Thursday, March 31, 2022

Showbiz Against Showbiz - Bob + Lenny

Watching the TV series Fosse/Verdon, I noticed a thread of anti-theatricality in the life 'n' work of the dancer-choreographer-director. Bob Fosse seems to have had a compulsive need to inject reality into showbiz - sour notes of the sordid and grotesque, the abject and corrupt.  Among his singular achievements is that Cabaret was the first movie musical to be given an X Certificate. 

Yet equally Fosse was unable to abandon showbiz completely. Indeed his chosen artform was the most artificial form of it, musical theater. In real life, nobody breaks out into a song-and-dance routine. Fosse loved all that stuff - he's the guy who invented all those moves with bowler hats and jazz hands, turned-in knees and limb-dislocating dance-stances. But he also seemed to despise it - as fake, as cheap, as pandering to the punters, as a form of prostitution almost. Why else the obsessive need to combine the high unreality of show tunes and spotlights with the seamy side of life, to expose the grim and gross beneath the greasepaint? 

In one key scene in Fosse/Verdon, Bob is talking to his playwright / screenwriter pal Paddy Chayefsky (Network, etc). On the subject of his next project, the barely-veiled autobiopic All That Jazz, Fosse says "I want to do something real - not some bullshit fairytale". Chayesfsky says, "you want true - go to a priest, not a playwright." 

Unsurprisingly, these themes surfaced in All That Jazz the actual 1979 movie. At one point the Fosse alter-ego Joe Gideon is watching a TV variety spectacular presented by showbiz trooper O'Connor Flood (played by real life showbiz trooper and Fosse friend  Ben Vereen). Flood launches into his usual corny patter about the next guest performer being such "a dear friend, a great entertainer, a great humanitarian". Gideon grimaces and spits, "Boy, do I hate showbiz". To which his lady companion protests, "you love showbiz!". Gideon retorts with a wry "I could go either way".  

The film follows the pill-powered, chain-smoking 20 hour-day lifestyle of the director-choreographer as he simultaneously rehearses a new musical and edits a movie, while juggling a number of girlfriends (mostly from his own chorus line). In Fosse's real life, the movie in post-production (the editing so intricate and involved it took up a whole six months) was a biopic about Lenny Bruce, pioneer of "sick humor". In All That Jazz, it's a film about a fictional comedian called David Newman who similarly breaks taboos and has a turbulent life. 

When the movie, titled The Stand Up, is released, it gets good reviews from everyone except a TV critic who's something like a cross between Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. She observes of the film that "slickness obliterates reality, razzle-dazzle obliterates drama...  Gideon wants too hard to please". The director is crushed;  all the other positive notices count for nothing. He feels exposed as a fraud. 

Fosse's real life attraction to the story of Lenny Bruce as subject for the follow-up to his monster success with Cabaret (itself a pretty bleak and despairing vision, top toons and routines notwithstanding) is revealing. Wasn't Bruce in his own way anti-theatrical? He tried to inject the unseemly and squalid into comedy, get rid of all the Borscht Belt one-liners about "take my wife - please" and replace them with the raw ugly truth of sex, drugs, racism  -  any and all subjects hitherto deemed unfit for comedy. And then in another parallel with Fosse, Bruce became a kind of meta-comedian, his performances increasingly self-reflexive, consumed in laboriously detailed accounts of his own legal battles -  reading from the transcripts of the obscenity trials, expounding upon the grand struggle between free speech and censorship.... 

Here we have another entertainer not content to merely entertain - Bruce wanted to challenge, confront,  educate, and even elevate, albeit via a tortuous, or perhaps torturous, route through mutual abasement. “All my humor is based upon destruction and despair.”  Delivering the eulogy after Bruce's death from a morphine overdose, Reverend William Glenesk recognised a fellow priest, describing the comic as "in a sense an evangelist, on a street corner. He was a man—up tight against an artificial world... who shattered its facades, and its hypocrisy... he saw life as it is." Reviewing Lenny, the Fosse biopic, Roger Ebert - not convinced by the film - similarly described Bruce as "a sort of four-letter evangelist". He also likened the comic to "a sort of hostile therapist who preaches liberation through the defusing of highly charged words." Others described Bruce taking on "a nearly rabbinical lucidity" in his later performing years, even a messianic aura. 

