The long audition: Fosse, Me, and Sam Wasson’s “Fosse”

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By Scott Ross

“To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.” — Karl Walldenda, quoted in All That Jazz

(Warning: Memory ahead.)

Fosse has been a touchstone in my life for exactly four decades now. That conscious connection was forged on my 13th birthday, in 1974. The night before, my parents took us to see a dinner theatre production of Cabaret, a show I’d fallen in love with via the Original Cast Recording, which I’d borrowed from the Olivia Raney Library in downtown Raleigh (gone now, alas, as is that dinner theatre.) The next day, a Saturday, my best friend Michael and I went to the movie, brought back for some reason nearly a year after its big Oscar ® win. (The soundtrack LP was another of my birthday presents that year, my mother not quite understanding the difference between it and a cast album.)

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At the time, I was a sufficient musical theatre novice that I preferred the show to the movie; I missed the “book” songs the movie’s producer Cy Feuer, the director Bob Fosse and the scenarists Jay Presson Allen and Hugh Wheeler jettisoned from the score. I also missed the Lenya figure, and her Jewish suitor. (She’s there, but her role is significantly diminished, her dilemma assumed in the movie by the Marissa Berenson character.) I didn’t know, not having yet discovered Christopher Isherwood’s books, or the details of his life, how much more closely Cabaret as film dovetailed with Isherwood’s original, and with his own biography. But I loved the way the movie was put together; was amused by its nonchalant approach to sexuality; excited by the editing and by the choreography of the cabaret numbers; enthralled by Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli — and, although I didn’t yet comprehend why, by Michael York’s Isherwoodesque physiognomy.

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Michael York as Christopher Isherwood, more or less.

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Isherwood around the time of his days in Berlin.

I didn’t quite realize, not being fully conversant as yet with the possibilities of irony in staging musicals (and not having discovered Stephen Sondheim; that would come in a year or two) that what Fosse had made was not a traditional musical but a dramatic movie with musical numbers. Only later would I fully understand that by keeping the song-and-dance — save the ersatz Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” — within the confines of the Kit Kat Klub, the filmmaker was able to exploit his stars’ talents (and his own) while keeping the action grounded in the drastically crumbling reality of 1931 Berlin and to comment ironically (as had Harold Prince in his original concept for the stage show) but here in purely cinematic terms, on the story’s arc and the characters’ predicaments, erotic and otherwise. I would come to ruminate on this aspect of Fosse’s Cabaret in due course, as I realized who I was, how my feelings for Michael had altered, and that he had his own very personal reasons, not yet shared with me, for his amusement over the movie’s homosexual implications.

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Brian: Oh — screw Maximilian!
Sally: I do.
Brian (after a shocked pause, smiles): So do I.

These less personal and more thematic revelations came to a head later, after seeing the movie again, on television in September of 1975. That infamous broadcast contained one of the most bizarre acts of censorship I’ve ever encountered, even to this day. I fully expected the movie’s many uses of the word “screw” (“Fuck” in the European release) would be axed, or over-dubbed. What I was not prepared for was that ABC, terrified of the moment in Cabaret that made explicit that Sally Bowles (Minnelli) and her erstwhile beau Brian Roberts (York) have both been sexually involved with Helmut Griem’s erotically ecumenical Maximilian, would simply drop the audio in the middle of the scene. At first, I assumed this sudden silence to be a technical glitch, but when the sound was restored immediately after that funny/shocking dialogue (Brian: Oh — screw Maximilian! / Sally: I do. / Brian [after a shocked pause, smiling]: So do I.) I had the uneasy feeling that something else was at play. And it was — the same Puritan impulse that would later greet Fosse’s Chicago, Dancin’ and All That Jazz: How dare he suggest that there was such a thing as sex in the world! Not merely, in George Carlin’s ironic phrase, “Man on top, get it over with quick” sex but transgressive, unusual, non-normative, non-procreative sex!

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Timothy Scott in the Dancin’ first national tour, with Valerie-Jean Miller and Cynthia Onrubia. Photo by Martha Swope.

Flash-forward to December 1979 and my first trip to New York as a theatre-mad 18-year-old, seeing Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ at a matinee performance. Ann Reinking was out, as was her wont — although I intuited how exhausting the show must be, it was only later that I understood just how grueling that three-act marathon was for Fosse’s dancers — but the experience was transformative nonetheless. I was especially impressed by a brilliant young dancer who, coincidentally, shared two of my names; I simply could not take my eyes of Timothy Scott whenever he was on-stage. While he was, physically, definitely my “type” (or one of my types, anyway) it was his technique, his expertise, his energy and his sheer stage presence, especially in the “Big Noise from Winnetka” trio, that made him irresistible. (When I got home, I wrote him a fan letter; it went un-answered.) A trained jazz dancer, Scott seemed to me the perfect masculine embodiment of the Fosse style. My psyche was no less Art-and-Beauty orientated than Fosse’s, save that his concentration was on the female of the species, mine on the male.

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Timothy Scott’s Playbill headshot.

Then, in the winter of 1980, All That Jazz. A movie that obsessed me to such a degree that, as stage manager of a local production of Life with Father that season, my nightly exhortation to the troupe over the tannoy at the top of Act One was Joe Gideon’s somewhat shame-faced, “It’s showtime, folks!”

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Rowell Gormon, Life with Father‘s Reverend Dr. Lloyd, gave caricatures to the cast and crew as closing night gifts. In mine, he captured my Fosse phase perfectly.

That summer I staged, and performed in, a pair of dances for a local revue, one of them my memory, not entirely accurate, of Cabaret’s “Money, Money,” for myself and my friend Lisa. Discovering that Fosse, who did not enjoy the usual and requisite ballet training of his peers and lacking the terpsichorean vocabulary to express to his dancers precisely what he wanted from them, charted his ideas through the use of stick figures, was an encouragement. Although I was far less conversant with the nomenclature of dance than Fosse, I was able to work out my choreography (such as it was) that way, and did. There was enough enthusiasm on that stage to make up for my choreographic inadequacies, but what mattered most to me was creating an homage to one of my idols.

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In retrospect, I realize that my interest in Fosse began much earlier than my seeing Cabaret, at age 11, with the 1972 telecast of his Liza with a Z, one of the entities that conferred on him a still-unchallenged Triple Crown as recipient of the three major, nicknamed, show-biz awards (Oscar®, Tony®, Emmy®) in a single year. I just didn’t, at that moment, know who he was. I got a much clearer sense of him the following summer, on seeing his movie debut, the heartbreaking Sweet Charity, on television.

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So, Bob Fosse: One of the handful of true American originals, and a repository of show-biz tropes that, yoked to his own physical defects, became a style. Adored and, if not reviled, at least dismissed, in equal measure. Capable of astonishing on a regular basis, yet a simulacrum of his own limitations. Endlessly fascinating while, at one and the same moment, and in some elemental fashion, personally repellent.

