Nicole Fosse probably saw the original Broadway production of Dancin' over 100 times between the ages of 16 and 20. The revue opened March 27, 1978, directed and choreographed by her father, the legendary Bob Fosse. The show was his celebration of the art of dance.
Nicole, a dancer and choreographer herself, serves as the founder and artistic director of The Verdon Fosse Legacy, an organization committed to preserving and promoting the works of her father and her mother, four-time Tony winner Gwen Verdon. For the past 18 years, Nicole has been kicking around the idea of a revival, but for one reason or another, the plans were put aside as other projects took the forefront. However, Dancin’ kept bubbling back to the surface, and that long-dreamed of revival is now coming to fruition. Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ is now in previews at the Music Box Theatre, where it opens March 19, with Tony-winning director-choreographer (and original Dancin’ cast member) Wayne Cilento at the helm.
Of her father’s vast catalog of works, Dancin’ is particularly special to Nicole, “because I know how special it was to my father,” she says. “This was his attempt at showing himself, and the world, that he could hang in there as a choreographer, that he did not need the plot of musical theatre in order to produce work and hold an audience engaged for an entire evening.”
She corrects herself: “I hate to say attempt, because he succeeded.” Indeed he did. Dancin’ ran for over four years on Broadway and earned Fosse his seventh (out of nine) Tony Award for choreography.
The revue, which Nicole refers to as a “magic carpet ride,” is a collection of individual dance pieces set to an eclectic score ranging from classical music to rock. There is not a plot, or a thru-line even, but neither is it a disjointed evening of concert pieces. It as an evening of visual storytelling, detailing the human condition, as told through the artistic lens of Bob Fosse.
No archival video of the original production exists, so this Dancin’ has been recreated by a team of artists who knew and worked with Fosse. Cilento, who won his own Tony for Best Choreography in 1993 for The Who’s Tommy, draws from his own personal knowledge of the show as an original cast member. Some of the reproduction is reliant on the 1978 swing notebooks of original dance alternate Christine Colby Jacques, and additional choreographic reconstruction is credited to Corinne McFadden Herrera. All with the help of notes jotted by Fosse himself in his own notebooks.
Nicole says that when it came time to choose a director for the project, it was very important to her that they be able to reframe the show for a new generation, while honoring the ideas of the past. Cilento was the perfect choice. "He's always been lurking in my mind somewhere, because he's a great showman and he understands how to construct," says Nicole. "He's very open to bouncing ideas around and hearing other people's thoughts. Ultimately, he does what he needs to do and he knows what the right thing to do is." Cilento understands both the original seeds of the Fosse dance language and the original intentions of the show. He was there, after all, even earning a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Dancin'.
Some changes have been made to update the show. There was a scene in the original Dancin' in which Fosse was making a wry social comment: the scene had two Black dancers discovering their music was "Dixie." They took umbrage to it, yet continued the dance. The creators knew that today's audiences, far more vocal in calling out social injustices, wouldn't react well to that scene. Bob Fosse was helping audiences of the late '70s see the irony in asking Black performers to dance to "Dixie." Today's audiences already get that. The scene was cut for the revival. (It should also be noted here that Kirsten Childs, playwright of The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, serves as the show's cultural consultant.)
Audiences will also see new lighting and tech effects, new orchestrations, and new costumes, bringing the piece more up-to-date. "My father was not only current with the times, but sort of ahead of the time. He had his finger on the pulse of what was happening," says Nicole. "We wanted to maintain that. We didn't want Dancin' to be a museum piece."
What hasn't changed, though, is the dance. Using some bits of video footage of the tour and of a Japanese production of Dancin', as well as the memories of the people who were there, the numbers have been reconstructed with original Fosse choreography. And there is a new version of the number "Big City Mime" that Fosse had cut in 1978 in the Boston out-of-town tryout. Cilento and Herrera have created it anew from scribbles in Fosse's old notebook, using his choreography culled from very early projects.
Dancin' will be the first Broadway show in many years that features actual Fosse choreography. Many of today's theatregoers haven't really seen it before. He last directed and choreographed Sweet Charity in 1986 before his death in 1987. The current production of Chicago was choreographed in his style by his partner and collaborator Anne Reinking. And the most recent Broadway revival of Sweet Charity was choreographed by Wayne Cilento, each putting their own spin on Fosse.
Which brings up one final point. There aren't many Broadway dancers these days who worked directly with Fosse. And reproducing his choreography is more than teaching teacup fingers and pelvis thrusts.
“We don’t want to become a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of Fosse, right?” says Nicole, borrowing from a Sweet Charity lyric. Recreating her father’s choreography requires working from the inside out, she says: “In the training program that I’ve launched, we talk a lot about going back to the original seed and cultivating that original seed of information, of the sensation in the body. Then each dancer, when given the right information, can blossom. When they’re not trying to be somebody else, but rather when they’re comfortable being their own authentic self because they have the technique and the information and the support, then it becomes very naturally their own. Then it’s Fosse.”