The idea of seeing "life as it is" as a form of anti-heroic heroism crops up in Lenny. The comic starts rapping onstage about how "the trouble is we all live in a 'happy ending' culture.  A 'what should be’' culture instead of a 'what is' culture.  We're taught that fantasy, but if we were taught 'This is what is', l think we'd be less screwed up. Dig what l mean?". The real-life Lenny Bruce riff goes like this:  "There is only what is and that's it. 'What should be' is a dirty lie". Another variation, one of many, goes "Let me tell you the truth: The truth is what is. And 'what should be' is a fantasy -  a terrible, terrible lie that someone gave the people long ago."  The reference to happy endings sounds like something Fosse might have added. After all,  it was he, not Bruce, who was truly enmeshed in an entertainment industry that demanded and delivered heartwarming resolutions (like the happy ending to Sweet Charity, resented by its director, one Robert Fosse),

Fusing the dark razzle of Cabaret with Lenny's unsparing realism, All That Jazz was where Fosse's divided impulses meshed and ran riot.  As critic Adrian Martin put it, All That Jazz is an "anti-musical"  while Fosse was "the man who made the musical grotesque.” Elaborating on this idea, Stéphanie Debaere notes that watching the film, "there are few moments when you don’t feel some discomfort. Take Joe’s morning routine: a montage sequence shows him showering, taking his medication, turning to the mirror: “It’s show time, folks!” As his health deteriorates, the routine becomes more and more painful to watch given the regular coughing fits and him clutching his painful wrist". Pains in the arm , of course, can be a warning sign of cardiac arrest - a narrative premonition that 70-cigs-a-day, Dexedrine-gobbling Gideon/Fosse doggedly ignores, but we the viewers cannot. (Another area of identification between Fosse and Bruce, both amphetamine-fueled workaholics; as Dustin Hoffman, who played Bruce in the movie, told Rolling Stone, "It’s a key thing that Lenny didn’t use drugs to flake out, to get wasted. The drugs were usually uppers. They were used... to keep him going for four days. He’d do a tremendous amount of work.") 

Mirroring what happened in Fosse's own life - a heart attack, albeit not fatal in his case, at least this time - All That Jazz ends with Gideon in hospital, dying. His final vision is of a spectacular stage routine. It starts with Vereen / Flood introducing his next guest:  "This cat allowed himself to be adored, but not loved. And his success in show business was matched by failure in his personal relationships bag - that's where he really bombed. And he came to believe that work, show business, love, his whole life, even himself and all that jazz, was bullshit. He became Numero Uno game player, to the point where he didn't know where the games ended and the reality began. Like, to this cat, the only reality...  is death, man. Ladies and gentlemen, let me lay on you a so-so entertainer... not much of a humanitarian... and this cat was never nobody's friend - in his final appearance on the great stage of life,  you can applaud if you wanna, Mr Joe Gideon."  

After this savagely unsparing self-portrait, what follows is a glitzy high-energy dance number / song medley that includes a rocked-up poor-taste version of The Everley Brothers's "Bye Bye Love" (the words altered to "bye bye life, hello loneliness... I think I'm gonna die").  Confronted with the Ultimate Reality -  the Void -  Fosse/Gideon can't resist hamming it up with a delirious romp of kinetic kitsch. 

The film's final image is Gideon's corpse being zipped inside a translucent plastic body-bag, while Ethel Merman's version of "There's No Business Like Show Business" takes us to the credits. 

"There's no people / Like show people / They smile / When they are low". 

Fosse's next film was Star 80, a beyond-bleak biopic about the Playboy model and actress Dorothy Stratten,  murdered by her estranged manager-husband. Here Fosse finally pushes completely past the strictures of Hollywood / Broadway and makes a picture where the audience entering the theatre know in advance they are guaranteed a bad time.  Indeed just to make sure, the movie starts with the unhappy ending: Stratten dead, her murderer ranting  over her corpse about the events that led up to her demise and that will within minutes lead to his own suicide. The rest of the movie is a flashback. 

Released in 1983, Star 80 bombed at the box office, making back six million on a 12-million budget. It was Fosse's final film. Four years later, he died of a massive coronary on a Washington DC street: he had been walking back to his hotel with his ex-wife and co-director Gwen Verdon, after a day  rehearsing the theatrical revival of Sweet Charity. 

Although the context and the audience could hardly be further apart, Fosse's struggle with his chosen medium parallels similar imperatives within 20th Century modernist drama and fringe theatre - the drive to shove "ordinary life" onto the stage, or to smash through the fourth wall, create a form of meta-theatre, etc etc.  But the motivations seem very different. Avant-garde and radical theatre had utopian political ambitions or sometimes spiritual aspirations. In Fosse's case, the anti-theatrical compulsion seems to stem from a tortured personality and his convulsive love-hate relationship with entertainment itself, possibly rooted in trauma. Entering the world of vaudeville and burlesque at just 13-years-old, he was exposed to its sleazy underbelly at a tender and still-formative age. (Another parallel with Lenny Bruce, who found his comedic voice while working at strip clubs in the Fernando Valley, albeit as as adult and degenerate-in-training).  It's possible the under-age Fosse was sexually abused by much older female burlesque performers (probably imagining they were doing him a kindness - sweet sexual charity). There's a flashback scene in All That Jazz hinting at this kind of initiation.  The raunchy stage moves he saw while working these joints would then feed into his ground-breaking choreography, a classic example of the way mainstream entertainment feeds off low-life forms. Fosse's experiences in the seedy netherworld of showbiz no doubt colored his sense of the life's true nature - "Money Makes the World Go Around" etc -  and probably contaminated his sexuality. 

Finally a flashback to a primal trauma of my own - well, that's a exaggeration, but it did seem decidedly "not right" to my 8 year-old eyes. On holiday in Swanage, we went to Studland Bay, wandering down this lane to the beach and passing a church where there was a fete going on. There, on a stage, in the bright summer sunshine, was a whole troupe of girls, not much older than myself, perhaps ten or eleven, doing "Big Spender" from Sweet Charity, singing and dancing with great gusto. I wonder what frustrated never-got-to-the-West-End wannabe director - or subversive pervert - managed to smuggle that past the school administration and parents! 


  1. Great piece - I primarily know musical theater secondhand from jazz and films, and consider myself a mildly knowledgeable outsider to it, but this all rings true.

    In a lot of ways, Fosse's recently departed contemporary Sondheim is an interesting parallel - someone also genuinely in love with showbiz and tortured by its dissimilarity to reality, but who bridged that gap not through juxtaposition and distancing, but by breaking the medium down into its component parts and reconstructing it in his own image (albeit to such a highly personal degree that ostensible successors have struggled to follow him).

    I'm reminded of the film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum comparing Dennis Potter and Terence Davies' use of pop songs in their work - Davies' long held dream project, unsurprisingly, is adapting Sondheim's Follies, which is superficially as close as he ever got to Fosse's blend of razzle-dazzle and bleakness, but which goes into even deeper veins of despair and regret

  2. cheers

    That's a good point about Sondheim, whose work I've always meant to explore properly but never quite got around to. Do love Sunday In the Park with George.

    I came across Sondheim's Follies when doing a bit on Rock Follies in S+A - interviewed the guy who wrote the series, Howard Schuman, and he said it was an influence.

    Always struck by showbiz's compulsion to do films or shows about itself.


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