Author: Sam Wasson (Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.)
Genre: Nonfiction (Biography)
Page Count: 723
The Basics: Fosse gives readers an in-depth look at the thousands of pieces that made up both Bob Fosse the musical-theater legend and Bob Fosse the man: the dance style that has often been imitated but will never be duplicated; the pills and the cigarettes; the innumerable women; the hunger for the spotlight; the manic-depressive drive and perfectionism; the narcissism and self-loathing; and his complicated love affair with showbiz that influenced every career choice he ever made. Wasson’s comprehensive portrait of Fosse is also a comprehensive portrait of the American musical—from its roots in vaudeville, to its many revolutions on both stage and screen, through its dark days in the 1980s (when years went by without a Tony Award given for Best Choreography). Opening with Fosse’s memorial, Wasson then flashes back to his subject’s earliest years, using each chapter to bring us closer and closer to his death. This technique gives the biography the feel of a well-crafted novel, and the book’s masterful weaving of style and substance would have made its subject—the ultimate dance style icon—proud.
Strengths: Sam Wasson is my current favorite nonfiction writer because of his ability to take one subject and seamlessly show how it’s reflective of a cultural movement much larger than itself. In Fifth Avenue, Five A.M. Wasson showed how Breakfast at Tiffany’s was much more than just a film; it was a major touchstone for the feminist movement in America. And in Fosse, Wasson linked the life of Bob Fosse to the collective life of American musical theater, creating not just a definitive look at Fosse’s life and career but a definitive look at an entire medium of American art. To see the way Fosse’s beginnings in vaudeville, his rise to fame in the early days of Broadway, his growing cynicism, and his death paralleled the rise, success, and fall of the American musical through the 1980s was nothing short of revelatory. I picked up this book expecting to learn about my favorite choreographer and the director of one of my favorite films (Cabaret), and I ended up learning incredible amounts of information about a genre that has always been close to my heart. It was a pleasant surprise of the highest order, to say the least.
The great thing about Wasson’s writing style is that you never feel like you’re just taking in fact after fact. He’s a storyteller, weaving old and new quotes, review snippets, and film analyses together to not only teach you about Fosse but to tell you his story. This was a work of nonfiction that made me feel the same way a great work of fiction makes me feel. Fosse wasn’t always a sympathetic figure, but I always understood him. I felt for him, and, even more surprisingly, I felt for those around him. I felt for his daughter, for his friends, for the women he tried to love but couldn’t, and—more than any other—for Gwen Verdon, the soul mate he wanted to love perhaps more than any other woman—though it still wasn’t enough. In telling Fosse’s story, Wasson also told Verdon’s, and what emerged was a picture of a woman with formidable talent but an even more formidable ability to love. If he ever wanted to write her biography, I would be first in line to buy it.
I don’t often cry when reading nonfiction, but I could feel myself getting choked up as I ended each chapter near the book’s conclusion and knew I was getting one step closer to Fosse’s death. I didn’t want him to die. That kind of emotional attachment was something I hadn’t counted on, and it was all because of the structure of the book. And when Wasson described Verdon and Fosse’s final moments together, as he lay dying with his head in her lap, I started to cry despite knowing this was the only way the story could end. Fosse was a book that spoke to me on an intellectual level and an artistic level, but, even more importantly, it spoke to me on the kind of emotional level most biographers can only hope to reach.
Weaknesses: Fosse is a long book, almost dauntingly so at times. There were moments when Wasson went into great detail about the editing process of a film or the way Fosse shot his movies that went over my head a little bit, and I’m sure that’s the way some readers felt when he would go into detail about Fosse’s choreography. Ultimately, all of those details were important to opening readers’ eyes to the way Fosse worked and his influence on both American theater and film. But in the moment, they were sometimes difficult to read because I wasn’t very familiar with the jargon.
My Favorite Passage:
“Thinking his heart attack was a seizure, Gwen dropped to her knees and held his head in her lap.
He had loved and not loved many women, but the one with him on the pavement, the last one to see him, had been letting go of him the longest.
‘I’m very nervous,’ he had said to her, Lola, at their first rehearsal in 1954.
‘So am I.’”
Final Thoughts: If you’re a fan of Bob Fosse’s work—any aspect of it, from Damn Yankees and Cabaret through Lenny and Chicago—read Fosse. If you’re a fan of American musical theater, read Fosse. If you’re a fan of nonfiction books that read like great novels, read Fosse. Basically, just read Fosse. It may seem like an intimidating book, but it was actually as entertaining a biography as I can remember reading. I can’t wait to see what Wasson does next.