Two by Fosse

In the last couple of weeks Dave and I have watched two movies directed by Bob Fosse: Sweet Charity and All That Jazz. Dave had never seen either one, and I hadn’t seen either of them in years. I remembered not liking Sweet Charity much, but liking All That Jazz a lot. Turned out that Jazz was every bit as good as I remembered it, but Charity was a nice surprise, not a great movie musical but better than I remembered it.

The stage version of Sweet Charity seems to me to be one of the most extreme examples ever of a common problem with musicals, in which the book and the songs don’t feel like they go together. I think most of the score to Sweet Charity is terrific, and some of it is brilliant, sketching the characters with all kinds of shrewdness and compassion and humor. There are the hits, of course — I think “Big Spender” and “If They Could See Me Now” are wonderful songs — but some of the less well-known songs are great, too: “Charity’s Soliloquy” (maybe my favorite number in the show) and “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” and “Baby, Dream Your Dream”.

But the book is heartless. Over and over again it sacrifices feeling, character, story, everything that might make you care about these people and their situations, for the sake of a cheap quip or easy sight gag. It’s feels as though Neil Simon thought he was supposed to be writing a sendup of the Fellini movie that the musical is based on, while the songwriters were taking it seriously.

The movie, though, changes a lot of that. Most of the jokes from the stage musical that make me cringe the most are either gone or toned way, way down and tossed off lightly so that they don’t derail the story. (Peter Stone wrote the screenplay.) The very ending of the story in the movie is different, and much better, much more meaningful than the painfully stupid gag that the stage version ends with. The ending is also clearly inspired by the ending of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, and in fact all the way through I got the feeling that Fosse and Stone must have been trying to capture more of the feel of that movie — the compassion, the humor (as opposed to jokes), the moments of wisdom — in this one.

Unfortunately a few of my favorite numbers from the stage version are gone from the movie — including, alas, both “Charity’s Soliloquy” and “Baby, Dream Your Dream”, though “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” is here, and wonderfully choreographed. (Dave pointed out to me that in this number Shirley MacLaine lags just slightly behind the other two dancers and is always just a little bit out of line, while the other two are themselves dancing in precision, as though she were not quite fully confident in her steps and was following what they were doing — which fits the situation perfectly, as the point of the song is that she’s slowly picking up an idea from them. Fosse must have deliberately instructed MacLaine to dance it this way because she shows in other numbers that she is perfectly capable of precision with the other dancers. Sweet bit of detail.)

I thought the use of still photographs interrupting the action here and there was a nice offbeat touch, and sort of endearing, but Dave didn’t like it at all.

Given what he did in the movie, it seems like Fosse must have not liked the persistent jokiness of the stage book. Which makes me wonder: In All That Jazz there’s a brilliant scene in which the main character, Joe Gideon — obviously based on Fosse himself — is at the first reading of a new musical he’s directing and choreographing, in which his ex-wife — I’m forgetting her name in the movie but she’s just as obviously based on Gwen Verdon — will be starring. The book is filled with corny, stupid gags, and everybody in the cast is laughing uproariously throughout, except for Gideon and Verdon who clearly hate the jokes. (What’s brilliant about the scene is how Fosse conveys the sense of Gideon’s embarrassment at the material, at being in the position of directing it, and most of all at being in this position in front of Verdon, who is the only person in the room whose opinion he really respects, and what interminable suffering it is for Gideon to sit through the reading.)

Jazz makes no secret of being based in many ways on Fosse’s own life, and the musical that Gideon is working on in the movie is full of visual and verbal references to actual musicals that Fosse worked on, so I had also figured that this scene must have been inspired by some actual rehearsal or rehearsals Fosse had cringed through. So it makes me wonder now if he was thinking of his experiences directing the stage version of Sweet Charity.

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