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On that last point, I suppose Fosse joins a not so very select list; some of the creative artists whose work I most admire were, or are, problematic as people. As someone (sources vary) once noted, he who would eat sausages or respect the law would do well not to find out how either are made. The same holds true of admiration; best to maintain a distance, or risk discovering that one’s heroes possess feet of purest clay. That axiom presents a problem for those who, like me, are by nature intensely curious, particularly about the work they love and the people who make it. Although as a reader I am at best a sort of literary magpie, flitting from one shiny object to another, I am especially enamored of biography and what my best friend and I think of as “the backstage stuff.” Do I dare find out too much about my idols?

Add this: The very nature of the human psyche and the human heart militates against complete understanding. How many of us fully comprehend ourselves, and our own motivations, let alone those of others? How far can empathy extend? How does even the most incisive, competent biographer make sense of what is, essentially, inexplicable? The best know they never can. Externals give clues, but clues only. And thanks to the various schools of psychology, and our own imperfect grasp of them, head-shrinking is now a game any number can play— and do. And the more noted the subject, the greater the impulse to analyze.

These personal, exhaustive (and, admittedly, exhausting) ruminations are occasioned by my having finished reading Sam Wasson’s fat biography Fosse (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.) Wasson’s monograph on Blake Edwards (the wonderfully titled A Splurch in the Kisser) held me, even at its most academically pretentious, and his little book on Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.) was often enchanting. And given my nearly lifelong fascination with Bob Fosse, the pull of the book was damn near irresistible.

And so I have emerged on the far side of Fosse even more depressed than usual.

If that is explicable due to its subject’s love affair with death, it is so only in part: I’ve long been conversant with that aspect of Fosse’s psychology. Indeed, as a more-than-somewhat obsessive aficionado of All That Jazz my first, uncensored thought when I heard, in the autumn of 1987, that Fosse had died was, Well, he finally got to fuck Angelique. Less than Bob Fosse’s own darkness, then, it was the sheer, almost unrelenting, piling up of incident that got to me; six-hundred pages’ worth of neurotic dissipation can do that to you.

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But is that due to Fosse — or to Wasson’s Fosse? When I read Kevin Boyd Grubb’s Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Works of Bob Fosse in 1990 I was certainly moved, but the principal emotion I felt afterward was exhilaration — the sense that Fosse’s best work, seen on film or experienced in the moment, mitigated his darkness, even his death. But in Fosse, that very work is itself buried under the relentlessness of detail. The book is not a poison-pen biography by any means. Yet what you carry with you is, not the indelible imagery the man left us but the overall, debilitating miasma of his life. Or, in any case, of the life Sam Wasson describes. In its way, Fosse is the literary equivalent of Star 80, the director’s 1983 meditation on the brief life and brutal death of Dorothy Stratten. The dread sets in early, and never abates.

The sense of unease begins with Wasson’s death-watch chapter titles, which open with “60 Years” and devolve from there; the last is “One Hour and Fifty-Three Minutes.” Any life can be measured in those terms, of course, and I suspect that no one would have appreciated those chapter headings more than Bob Fosse. They’re like those shock-cuts that recur in Star 80 and which so unnervingly portend a grisly finish that the viewer feels trapped in a hell too visceral to walk away from. This viewer did, anyway; the images, veiled and uncertain at first but attaining full and hideous definition by the end, still linger from my initial exposure 30 years ago. Although I didn’t care a great deal for Lenny, Star 80 is the one Fosse movie I simply cannot imagine ever sitting through again. The infamous open-heart surgery in All That Jazz was a jolly romp by comparison.

While Wasson sings the praises of Martin Gottfried’s Fosse biography All His Jazz and never once mentions Kevin Boyd Grubb in the text, his end-notes indicate that he has quoted from Razzle Dazzle extensively, if selectively. While it is true that Grubb’s book has been faulted for its errors, it at least had the virtue of having been written by an expert in dance, and not by a sexual neurotic: Gottfried, whose long and risibly suspect tendency to determine dread homosexual underpinnings in all things theatrical, and to oppose them rather hysterically, reached a kind of nadir in his review of Pippin which, notoriously, hailed Fosse’s staging as having returned choreography to a heterosexual norm at long, long last. The image one gets is of a Broadway theatre in which squads of screaming nellies, wrists limply a-flail, routinely invaded the stages of every musical, humping each other’s legs (and other body parts?) while Gottfried, aghast, watched, helpless and terrified.

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Ben Vereen and the Players in Pippin.

Wasson too, despite his avowed adoration of movie musicals, seems curiously loathe to approach homosexuality in any direct manner. For a field — dance — which has long attracted young gay men, that’s a striking omission. Fosse’s bête noire Michael Bennett is noted in the book as Donna McKechnie’s partner, and later as a notable loss to AIDS, but the leap from one to the other is entirely mental on the part of the reader. As is Wasson’s citing of Fosse’s jealousy over Ann Reinking’s relationship, whatever it was, with the dancer Charles Ward; Wasson tells us that other Fosse dancers assumed Ward was gay, but elides over that, never acknowledging as Grubb does that Ward was, for many of Fosse’s Broadway corps, their first friend and colleague to succumb to the virus.

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Fosse’s ambisexual corps in Dancin’.

Fosse was quoted (in a New York Times interview from the time of Pippin which Wasson ignores, and which Gottfried presumably never read) as — to use a certain recent Presidential term — evolving in his attitudes toward his gay dancers: “Always before if I found a male dancer I knew was homosexual, I would keep saying, no, you can’t do that, don’t be so minty there. This time, I used the kind of people they were to give the show individuality, and they were so happy about it. I think it helped the show.” In a book necessarily drenched in its subject’s sexuality and in his fascination with sex, this omission is telling.

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The sexy, brilliantly staged, and acted, invitation to a menage in Cabaret.

I don’t mean to belabor the point; after all, Fosse’s heterosexuality is integral to his work, and to the dances he created that occasionally scandalized the prudes, much as Joe Gideon’s “Take Off with Us” routine in All That Jazz shocks his collaborators. But, again, the slow realization, by audiences as well as the characters on-screen in All That Jazz, that Roy Scheider’s Gideon has actually done it, that he is going to depict two men and two women dancing romantic and sexual pas de deux in a musical was, in 1979, one of those absolutely galvanizing movie moments, like the achingly almost-ménage à trois in Fosse’s Cabaret, that heralded not merely tense anticipation and a gradually released pleasure in those movies’ gay audiences, but a complete relaxation about erotic variation on the part of the filmmaker himself.

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The mesmerizing male pas de deux in “All That Jazz.”

Which brings us rather neatly to the major disappointment of Fosse: While film-freak Wasson illuminates the making of Bob Fosse’s quartet of movies — all that “backstage stuff” — with admirable detail and scholarship, the finished products are not treated with the same consideration. This, from an author whose previous books exhibited a boundless enthusiasm for movies and a keen, if occasionally academicized, grasp of critique, is puzzling at best. Yes, Fosse is long already, but if that were the editorial concern I would note that the Houghton Mifflin typeface is generous, and could surely have been reduced to a fractionally smaller font. Overviews are sometimes dangerous, but in the case of a book like this, they’re almost de rigeur, especially as Wasson is too young to have seen Pippin or Chicago or Dancin’, or even Fosse’s Broadway swan-song, Big Deal, and is thus at a critical disadvantage in conveying his subject’s theatrical achievements. None of Fosse’s later shows, aside from a rather poor, scaled-down Pippin, was videotaped for posterity, even in the now-standard archival format; you’d either have to have been there or be the sort of writer John Anthony Gilvey proved in his superb Gower Champion biography Before the Parade Passes By, to produce the sensation of those historic dances by and for those who never got the chance to see them. But film is (at least for the moment) eternal, and each of Fosse’s quartet of movies is available for perusal and rife for commentary.

