15 October 2015

One Night in 1976

I’m currently reading the massive biography “Fosse” by Sam Wasson. I love Bob Fosse’s work yet know so little about him as a person. I just read the chapter where Fosse’s “Chicago” was trounced at the 1976 Tony Awards by “A Chorus Line” and realized that that single award ceremony encapsulated so much about the kind of theater I love.

I remember sitting and watching the award ceremony on my portable black-and-white television, my cassette recorder running to capture every single moment of what I knew would be an “A Chorus Line” sweep: the musical’s dramatic opening number, Donna McKechnie’s stunning win and moving acceptance speech, and presenter after presenter opening an envelope and repeating the same three words: “A Chorus Line.”

Interspersed between those moments were excerpts from the three other musicals nominated that season: “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” and Fosse’s “Chicago” (only “Pacific Overtures” won any awards). I watched a dance number from “Chicago” and thought, “this is dumb.” During the excerpt from “Pacific Overtures” I remember thinking “this is dumb.” (I was only 16 and for me it was “A Chorus Line” or nothing.)

Years went by. I learned more about theater. I realized how wrong I was that night -- not about “A Chorus Line,” but about theater history in general and those other two shows specifically.

Of course, I had heard of Fosse and I had heard of Sondheim but I didn’t know much about them. Through years of reading, seeing shows, and listening to scores, I learned more about these men who, along with Bennett, changed the face of modern theater in many ways. For example, Fosse’s unique dancing style (“Steam Heat” in 1954’s “The Pajama Game”), Sondheim and the first concept musical (1970, “Company”) and Bennett for taking attention away from stars and shining a light on dancers in “A Chorus Line.”

I find it interesting that all three were active on Broadway roughly the same time: Fosse began as a dancer in 1950 (“Dance Me a Song”); Sondheim’s first credit came in 1956 (“Girls of Summer”); and Bennett began as a dancer in 1961 (“Subways are for Sleeping”). Over many years, as these three men moved up in their careers -- Fosse and Bennett to choreographer/director, and Sondheim to full-fledged lyricist/composer -- their work affected the course of theater: Bennett’s last Broadway musical credit was in 1982 (“Dreamgirls”); Fosse’s last Broadway show was in 1986 (“Big Deal”); and Sondheim is still active on Broadway -- although mostly with revivals of previous successes.

I can only imagine what theater in America would look like today without the tremendous influence of these three men.

Note: Although Fosse and Sondheim went home with no awards that night in 1976, they were certainly not neglected by the Tony voters. Over their careers, Fosse won a total of nine Tony Awards, Sondheim won eight and Bennett won seven.

Note: McKechnie is one of the rare people to work on Broadway with all three men. She was in the cast of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (her first Broadway show) in 1961 with dances choreographed by Fosse (who received a “musical staging” credit); she worked with Bennett in “Promises, Promises” (1968), “Company” (1970), and, of course, “A Chorus Line” (1975); and with Sondheim in “Company.”