Bob Fosse, one of the most distinctive and productive forces in the Broadway musical theater, died last night at George Washington University Hospital just before the opening performance of "Sweet Charity," which he had choreographed and directed. He was 60. News of his death was learned after the curtain fell. Details, Page A1.
Considering the state of the art today, you can be forgiven for thinking that the following items are required to make a musical: interlocking turntables, self-propelled towers, electronic drawbridges, laser beams, smoke machines, 30 sets of glowing cats' eyes in a junk heap, a barricade for French revolutionaries to die upon, a spaceship and the paraphernalia from four or more discothe`ques.
Then a show like "Sweet Charity" surges out of the past (it surged last night right into the National Theatre for a four-week run) and you find yourself wondering at what point did we get bogged down in so much clutter.
Whenever a big moment is about to occur in "Sweet Charity," you see, the sets are cleared, the upstage wall is wiped clean of any distracting decoration and the bare stage is reclaimed. It's a kind of housekeeping you don't find in musicals these days, which tend to keep piling up the knickknacks as the evening goes on.
In 1966, however, which is when "Sweet Charity" put in its first appearance on Broadway, musicals were still concerned with making room for the performers. The highlight of a show was not the walls of Jericho tumbling down, but a singer stepping front and center into the empty space. Or a dancer, suddenly freed from all prior restraints, seeing to it that every square inch of unvarnished planking got explored.
By today's technological standards, I suppose, "Sweet Charity" is bound to look quaint to some. It hews to the old patterns, hanging its songs and dances, rather like wash, on a simple story line. The book by Neil Simon -- about a gallant dance hall hostess and her quest for a man who'll do more than wipe his feet on her -- is in the nature of a cartoon strip. Charity Hope Valentine -- since that is her name -- is not one of life's more fascinating creatures. Endearing, yes. Fascinating, no. Unlike "Cabaret," another 1966 musical that coincidentally is playing across town at the Kennedy Center, "Sweet Charity" has no big statements on its mind.
But it knows the value of an open stage.
Watch what happens when Charity -- in the person of Donna McKechnie -- realizes that the phobia-ridden accountant she's been dating actually loves her, wants to marry her even. (No matter that Charity is the essence of wishful thinking, quick to interpret a kick as a caress.) The black panels that frame the show glide open like a camera eye, the backdrop turns sunflower yellow, and McKechnie, feeling like a brass band, is allowed to parade her new-found exhilaration as if on her very own football field.
Before too long, director-choreographer Bob Fosse has added a contingent of male dancers in red and gold uniforms -- strutting proudly, clashing invisible cymbals and slurring imaginary trombones. The chest-swelling excitement produced in the process is so infectious that you may overlook the fact that it is being generated by a handful of performers and the jazzy sounds emanating from the orchestra pit. We are back to musical comedy basics here, and they don't let us down.
Time and changing fashions haven't succeeded in tarnishing the surer assets in "Sweet Charity's" strongbox. The score by Cy Coleman remains the very model of Broadway pizazz, beginning with an overture (remember overtures?) that gets the adrenalin pumping with the first arresting thunderclaps of "Big Spender." "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "Baby Dream Your Dream" and "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" are quintessential show tunes and the lyrics by the late Dorothy Fields continue to be sharp and witty, even if some of the slang has quietly passed over the divide.
It was Fosse, however, who gave the show its distinctive stamp. The master of the collective twitch, the extended elbow and the disjointed knee, he brought a new look to Broadway choreography. Recreating his dances (with an unbilled assist from Gwen Verdon, the original Charity), he once again combined the raffishness of the midway barker with the rigor of the geometrician.
Rare, you'll notice, are the dancers who remain perpendicular for long. Fosse couldn't resist pitching them at various obtuse and oblique angles and sending them skittering across the stage -- so many theorems in human form. When we first meet Charity's sister taxi dancers ("social consultant" is how she prefers to describe the profession), they are strung out along a railing, parallel to the footlights, casting their defiantly low-lidded looks at the audience. The limb of one is entwined impossibly around the leg of another, which appears joined to the hip of a third, who has managed to wrap her arm around her own back and is drumming her fingers on her stomach. Contortionists can do as much, I suppose, but they're usually not so aggressively hilarious.
Sooner or later, however, "Sweet Charity" comes down to the dear girl herself, or the actress who's playing her. She is the perpetually broken heart of the show, and her travails in the boudoir of an Italian movie star, a stalled elevator or a Coney Island parachute jump arrested in mid-descent are of interest only to the extent they reveal her dogged vulnerability. McKechnie's kewpie doll looks are certainly tailored for the part. She has a stunningly expressive body. She is even a convincing actress -- not that the role of Charity is Medea.
But she lacks that indefinable star charisma, a presence greater than the sum of her gifts. Verdon not only inhabited the show, she also transcended it. You can't fault McKechnie for what she's doing. But she does appear vaguely imprisoned in the sketches that pass for scenes. Unable to carry the show on her shapely shoulders, she scores instead with her legs. More than 10 years after "A Chorus Line" made them famous, they can still do great things.
Stephanie Pope and Lenora Nemetz are solid brass, as two of the tougher tootsies in the Fan-Dango Ballroom, and James Stovall lends a shine to "Rhythm of Life," a bit of revivalist fervor that serves no other purpose than to open Act 2 with a production number. But Mark Jacoby, as the sleek Italian movie star, dwells stolidly within the confines of the predictable, and Ken Land, as the accountant who offers Charity a passport out of tawdriness, registers as unnecessarily wimpish.
What saves "Sweet Charity" and gives it its enduring lift is its conviction that a stage is for performers, not giant erector sets, and that a clutch of dancers, moving in asymmetrical precision across the floorboards, can be as thrilling as a descent into the Paris sewers.
Imagine, a musical that believes a song is for singing -- not a pretext to start up a million-dollar light show. What will they think of next?
Sweet Charity, book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Sets and lighting, Robert Randolph; costumes, Patricia Zipprodt. With Donna McKechnie, Ken Land, Lenora Nemetz, Stephanie Pope, Mark Jacoby, Celia Tackaberry, James Stovall. At the National Theatre through Oct. 17.