Big Deal: Researching Bob Fosse at the Library
When I began research for a book on the stage and film dances of director-choreographer Bob Fosse (1927-1987), I discovered that his papers and those of his wife, the great Broadway dancing star Gwen Verdon, were at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I've since logged many miles on the Bolt Bus from NY to DC, and the Bob Fosse-Gwen Verdon Collection is indeed rich and revealing about Fosse's creative process. But, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I also found research happiness right in my own backyard here at The New York Public Library.
The life and career of Fosse, the only director to win the triple crown of show business awards in one year (an Oscar for Cabaret, a Tony Award for Pippin, and an Emmy Award for Liza With a Z—all in 1973) is well-documented through the holdings of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (LPA) and elsewhere. Clippings, reviews, posters and lobby cards, Playbills and programs—all the standard theatrical ephemera—on Fosse's shows and films are easily available in the Billy Rose Theatre Division and Jerome Robbins Dance Division. These two divisions collect in the areas of dance, theatre, film, television, and nightclubs where Fosse made his mark.
Dance is a visual medium, and so one would expect to find film and video footage from his work in both the Dance Division's Jerome Robbins Archive of the Recorded Moving Image and the Theatre Division's Theatre on Film and Tape (TOFT) Archive. In addition to copies of his feature films, the Dance Division holds such fascinating clips as a 1980 conversation between Fosse and Agnes de Mille on the the NBC late night show, Tomorrow, in which the two dance greats discuss auditioning dancers, the perception of dance as "sissy," and the differences in choreographing for stage and film. A 1981 episode of the New York-based David Susskind Show features a roundtable discussion with Broadway dancers and includes Fosse's first wife, Mary Ann Niles, who startles both her host and fellow panelists when she reveals that she was once married to the famous choreographer. Interviews with Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking, both of whom were famously identified with Fosse professionally and personally, provide keen insights into his work. Oral histories are another important gateway to learning about Fosse, and the Dance Division has produced a number of these interviews with dancers who worked with Fosse, including Helen Gallagher, Harvey Evans, Lee Roy Reams, and Tony Stevens. In the Company of Friends: Dancers Talking to Dancers, a unique set of conversations with an elite group of men and woman who have earned the right to be called "Fosse dancers," were produced by the organization Dancers Over 40 and donated to the Dance Division.
Fosse was notoriously skittish about granting access to his work and so there are no archival recordings in TOFT of his "Big 3" Broadway hits of the 1970s, Pippin (1972), Chicago (1975), and Dancin' (1978), or his last show, Big Deal (1986). But TOFT has every Tony Awards telecast, which allows researchers to see the original cast of Pippin in its opening number, "Magic To Do," Jerry Orbach and dancers in "All I Care About" from Chicago, Big Deal's "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar," the last great Fosse number, and the full company of Dancin' in the roof-raising "Sing, Sing, Sing." One can even compare the 1978 Dancin' cast with that of the 1999 cast of Fosse, the evening-length compilation of Fosse highlights that won the Tony Award for Best Musical. At the 1999 awards, the cast performed the identical "Sing, Sing, Sing," offering a fascinating comparison between performances across two decades. TOFT holds its own archival videorecording of Fosse as well as the 2008 Encores! production of Damn Yankees, which features reproductions of Fosse's original choreography. And the current revival of Chicago (1996), choreographed "In the Style of Bob Fosse" by Ann Reinking and now the longest running American musical, has been documented by TOFT, though it's not available for viewing by researchers until after its Broadway run is completed, as per TOFT's restrictions on currently-running shows.
Photographs capture Fosse's indelible dance style, and in addition to voluminous photo files at LPA, the NYPL Digital Gallery holds a wealth of images from virtually every period of his career.
Fosse was also a performer, and he may have played the title role in Pal Joey more often than any other dancer. He's captured here in a rare color photograph from a 1961 New York City Center production:
Photographs from Fosse's 60s shows include images from the Gwen Verdon vehicle Sweet Charity (1966). Here, the Fandango Ballroom girls perform the come-on, "Hey, Big Spender."
All Fosse's later musicals were documented in color by the renowned theatrical photographer, Martha Swope, including this rare shot of Liza Minnelli, who famously substituted for an ailing Gwen Verdon during the original production of Chicago.
Fosse collaborators are well-represented among LPA's manuscript collections. The papers of director Harold Prince and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins are filled with fascinating glimpses into early Fosse shows like The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees (1955), Bells are Ringing (1956), and New Girl in Town. "'Steam Heat,' of course, will rock them," Robbins declared in his notes on that first Fosse showstopper from The Pajama Game. And Prince's papers reveal that the only payment Fosse demanded for his performance of "Who's Got the Pain" with Verdon in the film version of Damn Yankees was "one toupee." The collections of lyricists Dorothy Fields (Redhead, 1959) and Carolyn Leigh (Little Me, 1962), and lyricists-librettists Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Bells are Ringing) and Fred Ebb ( Cabaret film, 1972, Liza With a Z, Chicago) are essential to learning about the creation of these projects. The papers of Phil Friedman, Fosse's stalwart stage manager, and Christopher Chadman, a Fosse dancer who became an accomplished choreographer himself, offer different perspectives on working with him. One of Fosse's best friends was writer Paddy Chayefsky, and his papers offer tantalizing bits of his unofficial contributions to Fosse projects like Chicago, Sweet Charity, and Star 80 (1983). The scrapbook collection of dancer-actress Joan McCracken, Fosse's second wife, gives a brief look at Fosse's personal life during their marriage.
The making of Pippin, a key Fosse show, is outlined in the papers of producer Stuart Ostrow and costume designer Patricia Zipprodt. Ostrow's papers also document his work with Fosse on the never-produced film, Ending, which evolved into the autobiographical All That Jazz ( 1979). "Jesus Christ in tennis shoes" was the image Fosse used that inspired Zipprodt to create Pippin's stylized, centuries-spanning costumes, and her collection includes designs, sketches, research, and photographs of her work on that show, as well as Chicago, Big Deal, and Fosse's 1986 revival of Sweet Charity.
Research material on Bob Fosse doesn't only reside at LPA. The Dorot Jewish Division at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is home to the American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection, which has been recently been digitized. Several of the collection's subjects were colleagues of Fosse, including producer Bernard B. Jacobs, playwright Neil Simon, and press representative Merle Debuskey, and their interviews contain additional information on his career.
Bob Fosse would have turned 87 on June 23rd, and it is now more than twenty-five years since his death. Yet his remarkable career still inspires dancers and other artists and holds a continuing fascination for scholars and writers. Another institution may hold his personal papers, but no serious research on this important figure would be complete without The New York Public Library's vast holdings. Bob Fosse at NYPL remains very much a "Big Deal."