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Article Published May 16, 2019
What Was Bob Fosse Really Like?
Frank Rizzo

Many fans of Broadway musicals are riveted to the current television mini-series Fosse/Verdon on the FX Network. The eight-episode series, based on the biography Fosse by Sam Wasson and directed by Tommy Kail (Broadway’s Hamilton), follows the lives, careers, and relationships of film, stage, and television director-choreographer Bob Fosse, played by Sam Rockwell, and beloved Tony Award-winning actress-dancer Gwen Verdon, played by Michelle Williams.

Watching the series with particular interest in Stephanie Pope, who is featured in a revival of The Music Man at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. (The run of the musical has been extended to Thursday, June 20.) Pope plays the comic character role of the mayor’s wife, Eulalie Shinn, but she proudly calls herself “a Fosse dancer,” having performed in many of his shows.

I talked with Pope, whom I saw in Fosse’s last original Broadway musical, Big Deal, during its out of town try-out in Boston in 1986. (The show closed shortly after it made it to Broadway, though his choreography earned Fosse his eighth Tony Award.)

In 1987, Pope played Helene in the tour launch of the revival of Sweet Charity, which starred Debbie Allen on Broadway. Fosse and Verdon were readying the company when he collapsed on the street in Washington, D.C. while walking with Verdon from his hotel to the theater where the tour was about to open that night. He died of a massive heart attack later that evening. He was 60.

What was he like that day?

“He rehearsed us like crazy and at the end we all gathered around and he made a speech, saying things like ‘Save your money,’ and things like that. We thought it was kind if an odd speech to give on an opening day.

“The last time I saw him I was in my dressing room, sort of recovering from that crazy rehearsal and there was a knock on my door and he came in. He just walked around, went from my left side, to my right side, and I’m looking at myself in the mirror thinking, ‘OK, he’s going to give me notes’—which he always did. Then he walked out. No notes. He said nothing. Just walked out. Of course, I thought, ‘Oh, God. I must have been so horrible that he can’t even give me a note.’ And that was the last time I saw him. We did the show and then when the curtain came down, we were told he had his heart attack and died. We were all pretty numb. Next day, too. We didn’t know what to feel. And then you think, ‘We’re doing the show for him. We’re just honoring him.’”

What were your feelings when you heard that a mini-series on Fosse and Verdon was being made?

“I was excited at first but a little skeptical, too. Then I heard that Nicole [Fosse and Verdon’s daughter] was involved and others [who were close to Fosse], too. Then I felt it would be OK. I knew that Michelle would be brilliant, but I didn’t know Sam’s work. But I started hearing good things about the filming and now that I’m watching it I’ve been just blown away. I really think they’re doing incredible work. Michelle has grabbed Gwen’s essence and is just embodying her. But it’s also been very surreal and sometimes eerie watching it and just knowing I was a part of that history.”

In the series Fosse comes across as a person who would probably not fit into the #metoo era.

“It was a very different time and men and women viewed that behavior differently, responded to it differently, than we do now.

“Perhaps he had mellowed with age by the time I worked with him. Even I was shocked when I saw his behavior in Episode Three [where he is forcing himself on a dancer]. You always heard about him being a ladies’ man and all that, but I had not experienced it firsthand. I didn’t see any of that, so seeing it portrayed that way was shocking to me. I was fortunate that I wasn’t around that energy at the time I was with him.”

Besides Big Deal and Sweet Charity, you also played on Broadway and toured in Pippin, Chicago as Velma Kelly, and Fosse. What makes a Fosse dancer?

“He used to say—and I’m paraphrasing here—’I love a dancer who is beautiful but doesn’t know that they’re beautiful, who isn’t afraid to roll around on the floor and get dirty.’ He was interested in people who were thinking individuals and obviously people who worked hard. He saw things that we probably didn’t even see in ourselves and he knew how to get the best out of us all. Bob would call us actors. He would say, ‘OK, actors. Let’s get started.’”

Your performance in The Music Man is clear, precise, and very funny. Is it rooted in being a Fosse dancer?

“I think everything I do is informed by the time I’ve spent with him. He required you to be a thinking artist, not just doing things for the sake of doing things, or because someone told you to do it. Or if they did, to justify it. Don’t just move for the sake of moving. And know that there’s power in stillness.”

In The Music Man, Eulalie leads the ladies of the town in a dance presentation. Are you channeling any of Fosse?

[Laughs] “Not so much there. What I am doing is living truthfully in that non-dancer truth.

Could Big Deal be revived? Maybe Goodspeed could do it.

“I know I had a ball with it and we were surprised that it wasn’t received the way we thought it would be. Hmm. I’m going to plant that bug in Nicole’s ear because she’s now in charge of preserving his work and legacy.”

Frank Rizzo is a freelance journalist who lives in New Haven and New York City. He has been writing about theater and the arts in Connecticut for nearly 40 years.