Sam Wasson on Bob Fosse and All That Jazz

Sam Wasson on Bob Fosse and All That Jazz

Unhappy with the current works on Broadway legend Bob Fosse, Sam Wasson set to work. In this Zola interview, he describes the careful tango involved in empathizing with his subject without ignoring his flaws, and how a faulty Microsoft Word program is one of the reasons behind the impressive 600-page length of Fosse.


Zola:Fosse is just about 600 pages long. When you began writing, did you realize it would be such a massive undertaking?

Sam Wasson: I knew it was going to be insane but I didn’t know it was going to be long. I was expecting a reasonably-sized biography from 300-350 pages and the reason it got so long, I think… Well, there’s three reasons that I can think of:

1) You become more obsessed with your subject as you go along.

2) The deeper you dig the more complex it gets. The more I dug, the more new material I discovered that I wanted people to experience.

3) My Microsoft Word kept shutting down for whatever reason and I had to continue writing in a completely new Word document. I was on an old computer and it couldn’t handle the word count. So I’d forget that the page number that I was dealing with wasn’t the total because I wasn’t adding it to the previous Word document. So I looked up, I broke out of the haze, and thought, ‘Oh, oh! I wrote a whole ‘nother book!’

But, of course, the book you’re getting is an edited version. People think, in a long biography, that the author just put everything in but really when I finished it was hundreds of pages longer than what you’re holding.

Zola: With your computer crashing, how many different Word documents did it take?

SW: Just two. I wrote half the book on one and started the other half on another. And here’s another thing—is it really that long for a biography or is it that long for a show-business biography? Six-hundred pages doesn’t seem on the perverse side of long when you’re dealing with American history. I wonder if people think show business doesn’t deserve the same kind of treatment.

Zola: It’s an entire life story, and with a life so filled with activity, any shorter and you’d be cutting important details. Maybe they do think that.

SW: I just don’t know. I’m looking at a bunch of biographies on my shelves right now and they’re as long or longer.

Zola: What was it originally about Fosse that made you want to write so thoroughly about him?

SW: Well, I mean, that’s hopefully on every page of that book. I’m in awe of the talent. I’m moved by his insecurities. I’m caught up in the naturally dramatic arc of his life story. I’m fascinated by his relationships to both men and women, fascinated by the self-destructive personality, and admiring of someone who tried so hard to keep his sense of humor in the midst of his pitch blackness.

And I wasn’t happy with the other work on Bob Fosse.

AND so many people were around to talk to. He was a real living biographical possibility. Not a guy from history, but a guy from yesterday. A guy from the present because so many people were around.

Zola: Did you grow up with Fosse or were you introduced to him later in life?

SW: I’m afraid for anybody who grew up watching Fosse’s work. I saw All That Jazz when I was in college and that was really my cherry taken for Bob Fosse. That was my moment of original sin.

Zola: You write,

Fosse’s closest friends—Herb Gardner, E.L. Doctorow, Neil Simon, Steve Tesich, Peter Maas, Pete Hamill—all writers, whom Fosse idolized for mastering the page, the one act he couldn’t.

Fosse could build worlds, characters, and story through dance but somehow the writing aspect never clicked. What was it about writing that gave Fosse such difficulty?

The-Play-Goes-On-book-coverSW: First of all, writing you do alone and I think in writing it’s much easier to fall prey to your insecurities because you are alone. When Fosse choreographed there were long periods in the studio by himself but there did come a point when he had to take his work to the people. He had to collaborate and they saved him from his demons and his inadequacy.

There are also writers and not writers. Writers are story people and Bob was not a story personwhich is not to say he couldn’t tell a story. But it took a writer to invent a story and that’s just not the talent he had.

But I do think that it would’ve been interesting to see what became of Fosse if he lived longer and, in the case of his show Big Deal, he had serious problems that he couldn’t overcome in the book. But the movie of his book, Star 80, had real improvement. I wonder if Bob could’ve learned.

Zola: Ann Reinking, one of the women Fosse loved, said, “The thing you love can also be the death of you. Dancers are aware of that much more than the average artist.” Do you think that was true of Fosse?

SW: Yes, I definitely believe it’s true. It’s the story of his life. Show business is the thing that gave him meaning, purpose, love, and applause. But he drove himself so hard for all those things and it ended up killing him. I find that very powerful and moving.

Zola: Fosse is all movement and dance, rhythm and sound. Did you listen to any of his music while you worked?

SW: No, but I certainly, as a writer, am thinking about rhythm all the time—more than I’m thinking about any of the other formal elements. Rhythm seems to be the most important thing to me, so I tried to incorporate some of Fosse’s rhythm into the book and also my rhythm—the book it’s…it’s halfway between me and Fosse, kind of tangoing together.

