IN 1973, Bob Fosse became the first — and still the only — director to win a Tony (two, actually, for the direction and choreography of Pippin), an Oscar (for Cabaret), and an Emmy (for Liza with a Z) all in the same year. In 1979, Fosse released his iconic autobiographical film, All That Jazz. Although he was only 60 when he died, Fosse had created a vast and influential body of work, much of it in collaboration with his third wife, actor and dancer Gwen Verdon.

This spring, a team of Broadway talent joined forces to tell the story of that power couple in Fosse/Verdon, an eight-episode cable TV series that premiered on FX in April. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, and Steven Levenson served as the executive producer, executive producer/director, and writer/show runner, respectively, for the series, which was based on Sam Wasson’s award-winning biography Fosse.

Dramatics spoke with Broadway performers Ben Vereen, Chita Rivera, and Michelle Potterf about the nine-time Tony Award-winning director, to hear their favorite Fosse stories and their insight into why his influence continues to shine.


Thirty-two years after his passing, Fosse’s legacy continues to serve as a blueprint for today’s talent, from Beyoncé’s 2008 video for “Single Ladies,” which features Fosse steps, to the current Broadway musical The Prom, in which a character sings, “Ask what would Bob Fosse do? He’d make the people have a step-ball-change of hearts.”

The Chicago native began his career in the early 1950s with shows like The Pajama Game (1954) and Damn Yankees (1955), but it was his projects from the late 1960s and 1970s that catapulted the Fosse style to the masses, evidence of his strong work ethic and relentless drive for perfection.

“I first met Bob at the Palace Theatre in New York,” Vereen said. “I was auditioning for Sweet Charity. Bob taught the whole dance combination with a lit cigarette in his mouth. The ashes never fell. He was very smooth like that.” Vereen got the part in the touring production and later in the 1969 film version — followed by lead roles on Broadway in Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Bob Fosse in front of the Dancin’ marquee (1978), Fosse and Gwen Verdon rehearsing New Girl in Town (1957), and Verdon in the film of Damn Yankees (1958). All photos courtesy of Photofest.
Bob Fosse in front of the Dancin’ marquee (1978), Fosse and Gwen Verdon rehearsing New Girl in Town (1957), and Verdon in the film of Damn Yankees (1958). All photos courtesy of Photofest.

In 1972, a new opportunity came for Vereen when Fosse asked him to read for Pippin. Initially, Vereen’s agent tried to talk him out of it. “He told me, ‘There is no chance that this is gonna make it.’” Vereen defied his agent, declaring, “If Bob’s doing it, I’m doing it.” Not that he necessarily expected to be cast.

“I didn’t go into the audition to get the role,” Vereen said, “but rather to show Bob how much I had grown since he first saw me. … I just wanted to show Bob what I had learned. He asked me to read for Leading Player. My reading wasn’t very good, but Bob said, ‘So what?’ Next thing I knew, I was doing Pippin.” Under Fosse’s direction and choreography, Vereen clinched a Tony Award for his performance.

Vereen recalled with fondness that “no matter what background you came from, Bob would spend time to make sure that you got it.” As a modern dancer, Vereen found Fosse’s moves difficult. “I was all over the place, but Bob told me not to worry about it. He quieted me down. He quieted us all down. He gave us style and taught us that less is more — but his less was so precise.”

In 1973, Ben Vereen won a Tony for his lead performance in Pippin, for which Bob Fosse also won Tonys for directing and choreography. Photo courtesy of Photofest.


By the time two-time Tony winner Chita Rivera met Fosse, she was already an accomplished performer, having starred on Broadway in West Side Story and Bye Bye Birdie. She had also worked closely with choreographers Jack Cole, Michael Kidd, and Jerome Robbins. Still, she remembers how challenging it was to perfect Fosse’s style.

“The moves had to be as small as he wanted,” Rivera explained. “It was the difference between someone yelling and someone whispering — and it was very sexy. You had to fill the vessel with your spirit and energy, and you had to like what you were doing with every single movement. You couldn’t let Bobby’s style carry the move. You had to carry it.”

Like Vereen, Rivera was cast in Fosse’s film Sweet Charity, the story of a group of taxi dancers dreaming of a better life that included Cy Coleman’s brassy showstopper “Big Spender.” As Rivera recalled, “There was a gorgeous girl in the cast. We were told that, when the everyman walks into the dancehall, we had to stop and stare at him and not blink our eyes. The scene was to have great intensity. This girl just couldn’t stop blinking her eyes and selling herself. Well, the next day of filming, she wasn’t there. She was gone in the wind. Bob wasn’t a cruel guy, but he knew that she wasn’t going to work out. It was those tiny little things that were so important to him. He wanted it picture perfect.”

Paula Kelly as Helene, Shirley MacLaine as Charity, and Chita Rivera as Nickie in Bob Fosse's feature film directorial debut, the 1969 musical Sweet Charity, which he also choreographed.
Paula Kelly as Helene, Shirley MacLaine as Charity, and Chita Rivera as Nickie in Bob Fosse's feature film directorial debut, the 1969 musical Sweet Charity, which he also choreographed. Photo courtesy of Universal/Photofest.

