From the deep archives: Bob Fosse’s DANCIN’

March 16, 2023

I could have sworn that I wrote a feature article about the lighting for Bob Fosse’s 1978 show Dancin’ (now in revival on Broadway) at the time of the first national tour. My memory of the show is that it was mildly entertaining with a sizzling show-stopping act three number set to Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” I looked high and low among my far-flung archives, and the only thing I found was my review of the pre-Broadway tryout for the Phoenix, which was…well, the headline was “Throwin’ the night away,” and the subhed was “Fosse shoulda known better.”

DANCIN’, a musical entertainment directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Music and lyrics by various artists. Scenery by Peter Larkin. Costumes by Willa Kim. Lighting by Jules Fisher. At the Colonial Theater through March 11.

Almost every musical Bob Fosse has directed since Sweet Charity has been praised for its staging and criticized for its book. But the script to Dancin’ is no more than a pamphlet; the only “book” involved is the one that should be thrown at Fosse for turning a potentially spectacular, all-dance Broadway show into a lame-brained revue studded with sleazy sex-skits — Hellzapoppin’ with humpin’.

Everything about Dancin’ sounds great. Sixteen top dancers in a celebration of show biz set to the music of composers ranging from J. S. Bach to Edgard Varèse to Cat Stevens, with choreography from Bob Fosse’s famous grab-bag of styles? One imagines — with considerable excitement — some combination of A Chorus Line‘s shameless high-stepping, Twyla Tharp’s fractured boogie, the Joffrey’s hybrid of classical technique and pop ballet, and Pippin‘s non-stop theatricality. And at its very best, Dancin’ lives up to such feverish expectations. “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which kicks off the last of three short acts and is set to the swing era classic, is a show-stopping blaze of precision ensemble dancing punctuated by an audaciously delicate tap duet; a loose-limbed, slump-shouldered trio; and the obligatory electrifying solo by Ann Reinking, who has several leaps during which she seems to hover in mid-air and then lurch to the stage as if from Mars. “Sing, Sing, Sing” is the kind of dance number that keeps you on the edge of your seat, completely enthralled.

Unfortunately, I spent much of the rest of Dancin’ cringing into the Colonial’s plush cushions. Apparently, Fosse got nervous about presenting an entire evening of dance and felt obliged to tell some stories. So he wrote some. They include “Welcome to the Big City,” in which a middle-aged rube visiting New York for the first time is harassed by hookers, masturbated by masseuses, groped by salesgirls, and mesmerized by strippers before being mugged and left lying in the street; “The Dream Barre,” in which a homely ballet student fantasizes that he is fucking the female student next to him as the dancer instructor counts time; and “Joint Endeavor,” in which three men and three women smoke pot and trade partners in a series of solemn, semi-pornographic pas de deux while several leather-coated figures stand around singing sinister versions of Melissa Manchester songs. I wish I could shrug off these sketches as outtakes from an as-yet-unfinished Fosse vehicle called Let My Danskins Come (or, You Gotta Have a Hard-on), but I can’t — they’re really offensive. Atrociously written, they have nothing to do with dancing and are appallingly sexist. (Thanks to Fosse’s surprisingly limited sexual imagination, several of Broadway’s finest female dancers spend endless stage time flat on their backs; thanks to Fosse’s dishonesty, this is a show about dancers that refuses to acknowledge some of them are gay.)

Then there is the show’s finale, in which Fosse abruptly takes his hand out of his pants and places it over his heart for an astonishing salute to America called “Yankee Doodle.” The cast members sing and dance to a medley of patriotic songs and some of them have lines to say, such as “American women — boy, they are really something!” and “It might be corny and unsophisticated, but I’m proud to say that I’m an American.” This segment is not convincing (it is pseudo-patriotic in the same way that “Welcome to the Big City” is pseudo-cynical), nor is it satirical — or meant to be. Perhaps scene designer Peter Larkin simply wanted to create a huge eagle to fly in and flap its wings. Or perhaps Fosse really has deceived himself into thinking this is what a Broadway audience wants at the end of the show. How sad.

There is surprisingly little in Dancin’ that falls between the very good (the opening of each act) and the very bad. The show’s flaws could be eliminated by a few drastic measures: 1) cut out any and all dialogue; 2) delete all of the imitation Oh! Calcutta! sequences and 3) replace the raggedly performed live music with recordings. That would leave a short but stunning two-act musical, instead of a blot on the career of a choreographer with more talent than brains.

