John Heilpern

There are a number of reasons for the sorry state of dance on Broadway today. I see the risk I’m taking by suggesting that Bob Fosse is partly to blame.

He was, after all, Broadway’s dominant choreographer-director of the late 60′s and 70′s, though some would give the crown to Michael Bennett. (Jerome Robbins remains on his own mountain peak, along with God.) Fosse invented his own signature style-chic sleaze crossed with show-biz glitz, a stylized syncopation, silky, mostly heterosexual pelvic thrusts, pigeon toes, the lowlife fuck-you attitude of hookers and strippers (in perfect white gloves and black bowlers). As the famously cynical number from Fosse’s Chicago goes:

 

Give ‘em the old razzle-dazzle,

Razzle-dazzle ‘em

Give ‘em an act with lots of flash in it,

And the reaction will be pas- sionate.

Give ‘em the old hocus-pocus,

Bead and feather ‘em.

How can they see with sequins in their eyes?

He razzle-dazzled ‘em all right, inventing the unmistakable Fosse Style, which gave birth to a thousand not-so-talented impersonators from Las Vegas to Michael Jackson videos. If nothing else, the important and reverential tribute to his entire oeuvre , Fosse , at the Broadhurst Theater, reminds us of his significant contribution-particularly his choreography for Sweet Charity , Pippin , Chicago and his own 1978 celebration of dance, Dancin’ , as well as his films, Cabaret and the somewhat narcissistic 1979 movie autobiography, All That Jazz .

The riches on expert display in Fosse -some 26 routines performed by 32 dancers-were eagerly anticipated by me. To see anyone dancing on Broadway nowadays is a treat; to experience a Fosse troupe as good as this one promised an exceptional evening. The show has also been co-directed and co-choreographed by Ann Reinking (Mr. Fosse’s lover and muse during the 1970′s, who reconceived the choreography in the current Chicago ); another key member of the production team, Chet Walker, was the dance captain on the 1986 revival of Sweet Charity ; and the artistic adviser is Gwen Verdon, keeper of the Fosse flame, his wife and star of the original Fosse productions of Sweet Charity , Damn Yankees and Chicago .

With credentials as distinguished as theirs, how could Fosse go wrong? Yet the show as a whole doesn’t really ignite. It ultimately reveals the limitations of Fosse’s brand of automated genius. He created stars-Ms. Verdon, Ms. Reinking, Ben Vereen of Pippin -but a Fosse dancer is essentially a machine. His dances were unique, but they depersonalized dancers.

He was a cool choreographer-not, however, the cold one revealed in Fosse . He was also sexually hot, and blatantly so-in a pre-lap-dancing era. He wasn’t remote or merely retro, or looking a bit quaint by now, as, alas, he appears to be in Fosse . He has dated, not always badly or fatally. (The successful revival of Chicago shows that his raunchy choreography can still work.) But the near-clinical Fosse is too close to a scholarly guided tour of the past.

They have museum-ified the choreographer who was proud to say he was first inspired by strip joints. The lengthy show is-of all unexpected things-tiring. There is no book, no unifying narrative and three acts. Unless you happen to know the number being performed-say, “Big Spender” from Sweet Charity or “Steam Heat” from Pajama Game -the likelihood is that you won’t have a clue what’s happening, or why. Nothing has a context (except nostalgia). Everything is taken out of context, as if the original show doesn’t count. Only the deification of the choreography counts.

So the scenes and dance numbers dutifully listed in the Playbill read like a graduate thesis on the Art of Bob Fosse. How about this: “‘From This Moment On’ (from the motion picture Kiss Me, Kate , 1953). Music and lyrics by Cole Porter (the first 45 seconds of film choreography by Bob Fosse). Originally danced by Bob Fosse and Carol Haney …”

Having fun? The sense of the weighty is imposed, of course, to create a bigger atmosphere of historic significance-bigger than the actual material can take. Do we need a Fosse excerpt from The Bob Hope Special , 1968? Or, for that matter, from The Colgate Comedy Hour , 1951? Well, perhaps we do, if we’re touring an important museum.

Not all Fosse dances are created equal. Yet here the minor is treated as reverentially as the major. Dances are lovingly re-created-the retro 1960′s “Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity -but the high energy is overprogrammed. We greet the well-known numbers like old friends, but something is invariably missing. Perhaps we miss star power, or the living spirit of Fosse himself that’s been lost in all the technical virtuosity on polished display. “Mein Herr” from his film version of Cabaret is flat on stage, crying out for the voyeuristic camera (and Liza Minnelli raising the roof). Then again, the classic 1950′s “Steam Heat” is brilliantly performed, yet it no longer-45 years on!-truly excites. That’s inevitable, perhaps. But rarely has a Fosse show proved less sexy.

Bob Fosse belonged to the golden era of Broadway choreographers that included Agnes de Mille, Gower Champion, Michael Bennett and Jerome Robbins. (Robbins, like Bennett, was influenced by the film choreography of Jack Cole.) You can recognize Fosse’s style-and his alone-in a fog. The other geniuses integrated their dances more into narrative and character. Who could impersonate a Michael Bennett sequence from A Chorus Line ? But anyone can do a Fosse, making a passable imitation. And Fosse was never subtle.

The link with his thrilling generation of choreographers has long since snapped, leaving Broadway dance in its lowest state. The highly regarded Susan Strohman and Graciela Daniele aren’t innovators; Ms. Strohman’s strength is nostalgic pastiche. Tommy Tune soldiers on in high, old-fashioned show-biz glitz. Why has the great dance tradition been lost? Well, perhaps it was an exceptional golden era, never to be repeated. AIDS has also taken a terrible toll on the dance community. The era of the all-powerful director-choreographer has passed.

Musicals today aren’t dance-driven. ( Bring in da Noise … was a notable exception that grew out of a black tradition and heritage.) Who remembers the dance numbers in The Lion King and Rent ? Or Les Misérables ? The Andrew Lloyd Webber blockbusters-now approaching a merciful end after an entire generation of colonial dominance-were pseudo-operas, not dance musicals. Cats is danced, the rest are “sung-through”; there isn’t time to dance, or the inclination.

Where’s the new school of American musicals to revive the lost link with the Fosse generation? Let’s not drift into depression yet awhile. But look at the four musicals coming up this season: a revival of the 1946 Annie Get Your Gun ; a revival of the 1948 Kiss Me, Kate ; Easter Parade , a stage version of the 1948 movie, directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune; and a revival of the 1967 musical, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown .

Now to that, Fosse would say: “Live and laugh at it all” (from “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” music and lyrics by Lew Brown and Ray Henderson). On the other hand, Fosse , the tribute, is part of the problem. It’s another exercise in nostalgia.

It’s also a mistaken attempt to elevate Fosse to the level of Jerome Robbins’ tremendous valedictory to himself a few seasons ago, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway . But Fosse himself felt inadequate compared to Robbins, and didn’t possess his creative staying power; Fosse never completed a ballet. And Robbins choreographed superior musicals, among them West Side Story .

Fosse’s talent was the knotted, uptight, horny choreography of the urban neurotic. He was earthbound, never lyrical. His dance tribute about an old hoofer, “Mr. Bojangles,” is sentimental. He shied away from authentic emotion in his work. When he died of a heart attack in 1987, age 60, he was already afraid that he’d become dated. Fosse was a remarkable choreographer who made one big statement; Fosse is too much of a good thing.