To listen to Rivera, it would seem that Fosse found his perfection in Verdon. “There’s only one Gwen Verdon. I’ve done the part of Charity, but she blew the first breath of life into that character. I doubt that anyone has ever been as cute or as sexy as Gwen. We did Can-Can together, and I was in the wings all the time watching her. Years later, I found myself in a hat and cane right beside her in Chicago. That’s something to be remembered and appreciated.”

Rivera also recalled how Verdon helped Fosse direct. “I’ll never ever forget her on set, watching from a ladder and looking over everybody’s heads, so Bobby could find the best camera angle. It was wonderful to see them sharing their knowledge with one another.”

In Wasson’s biography, he described Verdon as “the living illustration of a burgeoning style that few, including Fosse, could put into words.” Dancer Elmarie Wendel told Wasson that Fosse “would come up with something and show it to Gwen, and she would knock herself out to do it. She did it for us better than he had shown it to her.”

Chita Rivera (left) co-starred as Velma Kelly alongside Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart in Chicago.
Chita Rivera (left) co-starred as Velma Kelly alongside Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Photofest.


In Fosse, Wasson quoted another dancer who told him that Fosse “would spend three hours on two counts of eight. … He would fix the height of the leg, the height of the fingers. Are they spread? Are they together? Is your hand at shoulder level; is it at ear level? He would fix the foot. Don’t point with the toe; point with the heel. You’re not lifting together. Don’t turn out, turn in. Keep the knee forward to the audience. You want to punch the balcony with your knee.”

Sometimes, as Rivera said, “it’s so much harder to make things very simple. By the time you’ve rehearsed his movement all day long, it can be exhausting — especially in your brain. You have to get that tiny little feeling that goes from the top of your body to the tip of your toes. Every single day, it has to be alive and fresh.”

Michelle Potterf, who danced in the current Broadway revival of Chicago, can attest to that feeling. “The precision required is tiny. The isolations, the snaps — all of it has to be perfect, or it could be boring. It must be very specific and very intentional, or the movement doesn’t mean anything. It’s much harder than you think.”

During her 10 years with Chicago, Potterf worked closely with Rivera and Vereen, as well as Fosse protégée Ann Reinking. “I literally learned everything from Reinking,” Potterf said. “I just sponged off her teachings. I took every ounce of information she gave me, listened to her stories, watched her style, and studied the way she moved.”

Sam Rockwell starred as Bob Fosse and Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon in the FX Network series Fosse/Verdon.
Sam Rockwell starred as Bob Fosse and Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon in the FX Network series Fosse/Verdon. Photo by Eric Liebowitz.

Potterf also had the fortune of working with other original Fosse dancers Sandahl Bergman, Cheryl Clark, and Dana Moore. “Those ladies were gods in my eyes. They had such great memories and told us what he really wanted and how he wanted them to look. There is a Fosse walk, which includes turned-in knees, pigeon toes, and arms swinging back and forth behind the back. There are also hip thrusts and jazz hands, soft-boiled egg hands, hip isolations, shoulder rolls, and wrist twirls.”

According to Potterf, Fosse preferred ballet dancers for their technical skill, but his moves presented quite the challenge for them. “Dancers in general like to make long, elegant lines. He took that and turned it upside down. He liked angles. He created the turned-in knee style, which, I was told, was because he was naturally pigeon-toed. He took what he had and made it work. He was also naturally slump-shouldered. Dancers spend their entire lives in classes on turning out their legs. Fosse turned it all in.”

These movement reversals created physical challenges. “After many years of performing Fosse’s repetition, your hips and knees take a real beating,” Potterf said. “Because it is so angular, it’s harder to hold than standing up straight. It’s naturally bad posture. A good dancer has to keep up with ballet as well as with the Fosse style, to counterbalance the muscles, tendons, and hips. I never had any major surgeries or injuries, but many of my fellow Chicago cast members did. All of us saw an acupuncturist, chiropractor, and massage or physical therapist at least weekly, if not daily.”

Currently, Potterf is head of dance in the Musical Theatre Conservatory of the New York Film Academy. “My students often ask how I was able to sustain a 10-year career solely focused on his movement. I tell them that I couldn’t have if it wasn’t Fosse. He was a special choreographer who was innovative and kept things interesting. That’s the reason I kept doing it.”

In her spare time, Potterf now teaches the Fosse style at Broadway Bodies, a New York studio that combines cardio workouts with Broadway choreography. Her students range from teens to seniors. “People just love it. Non-dancers and people who just love musical theatre want to know how to do a Fosse walk. It can’t necessarily be mastered by anyone walking down the street, but it is accessible. There aren’t a lot of kicks, leaps, and turns. It’s more pedestrian, so I think that the average person can learn it.”

Potterf is not the only one striving to keep Fosse’s spirit alive. “Students who are serious about theatre should know about the greats like Jack Cole and Bob Fosse,” said Rivera. “It’s good for them to know that history and apply it to themselves. By experiencing other people’s experiences, it helps you to build and gives you courage to tell your story.”

Fosse himself adopted steps from Fred Astaire and other predecessors, yet he created a style uniquely his. “People try to imitate his work all the time and take it to another level,” Vereen remarked, “but there’s no such thing as taking it to another level; the fact is that it is the level.”

This story appeared in the June 2019 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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