There isn’t a theatre choreographer more associated with their own unique style than Bob Fosse. The infamous Oscar–, Emmy– and Tony-winning director and Emmy– and Tony-winning choreographer created his own signature technique that distinguished shows like Chicago, Pippin, and Damn Yankees as dance masterpieces. In doing so, Fosse created an entirely new style of dance, a style so singular it’s still taught today and known only as “Fosse.”
This April, FX launches its limited television series Fosse/Verdon, based on the 2013 biography by Sam Wesson, with a focus on the marriage and collaboration between Fosse and icon in her own right Gwen Verdon.
The book goes beyond the award wins and career milestones to reveal why he felt compelled to create musicals that challenged audiences’ perceptions. Featuring interviews with dozens of Fosse’s collaborators, the biography makes the case for five ways the famed director-choreographer changed the role of musical ensembles forever.
#1: He made small movements a big deal.
When Fosse was brought on to to save the staging of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1961, he retooled the choreography to make it more pedestrian. Instead of using traditional dance steps, he built the song “Coffee Break” into a number about addiction and withdrawal by choreographing the actors’ eyes and fingers. “I took it to its extreme,” Fosse is quoted saying in Wesson’s book, “treating coffee as if it were a drug—as though people needed a coffee fix.” “It was like we were dancing with our hands and faces,” remembered Donna McKechnie, who was in the show’s original ensemble. These kind of micro-movements are still present on the Main Stem today, recently in Kelly Devine’s Tony-nominated staging for Come From Away.
#2: He choreographed specific movements for each ensemblist.
More than staging patterns and pictures as was the emphasis of his predecessors, Fosse wanted to choreograph people first. On How To Succeed, he asked all of the actors, no matter how small their roles, to write about their characters’ personal lives. By specifying their daily routines and relationships with others in the office, he created not just an ensemble but “a chorus of individuals,” according to Wasson. The practice continued with Sweet Charity in 1966, where Fosse used his experience on the vaudeville circuit to individualize the women in “Big Spender.” “Bob never treated us like a chorus,” says cast member Kathryn Doby in the book. “To Bob, we were all actors.” This tradition continue today in the ensembles of Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants, where the show’s creators gave names and relationships to each character onstage.
#3: He subverted audience expectations.
Chicago was based on a 1926 play of the same name by Maurine Dallas Watkins, but Fosse did not want the show to feel like a period piece. He used the choreographic language of the ’20s and turned it on its ear by altering their tempo. “The Charleston, the shimmy, the black bottom were meant only to give them a context, forms to be deconstructed,” says Wesson. Fosse also told the dancers to perform these movements with darker intentions, such as smearing streaks of blood across the sky. When audiences saw these familiar movements performed in atypical ways, it helped make the story feel more contemporary and of-the-moment. More recently musicals such as Bandstand and Hamilton have fused contemporary movement styles into historical stories to make them feel modern.
#4: He billed ensemblists like stars.
Fosse showcased ensemblists in his early works and then built entire musicals to feature their talents. This desire came to full force in the late 1970s, when he started to create what would become his choreographic tour de force: Dancin’. While A Chorus Line broke the mold by bringing ensemble dancers into the spotlight, Fosse wanted to give focus to dancers themselves—not the characters they were playing. Once cast, he gave each of them an Actors’ Equity principal contract instead of the usual chorus contract given to ensemble dancers and singers. This practice is now common among smaller Broadway casts, where every actor in smaller shows like Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods have been credited as a principal role.
#5: His ensemblists contributed to his choreography.
Even in more traditionally structured musicals, Fosse featured the individual strengths of his dancers. When creating his last new Broadway musical, Big Deal in 1986, he relied on the choreographic impulses of his ensemblists to develop the steps. From there, he would work to finesse their movements into one unified story. “He’d give us a few ideas—smoky, ’30s, late at night dance club, we’re dancehall patrons already clubbing, showing off,” remembers ensemblist Diana Laurenson in Wesson’s book. “Three days later he’d come back and say, ‘Show me what you got,’ and each one of us, as individuals, put choreography into the number.” This kind of collaboration is common in pre-production rehearsals and workshops, where choreographers of shows like Newsies have built the staging around the skill sets and talents of their original company members.
Fosse on Broadway
Mo Brady is co-creator of The Ensemblist. Each week, The Ensemblist podcast will release interviews with cast members of Fosse/Verdon to offer up the inside perspective.