Robert Louis Fosse was born in Chicago, Illinois, on June 23, 1927. Bob was the youngest of six children and quickly learned to win attention from his family through his dancing. It was not long before he was recognized as a child prodigy.
His parents sent him to formal lessons, where he immersed himself in tap dancing. A small boy who suffered from nagging health problems, he nevertheless was so dedicated that by the time he reached high school, he was already dancing professionally.
The sexually free atmosphere of these clubs and the strippers with whom Fosse was in constant contact made a strong impression on him. Fascinated with vaudeville’s dark humor and teasing sexual tones, he would later develop these themes in his adult work.
Fosse was born into a star-struck family and, by his early teens, he was dancing in low-end burlesque houses, where he could closely observe the raunch that became part of his dance signature.
His choreographic style came from his life experiences, and musical tastes, but also from his own physical quirks and limitations. Fosse didn’t like his balding head, so he always wore his trademark hats. He was slightly round-shouldered (note the shrugs) and pigeon-toed (watch for the turned-in feet).
From the late 1960s to the late 1970s, Fosse created a number of ground-breaking stage musicals and films. These works reflected the desire for sexual freedom that was being expressed across America and were huge successes as a result.
Before Fosse, dance was always filmed either in a front-facing or overhead view. In his 1969 film version of SWEET CHARITY (Fosse’s 1966 stage version was based on an earlier movie by Italian director Federico Fellini, about a prostitute’s search for love; the film was commissioned by Universal Studios after the success of the stage version) and in later works, Fosse introduced unique perspective shots and jump cuts.
Fosse’s next film was Cabaret (1972), an ambitious adaptation of the Fred Ebb–John Kander stage success that itself had been based on the nonmusical play I Am a Camera—all of them derived from Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories.
The musical, which was set in 1930s Berlin during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, starred Liza Minnelli, who was a revelation as the “divinely decadent” Sally Bowles, an ambitious nightclub performer who becomes involved with a British writer (Michael York).
Joel Grey was unforgettable as the leering cadaverous master of ceremonies, and the new songs (“Mein Herr” and “The Money Song”) by Ebb and Kander were especially notable.
Fosse, however, was clearly the film’s creative centre. Cabaret featured imaginative showstopping numbers and, like most of Fosse’s work, dealt with the seamier side of show business, presenting adult themes rather than the lighthearted romantic fare typically associated with musicals.
Fosse’s expressive, sometimes exaggerated use of camera movement, editing, and garish colour and lighting visually accentuates the decay and ugliness of the story.
In 1975–77 he cowrote (with Ebb), directed, and choreographed Chicago, a musical set in the 1920s about two female murderers (Verdon and Chita Rivera) who manipulate the press to win acquittals.