Oddly enough, the choreography in Dancin’ very rarely draws on the slinky, turned-in style most associated with Fosse; there is plenty of crotch-bumping and ass-shaking, but it is more rhythmic and less menacing, partly because of the different musical styles. Some of the songs could be better chosen. Edgard Varèse is just not very interesting to dance to, and Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” is too obvious. Predictably, Fosse seems happier with the jazzy material; “Big Noise from Winettka” inspires a nifty trio, and the previously mentioned “Sing, Sing, Sing” is the show’s highlight. The dancers are invariably superb, though Ann Reinking is deservedly the unspoken star. It does, however, seem a little unfair that she gets all but one of the female solos; René Ceballos, who projects all the best qualities of a circus showgirl, deserves to be seen more. Wayne Cilento is outstanding, and Blane Savage and Charles Ward, both unusually large and athletic dancers, work together often and splendidly.

Quote of the day: DEMOCRACY

March 14, 2023


When I was making What Is Democracy? I interviewed some young Republicans. I don’t normally talk to twenty-two-year-old Trump supporters, and I assumed that they were going to give me the conservative spiel that democracy is free markets and everyone having a chance to duke it out in the marketplace and trickle-down economics and blah, blah, blah. Instead they told me they don’t like democracy, because democracy is about the majority wanting to improve their situation, and they, the young Republicans, are part of a minority of affluent white people. They literally mocked democracy on camera; that scared me.

They see capitalism as more valuable than democracy, because capitalism benefits them. And if the masses are empowered, they’re going to want to take rich white people down a peg. These young Republicans recognize that their status is dependent on others being impoverished. They recognize that if we had a popular vote in this country, and not the Electoral College, Republicans would not win the presidency. They recognize that controlling a majority of seats on the Supreme Court is essential to imposing their agenda. It’s not going to happen through mobilizing voters, because the policies they support are genuinely not popular.

What’s increasingly clear is that the far Right is abandoning democracy. It sees democracy as the enemy. It is a politics of aristocracy, a politics of hierarchy. I have gone on deep dives into far-Right subcultures online, and what they hate about democracy is the idea of equality at the center of it.

–filmmaker Astra Taylor, interviewed by Finn Cohen in The Sun

photo by Deborah DeGraffenreid

Quote of the Day: ART

March 1, 2023


A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth.

–John Singer Sargent

Quote of the day: JOURNALISM

February 20, 2023


You know what journalists do? They take the shit out of your mouth and they throw it in your face.

—Willem de Kooning

portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

In this week’s New Yorker:

February 9, 2023

As usual, the New Yorker’s anniversary issue (cover art by John W. Tomac) is stuffed with extra-good material:

  • Rebecca Mead on Lady Glenconner, intimate friend of the late Queen Elizabeth and author of a cheeky memoir called Lady in Waiting;
  • Leslie Jamison’s “Why Everybody Feels Like They’re Faking It,” on how the experience of “impostor phenomenon” — first studied by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes at Oberlin College — got pathologized as “impostor syndrome”;
  • Lawrence Wright’s long, excellent reported essay on “The Astonishing Transformation of Austin,” which shines a spotlight on several inspiring individuals fighting the good fight in Texas (such as Alan Graham, a former real-estate developer whose Community First! Village has built micro-homes for Austin’s burgeoning unhoused population); and
    • David Remnick’s up-close-and-personal profile of Salman Rushdie.

      The issue gets off with a bang: the ever-straight-shooting Washington correspondent Amy Davidson Sorkin’s commentary “The New G.O.P. Takes the Country Hostage with the Debt Ceiling.” We’ve been reading a lot on this subject, but rarely with as succinct and astute a paragraph as this:

      What’s remarkable, given that the Republicans are basically brainstorming a ransom letter, is how often they insert notes of fiscal sanctimony. “The debt ceiling is literally the nation’s credit card—it’s got a maximum,” Representative Steve Scalise said. It is literally not the nation’s credit card. When a card is maxed out, you can’t keep ordering goods and services, but Congress can, and does. The Treasury is not exceeding the debt limit because it has gone on a rogue shopping spree; it is trying to cover the spending that Congress has already approved. A better analogy would be someone who, faced with financial commitments—utilities, rent, child support—simply decides not to pay.

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