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Blane Savage, Ann Reinking, Charles Ward and Sandahl Bergman in Dancin’, photogrpahed by Martha Swope.

Wasson seems so intent on the shock value of ending Bob Fosse’s history, and his book, at the very moment of his death that nothing is said about his legacy in the 26 years since he left us. Surely, a word or two, if only in an epilogue, is due to what has been done with Fosse’s choreography, and his shows, subsequently: Say, the popular revue Fosse which, while preserving his choreography, also misinterpreted and diminished it. Or the phenomenally popular “stripped-down” Chicago revival, little more than staged concert but one that, nonetheless, proved the worth of the show decades after its chilly initial reception. Or the subsequent, rather facile and misguided (though also massively popular) movie version, made by people (such as Craig Zadan) with impeccable backgrounds in theatre who nonetheless felt the need to “explain” why the musical numbers existed. If you have to explain the reason for the numbers in a musical, why are you making a musical at all?

Fosse is, despite these many cavils, a thoroughly engrossing book. Wasson’s many interviews with Fosse’s friends, lovers, colleagues and dancers give it an aspect of laudable completeness and verisimilitude. I daresay that few recent books on the theatre have had greater scope, and Wasson’s organization and arrangement of these disparate details is more than admirable. (Think how much he must have had to leave out!) He allows those who loved Bob Fosse, even as he exasperated them, full sway to convey their emotions, some of them remarkably fresh decades after the fact. He also gives Fosse’s detractors enough rope to hang themselves quite nicely: Hal Prince claiming Fosse ran his entire oeuvre off the energy of his, Prince’s, original staging of Cabaret; Stephen Sondheim observing that he never bought Fosse’s darkness as anything other than a pose, and judging that the man who turned his own, much-remarked upon, physical limitations into a style “saw the last 20 minutes of Follies” and made a career out of it.

It is, finally, the numbing piling-on of dissipation that is the chiefest aspect of Wasson’s Fosse, and the most dispiriting. Thesis biographies, like thesis plays, rarely get beyond a narrow point of view; the thesis is all. Thus: The endless sexual conquests that make Bob Fosse seem like a real-life version of the Dean Martin “Dino” character in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s Kiss Me, Stupid, in danger of a headache if he doesn’t have sex every single night of his life. The insistence, odd in a man whose love of and respect for women suggests a kind of nascent, if foot-scuffling, feminism, on his partners’ absolute erotic fealty to him even as he indulged himself satyrically… and even as he recognized the absurdity in himself. Yet the gentle, apologetic visionary of Shirley MacLaine’s memoirs, the driven soul whose genius could be ruthless and cruel even as he was begging everyone’s pardon for it (“One more time, please… Forgive me”) is in scant evidence here, as is the filmmaker whose apotheosis of style in the service of content, the magnificent Cabaret, won him a deserved place in movie history and whose self-lacerating All That Jazz stands as a model of staggeringly effective cutting. Instead, we get: The chain-smoking that reached such heights of madness that, during periods of intense working concentration Fosse often burned his own lips. The drinking, the drugs. The manic-depression. All of it doubtless real, and much of it contributing both to Fosse’s self-made myth and to his early demise… but much of it as well repetitious to the point of authorial obsession.

As an adolescent, allowed to perform in the appalling world of Chicago burlesque, Fosse was likely initiated into sex at an early age, and in circumstances so exceptionally ugly even he lacked the intestinal fortitude to depict them fully in All That Jazz. This may or may not account for his love/hate relationships with women, but it is undoubtedly horrid, and terribly sad, and may go a long way toward explaining his life-long struggles with suicidal depression. “In today’s world,” Fosse was quoted in the late ’70s, “everything seems like some sort of long audition.” For him, that call-back process may have had its central metaphor in the approach/avoidance of death, but that didn’t make his accomplishments deathish.

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The first page of Bernard Drew’s 1979 American Film article on Fosse and All That Jazz.


 

If my response to Wasson’s book seems excessively personal, that’s because it is. Bob Fosse’s work has meant so much to me through the years that I feel compelled to defend him against what is, in the end, a biography more interested in the man’s personal flaws than his measurable achievement. I’m also aware that my veneration of Fosse is entirely subjective, and selfish; his gradual physical debilitation, as much as his death, deprived me of what I most wanted from him: More.

There is a great deal to admire about Fosse, but I wish the man whose best movies turned my head around and altered my world and whose self-indulgent, occasionally vulgar but utterly exhilarating Dancin’ I count as one of the seminal theatrical experiences of my youth, had gotten a more sympathetic biographer than Sam Wasson. “Sympathetic” in the sense, not of condoning his subject’s excesses as a man and as an artist or adorning him in mindless hagiography, but in the wider meaning: As one who expresses an understanding of the art itself, and knows that when dealing with a creative person the work, in the final analysis, is all that really matters.

Everything else is just marking time.

1Bob Fosse – All That Jazz

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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List, List, O List!: Being an Idiosyncratic and Annotated Compendium of 50 Essential Books on or About the Theatre, Sans Preamble and with a Preponderance of Musical Theatre Titles & an Unavoidable Focus on the work of Americans and Arranged by Sundrie Authors.

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By Scott Ross

Hollis Alpert, The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess.  A thorough history of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s “Broadway opera” (with a lyrical assist from Ira, leading to the Gershwin heirs’ ludicrous declarative title for the recent revival, The Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” which elicited a stern, and quite proper, rebuke from Stephen Sondheim.) The book is attractively put together in an over-sized format, with scads of photos. Included is the famous 1950s “goodwill tour” of Russia (which Truman Capote followed, and wrote up for The New Yorker) and the glorious 1976 Houston Opera production starring the rapturous Clamma Dale.

Amy Asche, ed., Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein I.  The most recent in Knopf’s beautiful series of coffee-table lyric collections, all of which are stylishly produced, contain breathtaking arrays of production photos and are as exhaustive as seems humanly possible.

A Pictorial History of the American Theatre

Daniel Blum, A Pictorial History of the American Theatre, 1860-1980 (New Fifth Edition; Enlarged by John Willis).  A huge volume in the Pictorial History series, noted for their thoroughness and their impossibly crowded pages of tiny photographs. Still, to leaf through one of these volumes is to be completely transported into the past.

Everything Was Possible

 

 

 

Ted Chapin, Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical “Follies.”  I have been obsessed with this show, to my mind the greatest of all musicals, since my teens. (Name-Drop Warning!) In an early ’80s letter, I suggested such a book to Stephen Sondheim, who replied that he didn’t think much of the idea, “especially after the fact.” How wrong he was! And how grateful we should all be that it was Ted Chapin who put this together. He was there. He saw. He knows. And his personal view of the proceedings makes for an immediacy and a comprehensiveness that are just about definitive.