Zola: This might be silly, but I found it hard to sit still when reading. Fosse would describe a dance move like a flick of the wrist and no matter where I was (at the gym, on the train) I’d be compelled to attempt the move he described. Did you have a similar experience in writing?

SW: Yes! All the time. Thankfully at home when no one was there to watch me but absolutely, it was hard not to. I’m so glad you felt that way.

Zola: If you had to sum up Fosse in a single word what would that be and why?

SW: Oh…um…hmmm. If I could do it, the book would’ve been a lot shorter.

Zola: I thought this might be a tough one.

SW: It is. I have to say… Fosse. That’s not a good answer, but it’s probably actually the best answer.

Zola: In your hilarious book trailer you ‘become,’ or try to become, Bob Fosse. When writing about a person who felt emotions so intensely, worked tirelessly, and seemed to have endless passion for perfection—did you find yourself affected by him?

SW: Absolutely. I don’t think anyone could write biographies if they didn’t, in some ways, become the part that they were playing. It happens to actors and I think it happens to writers. You blend and the trick is to stay yourself as you become them, because it’s not your story and you do need to have a certain amount of objectivity. But at the same time the process of studying someone always becomes the process of empathizing with them. If you don’t empathize with your main character then you don’t understand him and if you don’t understand him then you’re in the wrong line of work. It’s necessary and with Fosse you don’t always want to converge with him, so there were some dark days but Fosse was also the life of the party so there were some light days too.

Zola: His friends seem to feel similarly about him. On the one hand he brings out the best in you; on the other he’s a wild philanderer.

SW: Bob loved sex, Bob loved sex. And he certainly had the means to act on that love of sex and, by and large, it wasn’t a secret. Most of the women who Bob slept with knew what the deal washe made that clear. So is it betrayal when you tell someone you’re going to betray them and then you do? I don’t know.

I don’t want to apologize for Bob, but in speaking to these women very few of them felt hurt or spurned or angry. As far as philanders go, Bob was an absolute gentleman.

At the time, I do think they were hurt. They loved him. It may be a felt betrayal but technically it is not a betrayal when you call the shot—you give the advanced warning.

Fifth Avenue book coverZola: If it’s alright, this is actually a question I’m asking for myself. I read Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. about two summers ago and loved it.

SW: Why thank you.

Zola: I went in not knowing much about Audrey and left wanting so much more, but never got around to picking up a biography on her. Could you recommend a good one?

SW: Well, in terms of reading about Audrey, the biography that I relied the most on and liked the best was Barry Paris’. If you want to branch out and read about women in the movies the two greatest books are A Woman’s View by Jeanine Basinger and From Reverence to Rape by Molly Haskell. That first will give you Audrey and the other two will give you the context.

Zola: Lastly, do you have a favorite indie bookstore?

SW: My bookstore is Book Soup.

Zola: That’s funny—another author just told me that.

SW: Yeah? Which author?

Zola: Bruce—

SW: —Bruce Wagner?!

Zola: Yeah!

SW: Bruce is a friend of mine!

Zola: Really?

SW: Yeah, well, I met Bruce just because I was a fan and wanted to meet him but we’re friends now.

Zola: Friends who love Book Soup apparently.

SW: Oh yeah, it’s a great store. Book Soup definitely. You interviewed him?

Zola: Another staff member did on his new book, The Empty Chair.

SW: That’s a great one. I’ve read everything Bruce and it’s all good.

Zola: His interview is greatreally beautiful language. I actually want to start reading his works.

SW: You should.

Force Majeure book coverZola: Can you recommend anything?

SW: Of Bruce? Well, I think the most romantic book that he’s written, which might be a nice place to start, is a book called I’ll Let You Go. I think the funniest book is called Force Majeure. And I think maybe angriest and maybe the most important, the most necessary in terms of what the culture needs is Dead Stars. Definitely check them out.

Zola: I will. Thanks for the recommendations, Sam.

SW: Well thank you for having me!

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.

Kelly Gallucci
Far too busy rereading the Harry Potter series, Kelly finds that her greatest literary sin is that she neglected to read classics like The Shining and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In between overseeing the editorial content for Bookish, holding interviews with authors like Isaac Marion and Lauren Beukes, and creating book recommendations for Kanye West—Kelly’s trying to catch up on the books she missed out on. She just finished The Great Gatsby and might be in love with Fitzg. Kelly received her B.A. in English Writing from Marist College and her M.A. in Screenwriting from National University of Ireland, Galway.