The Pulchritude of Fosse, Revisited: A Look at Those Famous Jazz Hands—Step-by-Step, Inch-by-Inch, Frame-by-Intoxicating-Frame

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the word pulchritude (one of my personal favorites) is defined simply as ‘physical comeliness’ — and if there is anything that fits that description, it’s director-choreographer-auteur Bob Fosse and his distinctive choreography.  Known now for its emphasis on rounded shoulders and isolated movements, Fosse’s choreography was inspired by what he felt were his own physical shortcomings, which he later spotlighted in his always alluring and always provocative signature style.  Little did he know that as a result, this slight re-contextualization of his supposed imperfections would not only go on to challenge notions of sexuality, conformity, and art but also inspire a bevy of devotees decades later.

In an essay which appeared in the accompanying booklet for the Criterion Collection edition of Fosse’s penultimate and most ambitious work, All That Jazz (1979), New Yorker writer and critic Hilton Als wrote the following:

In any case, Fosse’s imitators are legion; that’s what happens when you give your life to learning something about your own ultimately unexplainable genius.  It must have seemed as if no time had passed, as he lay dying, between that moment and being a boy in Chicago, a born choreographer who worked so hard to articulate, through all those bodies that passed before his discerning, worried eyes, what a shrug meant, what a slide meant, how to contract and then extend in a world that was constantly contracting and extending past the point — seemingly — of human endurance, all the while holding up your gloved hands, those famous Fosse hands, ten digits that, more often than not, the choreographer made look like the instruments that committed original sin, hands that were always grasping for something more dangerous than love, even though there is nothing more dangerous than love, maybe an attitude, one that said, “I don’t care, fuck it.”

It is this exact talent for turning expectations on their head which Fosse later extended into his film-making. From his artful displays of a group of flirtatious taxi dancers in his directorial debut, Sweet Charity (1969); to seemingly cheery vaudevillian numbers satirizing the Nazi regime’s rise to power in Cabaret (1972)’s Weimar-era Berlin; culminating in the harrowing image of a body bag zipped up to Ethel Merman’s rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in All That Jazz — Fosse found how to make the camera dance, in ways that still very much resonate today.  

In fact, one can still see remnants of his influence in modern pop culture — from musical theatre (1996’s Rent, the 2002 Oscar-winning film version of Chicago) to film (2000’s Center Stage, 2006’s Marie Antoinette) to even the realms of pop music (Beyoncé, Christine and the Queens), many are still paying their homage to the late director-choreographer, who died suddenly in 1987.  Most recently, Fosse’s legacy has continued on with the Lin-Manuel Miranda-produced FX limited series Fosse/Verdon, the season finale of which aired just this week.  Centered around Fosse and his wife and muse, dancer-actress Gwen Verdon and stars Academy Award-winner Sam Rockwell and Academy Award-nominee Michelle Williams as Fosse and Verdon, respectively, the show chronicles the couple over the course of their rocky-but-passionate fifty-year marriage.  

I haven’t gotten to check out the show during its original airing, so I’ll definitely be spending the next couple of weeks binging it — and then re-visiting Fosse again with the clips below!  Like Roy Scheider famously said in All That Jazz: “It’s Showtime, folks.”

“Who’s Got the Pain?” (ft. Gwen Verdon), Damn Yankees (1958)

“Big Spender”, Sweet Charity (1969)

“Mein Herr”, Cabaret (1972)

“Everything Old is New Again”, All That Jazz (1979)

“Take Off With Us”, All That Jazz (1979)

“All That Jazz” (ft. Carly Hughes, Jennifer Nettles and Company), Chicago on Broadway (2015)

“All That Jazz” (ft. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger), Chicago on film (2002) 

“It’s Showtime, folks” triptych, All That Jazz (1979)

“Dressing Ceremony” triptych, Marie Antoinette (2006)

“5 Dollars” by Christine and the Queens, Chris (2018)

“Rich Man’s Frug”, Sweet Charity (1969)

“Get Me Bodied” by Beyoncé, B’Day (2006)


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