Don Dunn, The Making of “No, No, Nanette.”  This one is dated by Davis’ smug, condescending and, frankly, bitchy remarks about “homos” in the theatre, and his frequent imputations to the many gay men involved in this successful revival of comically swish attitudes and over-the-top, camp enthusiasms. Be that as it may; until Everything Was Possible, this was the most complete accounting we’d ever gotten of the production, from conception to aftermath, of a single musical show. It’s all here: The back-stabbing and in-fights, the terrible realization early in rehearsals that Busby Berkeley was not the man for the job of staging, the sackings, and the battle royal between the peripatetic Harry Rigby and the rather monstrous Cema Rubin, which culminated in the heartbreak of Rigby’s losing the rights to his own show. I don’t know whether it’s a juicy backstager, a cautionary tale or just a decent job of reportage (those gratuitous homophobic tendencies notwithstanding) but it certainly is compelling.

Richard France, The Theatre of Orson Welles.  France’s is the only volume of which I am aware that concentrates solely on Welles’ theatre work, and despite its un-attractiveness as a book, the scholarship is as impeccable as the conclusions are, occasionally, biased against — and unfair toward — the author’s subject.

John Gielgud, An Actor and His Time.  Essentially a transcription of Gielgud’s multi-part BBC Radio program, this is a rich, informative, amusing and beautifully illustrated volume by and about one of the greatest actors of the last century. Not to be missed.

Jon Anthony Gilvey, Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical.  Gilvey writes about Champion’s work as though he’d been present for every show — an impossibility, given his age — and his descriptions of such seminal stagings as the opening of Carnival put you front row center, with an immediacy and a fulsomeness rare in books of this kind.

The Season

William Goldman, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway.  Another book that suffers from some dated attitudes, again in particular toward gay men. But Goldman’s complete accounting of a single season (1967-1968) is breezy, informative, fascinating and, at times, wildly funny. I discovered a Bantam paperback edition in a second-hand book shop at 16, and devoured it in record time, and with the ardor only the completely stage-struck can approximate. Or appreciate. The wealth of detail remains vivid nearly four decades later. What’s especially interesting now is that Goldman’s overview took in a season that was generally regarded as one of Broadway’s worst — yet how rarified a world it seems now, with all those plays opening. Not musicals. Plays. In retrospect, and despite his own frequent disappointment, Goldman’s season was, compared with today, a veritable Golden Age.

The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical

Mark N. Grant, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical.  Speaking of disappointment with contemporary Broadway… Grant, a composer, surveys the best of the great age of innovation with keen musicianship and some surprising findings (the fox trot as the source of the American Popular Song… who knew?) He then brings us to now, and despairs. Everything of which he quite properly complains is something I, and many others who work in and love theatre, have been kvetching about for years: The over-amplification, the nearly total reliance on song catalogs and hit movies as source material, the creeping amateurishness of and rock-style reliance on assonance by most contemporary lyricists, the soaring cost of tickets, the appalling behavior of audiences, the ubiquitous standing ovations for every show… With all that, and some pointed critiques of specific composers and librettists (even Sondheim comes in for a few, gently articulated and quite astute, knocks) I can even forgive Grant for his dismissal of Kander and Ebb.

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.  If, as the ad-meisters like to say, you only read one book on Shakespeare, let it be this one. Greenblatt’s scholarship and research are impeccable, his findings sometimes startling but always on point, and his appreciation of the playwright total and convincing. It’s also a richly textured depiction of Elizabethan England, with all its perils, and that rare volume by a heterosexual historian and critic to take in, appreciate and even commend, the seemingly fluid sexuality of the Bard. Invaluable and unique.

Otis Guernsey, Playwrights, Lyricists and Composers on Theatre.  An anthology of pieces from the Dramatist Guild Quarterly during the early ’70s, this one is especially notable for its delicious panel discussions by the participants of specific shows, and includes Sondheim’s Lyrics and Lyricists talk, in which (among other things) he illustrates how he took a beautiful piece of dramatic prose by James Goldman and transliterated it into the stunningly poetic lyric for Evening Primrose’s “I Remember.”

Moss Hart, Act One.  The great-granddaddy of all modern theatre memoirs. Hart, looking back from the perspective of the late 1950s, re-created his early days as the prototypical stage-struck young man, and his early collaboration with George S. Kaufman on Once in a Lifetime. It’s a sharp, witty, gloriously fulsome self-portrait with one interesting little curlicue: Nowhere in it does this healthy young American male mention dating a girl. In light of later revelations about Hart’s conflicted sexuality, that omission seems almost no omission at all. (See also: Steven Bach — Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart.)

Mary C. Henderson, Mielziner: Master of Modern Stage Design.  A gorgeous and profusely illustrated coffee-table tribute to one of the most important American scenic designers.

Hirschfeld on Line

Al Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld on Line.  A long look back, from the then near-centenarian. A huge volume, taking in everything from Hirschfeld’s early, “serious art” phase to the evolution of his utterly unique style of caricature, from the ’20s to the Aughts. When I was a teenager I used to wonder how, when this venerable and brilliant man passed, an actor would know he’d “arrived” without Al to sketch him. Little did I know then how many more decades Broadway hopefuls had in which to make that arrival. Treasurable.

John Kander and Fred Ebb with Greg Lawrence, Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz.  A lovely book, in which the most important and innovative songwriting team since the heyday of Bock and Harnick discuss their respective beginnings and their many superb collaborations. I’m deeply indebted to Greg Lawrence for getting them on the record while Ebb was still with us.

Robert Kimball, The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter.  One of the earliest of the Knopf volumes, and one of the best. Literacy, humor, astoundingly free-flowing inner-rhyme and hot sex have seldom been so wittily evoked, or invoked, in the musical theatre.

Robert Kimball, Cole.  A sumptuous, over-sized trove of photos and personal reminiscence by Porter’s friends and collaborators.

Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon, The Gershwins.  The companion to Cole in the beauty, style and completeness of its pictorial lushness.

Robret Kimball and Stephen Nelson, The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser.  Loesser was an anomaly: A full-time lyricist and amateur composer from the world of pop and Hollywood who came East and took Broadway by the throat with Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Each time he re-defined himself, and expanded the syntax of musical theatre expression: From brassy, Runyanesque Broadway to near-opera to potent satire that, nevertheless, was amusing enough not to worry all those tired businessmen who flocked to it. Loesser’s great run was brief, perhaps, but few have accomplished as much in so comparatively little time.

Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger and Eric Davis, The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer.  While Mercer was, like Frank Loesser, more a creature of Hollywood and Vine than Broadway and 42nd, he began in musical revues and made periodic visits. He wasn’t always as successful on the boards as on the sound stages (as he was the first to admit) but his lyrics to Harold Arlen’s magnificent score for St. Louis Woman alone would place him in the Pantheon. This is a book I wish to hell I’d had at my side when I was creating my own Mercer revue in the mid-’90s, transcribing all those songs by ear and, later, discovering with a pang that I’d blown some of them. (Pre-Google, who knew that “cute vest-pocket Mazda” referred to light bulbs?)

