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05 November 2013
Sam Wasson
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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“I drink too much, I smoke too much, I take pills too much, I work too much, I girl around too much, I everything too much,” said Bob Fosse, dancer-choreographer-film director extraordinaire. Such a love of excess is given its head in Sam Wasson’s vibrant, sprawling, 695-page breeze-block of a biography. But that’s only half the story. For Wasson, author of the smart 5th Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn And The Making Of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, has also delivered a thoughtful treatise on Fosse’s talents, influences and importance. Some of the prose is asinine, but when it’s good, Wasson’s work achieves the theatrical feel of its subject: it is snazzy with substance.

Fosse (the book) traces Fosse’s (the man) journey from childhood in Depression-era Chicago (he hid the fact he did ballet from his peers to save a beating), to the burlesque circuits that informed his art, to his unmemorable stint as a Hollywood performer (he wanted desperately to be Fred Astaire and failed), to his years as a visionary choreographer. This is the best Broadway story imaginable, full of backstage battles and monstrous creativity forging the most recognisable style — bowler hats, black vests, hard-backed chairs, slumped shoulders and jazz hands — in musical theatre.
The drama doesn’t stop when Fosse — late in life — moves into film. Each movie gets an in-depth treatment, with run-ins with Dustin Hoffman on Lenny and the never-ending travails of the confessional All That Jazz — from Richard Dreyfuss walking out of the project (“I can’t be up there with my big Jewish ass and try to be a dancer”) to Columbia flogging the rights to Fox fearing they had an expensive turkey on their hands — particularly compelling.

Fosse is the only man to win entertainment’s triple crown — an Oscar (Cabaret), a Tony (Pippin) and an Emmy (Liza With A Z) — in the same year (1973), yet celebrated by checking into rehab for depression. Wasson’s thesis: Fosse’s was a bravura born out of monumental arrogance forged by huge insecurity. In-between three wives, countless flings (Fosse was a rare straight choreographer), uppers, downers and a 100-cigarettes-a-day habit, Fosse had a constant “flirtation” (his word) with death. To stress the point, Wasson’s chapter headings (Sixty Years, Forty-Five Years etc.) count down like a time bomb to his demise. By September 23, 1987, when Fosse suffered a fatal heart attack in the street, you are in no doubt you have experienced an explosive life.

Reviewed by Ian Freer

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