Bob Fosse: Magic To Do

Tenn in Conversation
New Orleans

I don't remember when I first met Bob Fosse--Bobby, we called him--but it now seems that I have known him forever. He is one of those people who is always at the center of everything: parties, opening nights, arguments, helping other people with shows that are, as they say, in trouble. Bobby has even come in to tell me what was wrong with certain of my plays. His eyes and his ears are sharper than almost anyone else on earth, and he has never been wrong in knowing when to conclude a sentence, bring down a curtain, rush a monologue. I trust him implicitly.

Bobby always invited me to his shows, and I almost always went. I fell deeply in love with Pippin, coming as it did during a particularly repellent period of creative drought through which I was inelegantly passing. God, what a marvel that show was! That remarkable opening scene, with hands aglow with soft, beautiful light--better than Cocteau had ever wanted magic to be. And Ben Vereen, a rare combination of the sexual and the sweet. Oh, to be seduced and swindled by the likes of Ben Vereen.

Bobby sent me the album of Pippin. To keep the show in your heart and in your head, he told me. It's not simply that I love the songs in that show: To listen over and over and notice how the words tumble into place like dice that have been enchanted is to understand how to write sentences. I wore the album out, along with the patience of a few of my house guests. Magic To Do is so extraordinary. You can move to it, even while still. If that isn't praise for Bobby and for Stephen Schwartz, I don't know what is. Corner of the Sky is heartbreaking, but not, I would like to add, as done by the Jackson child. [Tenn was referring to the hit single of that song, performed by Michael Jackson.] Some well-meaning friends sent me that version, under the delusion they were doing me a favor. I preferred John's [Rubinstein] plaintive quaver and pure heart.

Bobby believes that everything emanated from the dance, from the body. He shares this belief with Martha Graham, and little else, save genius. Those who perform opera feel that that is the art form from which everything derives and to which everything returns, to find its fullest expression. I imagine that I feel that drama--the play--is much the same. We are all correct. When anything is done well in the arts, it contains multitudes, everything, and those who watch it never know what may come at them.

Bobby makes wonderful films, too. Films only amplify how good his eyes and his ears are. If only he had made the film of [The] Milk Train [Doesn't Stop Here Anymore.] We would have understood it all much better. Even I would have understood it much better. You haven't lived until you've had Bob Fosse explain your work to you. It's exhilarating.

I would study him if I were you. Not a moment would be wasted.

And listen to Pippin. It helped me to write.

At some point in the 1970s, on a muggy, drunken night in Key West, Bob Fosse and Jessica Lange were walking across a parking lot when they spied an older gentleman in a heavy coat, walking unsteadily with two very young, scantily clad young men on either side, holding him up, humoring him. It was Tennessee. The boys were dressed like chorus members from Li'l Abner: tight, white shirts, denim cutoffs. Lange prevailed upon Fosse to introduce her to her favorite playwright. Fosse complied, at which point Tennessee focused on the pretty young actress and said "Hello, I'm Tennessee Williams," and then looking balefully at his company, "and these are the dregs." Tenn believed this was his last meeting with Fosse. 

©2013 by James Grissom
From Artistic Suicide


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