose there wasn't detail about what I wanted detail about. But in a book about an artist, the art is arguably the most important part. Theater and film are intensely collaborative, and as controlling as Fosse was, he couldn't have achieved his vision without the help of others. We get glimpses of process, but not enough for me. In pages and pages about the creation of Sweet Charity, for example, with attempts by multiple writers to crack the script, there's one tossed off sentence about the score. I assume that's because writing it went smoothly but a) I don't actually know that and b) Fosse's style is as wrapped up in the music he didn't write as it is anything, with rhythms and orchestrations that were built just for his choreography (a Fosse show sounds like a Fosse show even when someone else is directing a revival, which is a pretty remarkable feat for someone who didn't write any music). Orchestrator Ralph Burns, who I know from elsewhere to be an essential part of creating the sound that went with Fosse's visuals, is mentioned and even quoted a couple of times, but there's nothing about his work or his relationship to Fosse.

Even Fosse's breakup with Gwen Verdon, a relationship Wasson puts forward as the most important in his life (I mean, I think it was, that's not some crackpot theory) is glossed over. True, she doesn't leave his life or the story, but that seems like a major turning point, no? If it wasn't, then Wasson fails by setting it up as if it should be.

Even acknowledging the challenges, the book assumes both too much and too little from its reader. Despite my knowledge about musical theater -- or maybe because of it -- I found myself wanting more details about shows and also the world around Fosse. What else was going on in musical theatre while he was working? Names go by in a blur (the Kindle's X-Ray feature is really handy in a book like this), and sometimes I want to know more about them before they're gone.

When the book really delved deeply into the work is when it was the most compelling for me. I loved learning, for example, that the musical numbers in Cabaret were first cut together traditionally, using more or less straightforward wide shots to show all the dancing, and then Fosse and his editor would go back and find places to cut in odd angles and closeups. The more good tidbits like this were shared, the more annoyed I was when they weren't. Fosse was famously controlling while shooting Sweet Charity -- his first film as a director -- but there's no mention of, say, the set designer. At 700+ pages I get why we're not spending a ton of time on that, but I want to know how something as perfect -- for the story, and for Fosse's choreography and camera work -- as the rooftop set for "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" came about. It's too collaborative an art form for those people to be tossed aside if you're telling the story of the work. There's a reference to "The Manson Trio" at one point, with no explanation of what it is. It's a dance in Pippin, well known to theater geeks but not the name of a song or anything. And yet we learn a lot about what people ate for lunch. It just brings me back to the question of who the book is for.

It's also, frankly, not very well written. At times, almost randomly, Wasson seems to think he's writing a hard boiled detective novel. Take for example this quote from Ann Reinking
"The thing you love can also be the death of you," Reinking said. "Dancers are aware of that much more than the average artist."
and compare it with one on the same subject from Wasson
These bodies were the corrugated maps of old Forty-Second Street, preserved in hurt’s formaldehyde.
Reinking, the dancer/actor/choreographer nails it, and so simply. Wasson, the writer, not so much. (Not to imply that a dancer shouldn't, wouldn't or couldn't be well-spoken, just that she's not the one who got paid to write a book.)

A couple more “favorite” similes just for fun:

Their task was to find and refine visual rhythms and layer them on the eye like phyllo dough.

They buffered him from the neon sting of Broadway, ten blocks below, where dreams were torn like tickets and forgotten innocents reached out to him from the dark.

I could forgive the occasional dramatic flourish (especially given the subject matter) if the narrative were stronger, but the whole thing is kind of a mess. Particularly as the book enters the 70s, any sense of structure sort of goes out the window. I assume this is deliberate, and in some ways I liked it very much. Life doesn't happen in neat little chunks, a show and then a relationship and then a movie. But as a reader I found it muddled. What's he working on now? What happened to that girlfriend? Is Cabaret finished? Two paragraphs ago he was still editing it. Again, I know a lot of this stuff already, so there were plenty of interesting tidbits to be had and I was able to fill in some of the blanks myself, but that seems less than ideal.

I don't read a lot of biography so maybe this is standard practice, but I was frequently put off by the quoting of conversations for which the author -- and possibly nobody living -- was obviously not present. I realize it's helpful to dramatize this way, but I found it odd. There were hundreds of end notes which in the Kindle edition link back to the original references, but no notes within the text. (This might just be a Kindle thing. It also had the effect of making the book seem endless, as my page counter showed over 100 pages left even as I neared the end, with no way to stick a thumb in the actual end of the book.) I guess I needed to suspend my disbelief better but in dramatically too tidy moments I found myself thinking "how do you know that?" or "that doesn't sound right," which a simple attribution or taking slightly less liberty would have cleared up.

The structure of the book (literally a countdown to Fosse's death) leaves no room for Fosse's legacy. As overlong as the book felt, this left me unsatisfied. And life is, as Fosse himself would happily tell you. But I'd become strangely defensive and fond of the man over those hundreds of pages, and even if he'll never know how others would preserve and continue his work, or what happened to Gwen or Nicole or Ann, I felt the readers should. After all, when he staged his own death in All That Jazz ("a 100 percent accurate rendering of about 70 percent of Bob Fosse"), he did it with a musical number.

Fosse is a fascinating, complicated, often unlikable man, who left behind a body of work that's still being performed and aped, even in a medium known for its impermanence. If you’re interested in musical theater or tortured artists or even just pop culture of the 60s, 70s and early 80s at all, you should read about him. For as much as I’m criticizing the book and as much as I thought I already knew, I did read all 592 pages (as it turned out to be without the notes and acknowledgments) of Fosse and I learned a lot. But I think I'd recommend All His Jazz over Fosse. Granted I read it many years ago, when I knew much less about the man and the business, but it's certainly shorter and as I recall it flows a little more smoothly and clearly.

One huge difference between the two books has nothing to do with them but with when I read them. It was great to read this book in the age of YouTube and Netflix. I loved being able to watch numbers as I read about them, and even watched a couple of whole films I hadn't been familiar with before. Here are some favorites.

The aforementioned rooftop set. I don’t actually love this show or this film, but this is perfection.

This whole thing is amazing but jump to 6:54 (if I did this right it’ll do it itself) and watch the solo (and imagine Ann Reinking doing it).

Fosse dancing his own choreography in My Sister Eileen. (not embeddable)

Maybe my favorite one minute and twenty seconds of film ever.

I didn’t really “get” Liza, who was already a …complicated figure by the time I knew who she was, for years. Then I saw this and I understood:

I’m still not a huge Liza fan but I think you should just watch all of this anyway. Try to overlook the ensemble’s costumes (everything about it is just sooooo early 70s).

(My favorite number starts at 29:15.)

Speaking of Liza, I love this description of her from the book:
At twenty-three, Liza Minnelli was already a strange, spastic showbiz animal, a volcano of nerdy confidence. She wasn’t beautiful and she moved a little crazy, like a drunken elfin girl kept up past her bedtime to sing for her parents’ guests. "Hi, everyone!"—Liza had a big voice, one that conveyed the punishing truth about making entertainment: It was mean. It was messy. It was a C-section and she was both mother and baby. "It’s a long, hard battle," the Times wrote of her Empire act, "but she finally comes out ahead." Every night was a massacre she didn’t always survive.

And one last quote, from Reinking again, the source of the title of this post:
"When you’re dancing in one of Bob's shows, you’re always dancing a paradox," Ann Reinking said. "In 'Big Spender,' you really want to get that guy to come to you, so from the waist up you're glamorous, you're wonderful. But from the waist down, you're tired and your legs are busted and your feet are hurt. 'Please God let me go home and get to sleep' and 'But I have to get the money' at once."

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