Journey to the Center of the Theatre

Walter Kerr, Journey to the Center of the Theatre.  As a critic, Kerr has his own naysayers, but he was an unusually intelligent and big-hearted reviewer, and this collection of his 1970s work on theatre (and, occasionally, film) amply illustrates why his readers were so devoted. I particularly treasure his anger at Paddy Chayefsky in 1971 for not writing all that great, rhetorical dialogue in The Hospital for the stage, and his re-evaluation of the lie at the center of the otherwise splendid Alice Adams: Who, he wonders, could possibly accept the pulchritudinous young Katharine Hepburn as a wallflower?

Miles Kreuger, “Show Boat”: The Story of a Classic American Musical.  This superb early ’70s work, fortunately reissued in time for the complete 1988 studio cast recording of the score on Angel. (Kreuger was an important contributor to that boxed set of LPs and discs.) Among the first, finest, and most beautifully appointed, books of its kind.

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John Lahr, Notes on a Cowardly Lion.  Lahr, then beginning his career as a critic, wrote this graceful, loving but remarkably clear-eyed portrait of his famous father just before Bert’s untimely death while shooting The Night They Raided Minsky’s. It captures a great clown in all his contradictory moods, his fabled insecurity, and his joyous genius. 40-plus years later it remains one of the most lucid, intelligent and compelling biographies of any theatre star.

John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton.  Switching gears completely, Lahr next concentrated on the transgressive British playwright, unapologetically gay and astonishingly prolific throughout his brief, meteoric rise. In a sense, this is a dual biography, since Orton’s life — and even his very death — were so inextricably commingled with that of his one-time lover and eventual murderer Joe Halliwell. Quoting liberally from Orton’s then-unpublished diaries and early novels, all of which the author would later prove instrumental in getting into print, Lahr paints an unblinking portrait of a genius and wit whose appetites for casual sex perfectly reflected his times but the details of which would doubtless have shocked his public, and may shock some even now. The book is of enormous importance, if only for rescuing an important modern playwright from near-oblivion.

Arthur Laurents, Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood.  Laurents was famously prickly, and his memoir percolates with anger and contrariness even as it celebrates the author’s own accomplishments, his friendships and collaborations, and paints an indelible portrait of post-war American movies and theatre, musical as well as “straight.” Laurents was unique among his gay peers for refusing to pass, and for not feeling he had to.

Alan Jay Lerner, The Street Where I Live.  Although his later biographer Gene Lees invoked the famous advice of the frontier newsman to James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”) as descriptive of Lerner’s memoir, it’s an irresistible volume for those who appreciate its author’s wit and rare literacy. Lerner certainly knew how to tell good stories about himself, and some of them may even have been true. Appended with a nice selection of lyrics from his best work.

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Lyle Leverich, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams.  The only unfortunate aspect of this glorious, revelatory biography is that its author did not live to complete a second volume. Leverich traces Thomas Lanier Williams from his earliest days to the heady success of The Glass Menagerie with such impeccable scholarship and understanding, both of his subject and his subject’s milieus, that you feel as though you’d never known anything about Tennessee before reading this book, and may never find out as much after.

Ken Mandelbaum, “A Chorus Line” and the Musicals of Michael Bennett.  Mandelbaum’s terrific biography of Bennett is also a riveting account of how the then-longest running of all musicals came into being. Bennett’s death from AIDS at 44 arguably robbed the American theatre of what might have been the ultimate popular maturation of the form.

William J. Mann, Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand.  Covering Streisand’s life and development only up to the end of her run in Funny Girl, Mann concentrates his formidable wit and skill on what, and who, made her, apart from her own, unassailable drive and self-belief. Scrupulously foot-noted, exhaustively researched, this is the sort of book one waits decades for, and which mere fannish hacks can never get near, let alone touch.

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Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg, Who Put the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz”?: Yip Harburg, Lyricist.  An important overview, and a long overdue biographic and critical assessment of one of the American musical’s most whimsical yet socially committed artists; the section on Finian’s Rainbow would, by itself, make this worth reading. The obvious affection for, and appreciation of, the subject (one of the co-authors is Yip’s son) does not, however, led to hagiography. Harburg was known to be difficult — his quirks of personality led his two finest musical collaborators, Harold Arlen and Burton Lane, to resist continued work with him — but his ultimate legacy is social comment buoyed by wit and charm. No one but Harburg could have created both Og the love-sick leprechaun and Flahooley, the Capitalist nightmare, let alone conceived of a world “Over the Rainbow” or written that anguished Depression-era cri de coeur “Brother, Can You Spare a Time?”

Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life.  Miller’s dramaturgy seems to me largely overrated and under-heated, especially when contrasted with the conflicted poetry of Tennessee Williams, his major post-war play-writing rival. But as an essayist and, here, as a memoirist, Miller carved out a niche particular to him, and in which he was most at home. His philosophical musings on friendship, betrayal, HUAC, Marilyn Monroe and the nature of dramatic theatrical expression occasion some of his finest writing. Fittingly, too, he wrote not a standard, linear autobiography but something approaching the labyrinthine manner in which memory itself so often works.

Ethan Mordden, Broadway Babies: The People Who Made the American Musical.  Mordden is the Ken Tynan of the American musical, even when, as in this book, he is annoying you with self-coined musical terminology (“numbo” here seems to mean “central aria” or, in the parlance, The Eleven O’clock Number, but where he came up with that one, no one knows) or making specious claims (Bibi Osterwald’s studio recording of Gypsy, he tells us, may reveal the best Mama Rose of them all, yet a lyricist friend tells me that when he asked Mordden about this, the author admitted he’d never heard the record) or, as lately, spreading the hack phrase, “So to say” with whorish indiscretion. For a long time, this overview of the great creators of the form was the standard reference — until, that is, his own subsequent volumes taking on the musical decade by decade, supplanted it.

Ethan Mordden, One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s.  The author’s periodic critical histories of the American musical by decade eventually led to this, the most anticipated volume: The one that takes in the ascendancy of Sondheim and the flowering of Bob Fosse’s genius.

The Fireside Companion to the Theatre

Ethan Mordden, The Fireside Companion to the Theatre.  One of the most well-thumbed books in my library, brimming with the author’s informed and idiosyncratic critical acumen. It’s all here, from Aeschylus to The Zoo Story, illuminated with wit and perspicacity. Mordden is particularly fine on O’Neill, but flip to any entry and chances are you will emerge hours later, having been inspired to skip to dozens of others.

George Plimpton. ed., Playwrights at Work.  This sublime collection of Paris Review interviews includes invaluable conversations on the craft with Thornton Wilder, Lillian Hellman, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and John Guare, among other (to me) lesser or more negligible figures (Sam Shepard, August Wilson, David Mamet and Wendy Wasserstein.) My copy is thick with Hi-Liter marks, and the collective wisdom contained herein is essential.

Hal Prince, Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre.  Perhaps prematurely, Prince recorded his memories of his work up to 1974. (His hunger years were just around the corner.) But as I regard him as the most important of the so-called “superstar” directors of the period, in his staging innovations and his embrace of more intelligent, thoughtful, and mature, content in the musical, his reminiscences are compelling, and fascinating.

