Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse in the foreground during a Damn Yankees rehearsal

Who Was Bob Fosse?

Can you remember the first time you saw CHICAGO onstage? Near the beginning of Act One, when Roxie is introduced to the other female inmates, the musical number Cell Block Tango begins. An absolutely iconic sequence, it stands out among the greatest dance numbers in musical theatre history.

The National Touring Production of CHICAGO. Credit Jeremy Daniel

Think Mein Herr from Cabaret. Who’s Got the Pain from Damn Yankees. Brotherhood of Man from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Big Spender from Sweet Charity. What do these dance numbers all have in common? Bob Fosse.

In his career, Fosse won a record eight Tony Awards for his choreography, but what makes it so unique and groundbreaking? Among some of the other greatest Broadway choreographers in the 60’s (Jerome Robbins, Jack Cole, Michael Bennett), Fosse’s style is instantly recognizable. Jazz hands, turned in knees, hips thrust forward, isolated movements. It called for a kind of athleticism not common among traditionally trained dancers – a technique that required immense control and strength for the most minuscule of movements. It’s the stillness and isolation, sitting in the groove and sensuality that define Fosse.

Fosse started as a vaudevillian performer in the 1940’s, touring in movie houses and burlesque clubs. This early introduction to burlesque greatly influenced the sensual movements of his future choreography.

Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse in the foreground during a Damn Yankees rehearsal

Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse in the foreground during a Damn Yankees rehearsal

After a stint performing with the Special Services Entertainment Division during World War II, Fosse moved to New York City to kickstart his career. He performed in several roles onstage and screen, eventually signing a contract with MGM in 1953. One early screen appearance and choreography featured in Kiss Me Kate (1953) caught the attention of Broadway producers.

In 1954, Fosse choreographed Damn Yankees, where he also met rising star and future wife, Gwen Verdon. It’s impossible to outline Fosse without highlighting Verdon, who became his muse and one of the greatest performers of all time. Their relationship was turbulent with Fosse’s volatile attitudes and multiple extramarital relationships, culminating in a separation in 1971, though the couple never officially divorced.

Fosse, far right, teaches a class

Fosse, far right, teaches a class

After Damn Yankees, Fosse went on to choreograph several award-winning musicals throughout the 50’s and 60’s, including New Girl in Town, Redhead, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Little Me, and Sweet Charity.

In the early 70’s, Fosse struck gold.

1972 saw the premiere of Pippin, which he directed and choreographed, earning him a Tony Award for Direction. In the same year, he directed and choreographed the film Cabaret starring Liza Minnelli, earning him an Oscar for Direction. Also in 1972, Fosse won an Emmy Award for directing and choreographing the TV special Liza with a Z, also starring Liza Minnelli. In 1973, he directed and choreographed the iconic CHICAGO, one of the longest-running musicals of all time.

Fosse died in 1987 of a heart attack in Gwen Verdon’s arms. His legacy continues to live on in the revivals of his musicals, works inspired by his distinctive choreography, and a Tony Award-winning musical designed to showcase him, simply called Fosse.