Fosse's Darker Legacy: Bob Fosse, Ben Vereen, and #MeToo
Sam Wasson's 723 page biography about famous choreographer Bob Fosse isn't overwhelming because of the length, but because the reader is inundated with story after story of Bob Fosse's sexual harassment of nearly every woman he encountered over the course of his life. Although Fosse is no longer with us, knowing this part of his history is important so that we can make sure this type of behavior remains in the past, rather than continuing on as part of his legacy.
If you've been following the #MeToo Movement, you may have read about Tony-award winner Ben Vereen forcing women in a production of Hair to give him oral sex, inviting them to his private residence, and more. Hearing this, I knew exactly where he had first learned that behavior was "okay." At 19, Ben Vereen was cast in Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity, and he would go on to be in many Fosse productions, including Pippin. All of the actions detailed in these women's accounts of their interactions with Ben Vereen exactly mirrored Fosse's behavior.
I read Fosse because I love Bob Fosse's work, or at least I used to. I grew up doing musical theater, have learnt imitations of his dance style, and often heard him lauded as an inspirational genius. I was totally floored that not once had I ever heard an inkling of his apparently very well-known sexual predation. This bothered me the most- why had I never heard about this? The answer is, I think, that people feel so uncomfortable, they minimize his behavior or excuse it by: referring to him as a "womanizer" or "boyish,"; saying it was a product of his time; blaming it on drug use or a history of past trauma himself; hiding behind his marriages (ie focusing on his marriage and calling everything else cheating or affairs without going into detail); and trying so incredibly hard to convince you and themselves that the women didn't mind or that they wanted it (and while some may have, there were many who did not).
When Fosse suffered from a heart attack, the nurses came together to discuss a strategy meeting about the man who would hand them massage oils while changing his catheter. At one point he tells a dancer that he sleeps with all his lead dancers and continues to solicit sex from her throughout their time working together. Jennifer Nairn-Smith, who had made it explicitly clear she wasn't interested in doing anything sexual with him, has to knee him in the balls and flee when he pushes her up against a wall. He spends the rest of Pippin screaming at her til she's in tears, picking her apart for any minute mistake. He chases actress Mariel Hemingway, in her early 20s, around a couch as she attempts to evade his advances. There are countless more stories like this peppered throughout Wasson's book, and likely more that didn't make it in. The point of this is not to air them all here, but rather give a small glimpse and dissuade anyone from thinking that there was any ambiguity in whether or not Fosse "crossed the line."
Fosse felt strongly that each movement told a story, and he mined all of his interactions and observations of people for inspiration, using it in his choreography. In 1999, Time magazine said Fosse "crammed his dances full of sexual imagery so harsh and loveless that you can’t help wondering what made him so successful a womanizer." As a dancer, if I dance his choreography my body is telling the story of his exploitation of other women's bodies. This is a heavy thing to wrestle with. Perhaps knowing where these moves came from might also offer us a path to healing- we can tell this story and re-write our own endings. I can already see myself choreographing a piece that starts with the classic Fosse “broken doll walk”, healing as I straighten my pigeon-toed feet and knocked knees, friends helping me to unglue my elbows from my torso, jazz hands softening into something lighter and more free.
- Sam Wasson's Fosse