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Frank Rich and Lisa Aronson, The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson.  Aronson’s work ranged from designs for the Yiddish theatre in the 1920s to The Diary of Anne Frank in the ’50s and ended with such groundbreaking Hal Prince shows as Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and what must constitute his (and Prince’s, and Sondheim’s) ultimate masterpiece, Follies. This sumptuous visual appreciation holds pride of place in my library.

Deena Rosenberg, Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin.  A beautifully produced appreciation of the Gershwins (the cover reproductions of period sheet music practically shimmer) this overview by the daughter-in-law of Yip Harburg and the Artistic Director and Executive Vice President of the Harburg Foundation is informed by the author’s expertise, her skill at examining the material, and her obvious love for it.

John Simon, Singularities: Essays on the Theatre, 1964-1974.  Simon’s obsessive concern with physical beauty, and his occasionally suspect pronouncements, which too often teeter on the edge of anti-Semitism, have served to detract from his very real erudition, brilliance, enthusiasm and love of the theatre. These essays, which encompass Ibsen, Cyrano de Bergerac, and that essentially indefinable but invaluable entity called charm, are Simon at his clearest and most perceptive.

John Simon, Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre 1963-1973.  All of the personal idiosyncrasies that mar Simon’s writing are here, of course, but his enthusiasms, knowledge and devotion to concision carry you past the more obvious (and even odious) affectations.

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Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Solomon’s expansive, informed and exciting evocations of Sholem Aleichem, the initially uncertain but ultimately triumphant creation of Fiddler, the making of the inevitable movie, and the show’s enduring impact down the decades makes for the finest book on musical theatre I’ve read in years.

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principals, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes.  Take note of that sub-title; he means it…. and he takes no prisoners. (Not for nothing did American Theatre magazine title its review of the book “Snide by Snide by Sondheim.”) But that is, literally, a sidebar. The bulk of this indispensable book are the lyrics themselves and their author’s explications of their generation. For a man who claims to be no sure writer of prose, Sondheim’s is sharp, incisive, rigorously intelligent, often witty and always engaging.

No Applause Just Throw Money


D. Travis Stewart (Trav S.D.), No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.  
This marvelous pop history, which I saw, unheralded in the theatre section at Borders, provided me more sheer pleasure than almost any comparable volume of its kind. Not that it has any comparable rivals. “Vaudeville is dead,” James Agee once complained of an annoying ’40s musical. “I wish to hell someone would bury it.” Trav S.D. exhumes the body, dusts it off, props it up and, through his own, witty alchemy, makes it animate again.

Steven Suskin, Opening Nights on Broadway: A Critical Quotebook of the Golden Era of the Musical Theatre, “Oklahoma!” (1943) to “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964).  Although Suskin is dismissive of Fiddler, among other landmarks, this fat omnibus of facts and contemporary newspaper reviews takes in every major musical offering (and many minor ones) between the advent of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the end of the era.

Jeffrey Sweet, Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and the Compass Players.  Discovering the Avon paperback reprint of this collection of interviews at 16 or so was one of those thunderclap experiences. I was enraptured for a week. To say that the Paul Sills, his mother Viola Spolin and the Second City improvisational theatre were influential is an understatement of staggering proportions. Virtually every major, important comedic performer of the 1960s, and a comparable number of 1970s comics (including virtually the entire original cast of NBC’s Saturday Night and many of their subsequent replacements, that show itself the greatest influence on comedy in the ’80s) came through its doors. The interviews are sometimes painful, often hilarious, and encompass Mike Nichols, Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, Alan Alda, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, David Steinberg, Gilda Radner, Del Close, Severn Darden, Paul Mazursky and Sills himself. Indispensable.

Kenneth Tynan, Tynan on Theatre.  A Penguin abridgment of Tynan’s 1961 collection of seminal reviews, Curtains, this collection is perhaps the single finest volume on Britain’s post-war theatre, with some sharp assessments of America added from Tynan’s brief engagement with The New Yorker. His opinions are infused with a lover’s besotted enthusiasm, cut with the skepticism of the too-often scorned, and informed by an erudition, and wit rare in reviewers on either side of the pond. Sample Tynan’s encomium to Orson Welles’ Moby Dick — Rehearsed (“With Moby Dick, the theatre becomes once more a house of magic”) and you may well be hooked for life.

Sam Wasson, Fosse.  This long, comprehensive, exceptionally well researched biography of a figure who has been one of my theatrical touchstones for decades, Fosse is endlessly fascinating and often problematic, but a must for aficionados of the man, his achievements, and musical theatre (and movie) history in the post-war era.

Arnold Wesker, The Birth of “Shylock” and the Death of Zero Mostel.  Wesker’s memoir of his ill-fated variation on The Merchant of Venice is both revelatory and heartbreaking. Written less in anger than in sorrow, the British playwright’s saga runs along a descending line, as Mostel struggles, uncharacteristically, with his lines, ultimately succumbing before the Broadway opening, and Wesker’s longtime director, the brilliant but insufferable John Dexter, abandons the troubled production for greener pastures.

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Craig Zadan, Sondheim & Co.  A week after checking out the original cast recording of Company from the public library at the age of 15 I was back to take out this seminal history of its lyricist-composer’s career up to 1973. (That a Broadway songwriter could eschew any easy rhyme like “life” and “wife” in preference for the surprising and appropriate “life” and “woman” took the top of my head off.) I perused my own paperback edition so often I practically had it memorized. No other book on the theatre meant more to me then, and no other has since.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Roxie Hart (1942)

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By Scott Ross

A highly stylized adaptation by Nunnally Johnson of the Maureen Watkins play Chicago, which Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb later transmigrated into their musical with John Kander – and which that venerated hack Rob Marshall betrayed with his inexplicably popular movie. (Which violated the very spirit of musicals by its idiotically literal insistence that the numbers be justified. Why do a musical, then?)

Directed with a rather surprisingly arch eye by William Wellman, it is, like the Fosse musical, a full-out attack on celebrity-worship, the law, the press, accepted pieties and the audience itself, which somehow got by the Breen Office censors – presumably because of the softened ending, which one can see coming fairly early on and which is, although “ironic,” a bit of a let-down, especially since the movie itself is so magnificently, sometimes wildly, funny. Ginger Rogers, fresh off her Oscar win (and just prior to her pluperfect three-point turn in Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor) looks spectacular, fully embraces Roxy’s cheapness and vulgarity, and has a great impromptu tap-dance on the jail-house stairs. (Although you can’t quite believe it; if Roxy is that good, why couldn’t she make it in show-biz?)

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Alfred Newman’s score incorporates, very wittily, some choice 1920s musical hits, and the great supporting cast includes Adolphe Menjou (as Billy Flynn), Lynne Overman as the chief louse among the reporters, Nigel Bruce, Phil Silvers as an peerlessly annoying press photographer, Sara Allgood (as “Matron” Morton), William Frawley, Spring Byington (as Mary Sunshine), George Chandler (as a rather rat-like Amos), George Lessey (as the Judge, who manages to get his face into every courtroom photo) and Iris Adrian (as “Two-Gun” Gertie.)

Roxie’s father, informed by telephone that his daughter has been arrested on a charge of murder, to his wife: They’re going to hang Roxie.

Roxie’s mother: What did I tell you?

Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

The picture’s ended (but the imagery lingers on)

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By Scott Ross

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When I first saw Alien in 1979, knowing almost nothing about it, and John Hurt gave birth to the chest-burster, I had my first attack of hyperventilation and nearly had to be taken out of the theatre. Seeing it again last night promoted me think of other movies whose introduction into my life were experiences so intense that their initial impact has never wholly faded. The reasons vary, but what unites these disparate threads is the simple power of images — the thing that has enthralled a hundred years of movie-going audiences. And even if, as I sadly believe, the movies’ best days are behind them, the images remain, behind the third eye as it were, always available for re-screening at the hint of mental recall. Here, the first titles that occur to me, and that had the greatest, and most lasting, impact.

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Mary Poppins  Very possibly the first movie I “saw,” at a drive-in with my parents, in the summer of either 1964 or ‘65. Being used to early bedtimes I fell asleep fairly quickly, but woke up to see the Banks children being approached by the old crone and menaced by the dog in the alley. When I saw it again, in the early 1970s during a reissue, that scene was still vivid in my mind. (As I also remember the “Step in Time” number, I think I stayed awake, as another Sherman Brothers’ song from the movie impelled, after that.)

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Irma La Douce  This was the second movie I remember “seeing,” again at a drive-in. Must have been in 1965, when it ran in a double-feature with Tom Jones. Again, I was asleep for most of it, but remember waking to see a woman with dark hair in a sleeping-mask. Fast-forward to 1972 or so, and watching it with the family on television. When Shirley MacLaine put on the sleeping mask, I had an instant flashback to that night at the drive-in. Imagine: one of my earliest movie memories is of a racy comedy about a Parisian prostitute and her mec!

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The Wizard of Oz  On my first viewing, around age 5, I was so terrified of Margaret Hamilton’s witch I hid behind the sofa whenever she was on-screen. I did the same thing, 3 years or so later, when Darby O’Gill and the Little People was reissued, crouching down on the theatre floor at the first sight of the wailing banshee, and begging my sister to tell me when it was gone.

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Pinocchio  One of the first movies I saw in North Carolina after the family moved there from Ohio in 1971. The transformation of Lampwick into a donkey stayed with me for decades. A nightmare sequence, terrible in its delineation of panic, terror and hopelessness. Only later, as an adult, did I come to appreciate the totality of this exceptional achievement, its beauty and its astonishing pictorial texture.

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1776  
Say what you will about this one, to have my way at the age of 11, when I was just beginning to become immersed in theatre, musicals, movies and American history, the picture was an instant touchstone.

 

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Cabaret  I saw this on a reissue, the night after having seen the musical play on which it is based in a surprisingly fine a dinner-theatre production, a present for my 12th birthday. At first I was disappointed; the movie was so different. I had been an avid listener of the 1967 cast album, borrowed repeatedly from a local library, and I missed those songs, particularly Lotte Lenya’s. (I was not yet the Isherwood maven I would become.) But it grew on me, steadily. I was absolutely dazed by Bob Fosse’s staging, editing and choreography, unaccountably both titillated and disappointed by the ménage that never happens, and highly amused when Michael York exploded, “Oh, screw Maximilian!”, Liza Minnelli responded coolly, “I do,” and York, after an initial shock, smiled and riposted, “So do I.” That exchange also tickled by best friend, with whom I saw the movie, and for personal reasons it would take me some time to understand… as it would to comprehend my own, nascent and very buried, sexuality.

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Gone with the Wind  Love it, loathe it, dismiss it or embrace it, to see this movie on a big screen, at 13, with my mother and sister, was one of the most intensely memorable experiences of my early adolescence. The dolly-in close-up on Clark Gable’s grin (“Wow!” I whispered to my mother); Hattie McDaniel’s big, broad face; the removal of the Confederate soldier’s leg; the massive crane shot of Scarlett at the depot; the burning of Atlanta; the collapse of her horse as she sights Tara; the shooting of the renegade Union soldier; Scarlett’s “morning after” smile; her fall down the stairs; the deaths of O’Hara, Bonnie Blue and Melanie. When one is older, one can also roll one’s eyes at the appalling “happy darkies workin’ for Massa” aspects, but also more fully appreciate the rich humor of the thing, and the sheer prowess David O. Selznick showed in putting it together.

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Jaws  Seen in 1975, when it opened. Sure, I remembered poor Ben Gardner’s head scaring the bejeezus out of Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw being eaten whole. But the images that haunted me were: The shots of Roy Scheider trying to see past the beach-goers obscuring his field of vision; the stunning close-up, a few moments later (a simultaneous zoom-forward/dolly-back) of Scheider’s face as little Alex Kintner is attacked; and the scene of Scheider racing to the estuary. I think Spielberg’s direction really introduced me that day to the power of moving-picture images on a technical as well as emotional level.

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Marathon Man  The first “R”-rated movie I saw, in 1976. The sense of unnerving terror that permeates the narrative, exploding here and there as it unfurls, driving toward a violent, ironic climax, kept me in a tight grip throughout. Although I had read William Goldman’s popular novel before seeing this re-imagining of it (which he also wrote) and knew more or less what to expect of plot and character, nothing prepared me for the creeping dread, nor the elegantly shot and edited set-pieces with their seemingly incongruous blood and violence and horror, that John Schlesinger brought to it. Pauline Kael complained that director and film were a mis-match; that Schlesinger’s direction was too stylish and accomplished — too sumptuous, and serious — for what she regarded as pulp material, but I demur. It is precisely the luminous, autumnal glow and gleaming elegance of surface that make the ensuing action of the movie so uniquely disturbing and disorienting.

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind  Deliberately knowing as little as I could about it, I saw this one on its second weekend. (Although my loose-lipped high school newspaper adviser, who’d seen it the opening week, spoiled the Devil’s Tower mystery for our entire class.) When you aren’t aware, in advance, of whether the visitors are malign or not — and, really, even if you are — the sequence in which little Barry is abducted is absolutely terrifying. When the screws on the floor heating vent unscrewed by themselves, sending poor Melina Dillon into a justifiable panic, we were right there with her. Yet this is the most benign of all UFO movies, and, for me at 16, the most completely entrancing movie I had ever seen.

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An Unmarried Woman  I saw this one solo, as was often the case at that time. I was working at a local movie theatre, had a pass, and went to damn near everything. While by no means a humorless feminist tract, Paul Mazursky’s magnificently textured exploration of what happens to one, rather typical New Yorker, when her husband of many years dumps her for a younger woman was revelatory. It seemed impossible for a man — a modern writer, anyway — to have conceived it, let alone writing and directing so complete a portrait. I went back to it over and over, always bringing a woman with me (my sister, once, close friends at other times.) It feels now as though the movie came from another time, or a distant planet, where it was not only possible to make such things, but to get large numbers of people, of both genders, to see and to love them.

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Alien  I know I run the risk of admission to fogiedom when I say this, but for anyone who wasn’t there in 1979, it’s almost impossible to describe the impact Alien had on we who saw it when it was new. The working-class grunginess, the slowly building terror, the genuine shocks, the unsettlingly sensual biomechanical Giger designs, and the sheer, unholy scale of the thing, were unlike anything we’d ever seen before. It was the anti-Star Wars, the acid-bath flip-side of Close Encounters. Movies were tough then, but seldom quite this tough — or this unrelentingly dark and claustrophobic. Few movies I’ve seen before or since have had that kind of impact. And they did it all by hand.

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All That Jazz  My Star Wars — the movie I saw repeatedly over the first year or two of its release, and never tired of. For a budding playwright, besotted with theatre and longing to secure my own place in it, this mad, flamboyant epic, with its incendiary editing, hallucinatory structure, and obsession with death, became for me a kind of rite of passage.

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Richard Pryor in Concert  Pryor’s first solo effort was, and remains, the single funniest movie I’ve ever seen. We were, quite literally, falling, if not out of our seats, at least so far forward in them we risked serious injury, and our faces ached from laughing for some time afterward. Genius, unfettered and unrestrained, given full play, as it never was in any of Pryor’s more traditional narrative movies, which somehow could not meet, match or contain the troubled meteor at their center.

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GoodFellas  Arguably the most exhilarating tour de force movie of its decade. No one limns the easy allure of crime, or the shocking availability and prevalence of sudden violence quite like Scorsese.

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Lawrence of Arabia  I’d seen it once, on a very small, black-and-white television. I was given the widescreen cassettes of David Lean’s restoration as a birthday present, and to call that an improvement on my initial exposure would be comparable to noting that a sachertorte beats a Moon Pie. But finally getting to see the “Director’s Cut” on a big screen, in a theatre, knocks every previous viewing from the memory, replacing it with splendor few movies ever provide — not merely the stunning desert vistas or the big set-pieces, but the enigma at its center, exemplified (if never fully explained), by Peter O’Toole’s magnificent performance.

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The Wild Bunch  Another “Director’s Cut” experience, and one that left me literally, not figuratively, dazed for about a week afterward. No other movie I know, even Scorsese’s, is more concerned with violence — its effect as well as its execution. From the opening massacre, and the dreadful sight of the scorpions beset by an army of ants that forms perhaps too easy a metaphor but remains indelible, to the horses falling to the water, to the final walk of the Bunch and their terrible end, Sam Peckinpaw had me by the throat, and kept on choking.

Tired of being disappointed, over and over and over, I go to few new movies now. Two, I think, in the past six or seven years. But in a sense, I really don’t need to. I’m not an adolescent or a thrill-junkie, and anyway, the imagery that remains embedded in my memory from forty and more years ago and remains so vivid still does not require jostling, and certainly not replacing. I’m still discovering older movies, on disc, that, whatever their age, are new to me and they more than fulfill my requirements, so it isn’t that I’m not open to new images. But with such a rich store, I just don’t need them.

Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

All That Jazz (1979)

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By Scott Ross

Bob Fosse’s great, outrageous semi-autobiography — an act of public navel-gazing unparalleled in American movies. It’s not exactly a flattering self-portrait. Fosse’s alter ego, Joe Gideon, is driven, occasionally cruel, self-lacerating, priapistic, and more than half in love with easeful death. (Of course, when Death looks like Jessica Lange, what heterosexual man wouldn’t flirt?)

Since Joe is played by the enormously appealing Roy Scheider, the rougher edges of his character are, if not explicable, at least forgivable. Leland Palmer, playing a lightly fictionalized Gwen Verdon, gives a smashing performance; the exhilarating sequence in which she points out Joe’s inability to maintain a semblance of fidelity, all the while performing sinewy dance exercises, is one of my very favorite moments in all of American movies.

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The splendid supporting cast includes Anne Reinking pretty much playing herself and showing off the most delectable pair of dancing thighs since the heyday of Cyd Charisse; the late Anthony Holland as the show-within-a-movie’s hysterical, nelly composer/lyricist (a somewhat vicious, seeming admixture of Stephen Schwartz and Fred Ebb); Max Wright as an only slightly less self-contained movie producer; John Lithgow as an oily rival director; Wallace Shawn as an accountant contentedly pointing out that Gideon is worth more dead than alive; Cliff Gorman — Fosse’s preferred Lenny Bruce, until the money-men vetoed him — as Dustin Hoffman (more or less); the charming Erzebet Fioldi as Gideon’s adolescent daughter; and the great Sandahl Bergman as his principal dancer. (Fosse’s real-life dance captain Kathryn Doby works here in the same capacity on-screen.) Lithgow’s character could be almost any hot stage director of the time, from Mike Nichols down, but just for the sake of confusion, he wears glasses on the top of his head exactly as Hal Prince does.

This is one of those pictures people at the time either loved, or hated. I loved it. I was 18, theatre-mad, Fosse-bedazzled (I had seen Dancin’ on my first trip to New York just before the movie opened nation-wide) and I’d never encountered anything like it. Among the many memorably shot and edited set-pieces, take one at random: The long sequence around the read-through table as the cast of Gideon’s new show falls about with laughter. Fosse drops out all the sound except for Scheider’s breathing, the tapping of his nervous finger, the scrape of his chair across the wooden studio floor, the crushing of a cigarette under a boot and the abrupt snapping of a pencil. For anyone who’s ever been in circumstances remotely like those Joe Gideon faces at that moment, or experienced a panic-attack, the total effect is instantly comprehensible: Flop-sweat intensifies the minutest details.

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Erzebet Fioldi and Anne Reinking in mid-jump.

This is one of those pictures people at the time either loved, or hated. I loved it. I was 18, theatre-mad, Fosse-bedazzled (I’d seen Dancin’ on my first trip to New York just before the movie opened nation-wide) and I’d never encountered anything like it. Among the many memorably shot and edited set-pieces, take one at random: The long sequence around the read-through table as the cast of Gideon’s new show falls about with laughter. Fosse drops out all the sound except for Scheider’s breathing, the tapping of his nervous finger, the scrape of his chair across the wooden studio floor, the crushing of a cigarette under a boot and the abrupt snapping of a pencil. For anyone who’s ever been in circumstances remotely like those Joe Gideon faces at that moment, the total effect is instantly comprehensible: Flop-sweat intensifies the minutest details.

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Ann Reinking. The body is hers, all right, but the style is all Fosse’s.

The “Take Off with Us” number, growing out of the aforementioned Scheider-Palmer scene, didn’t just push the buttons of the characters on the screen; the same-sex pas de deux caused ripples of nervous laughter and little exclamations of disgust at more than one screening (I saw the movie repeatedly) and I was deeply impressed by Fosse’s willingness, at that time, to go that far, and with his dancers for trusting him that much.

Fosse’s co-author on the screenplay was Robert Alan Arthur, Tony Walton designed the often-hallucinatory sets, the superb arrangements are by Fosse’s longtime collaborator Ralph Burns, and the sumptuous cinematography was by Giuseppe Rotunno. The movie Fosse/Gideon edits is clearly meant to be Lenny, just as the show on which he is working is pretty obviously Chicago.

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Some said that opening cattle-call audition sequence owed too much to A Chorus Line, which had beaten Chicago at the Broadway box-office (and Tony Awards) in 1975, but I demur; the more you know about Bob Fosse, the truer to his methods it rings.

All other text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross