Branding Lessons from Bob Fosse

(the video links in this post open in a new window so you can still reference this post as you review the clips)

In school we were told to improve on our weaknesses. Or to ignore them. Or to hide them. American choreographer Bob Fosse did the exact opposite. He built his unmistakable style on his weaknesses.

If you mention Bob Fosse to most people they reference The Birdcage and Robin Williams thirteen-second dance style pastiche including ‘Fosse-Fosse-Fosse! Martha Graham! Martha Graham!’ (here’s the full three-and-a-half minutes ‘Try More Gum’ scene). Or they remember when the movie Cabaret first hit movie theatres (after hitting Broadway, of course). But there’s a lot more than meets the eye when you examine this American master.

Let’s a look at the opening number from the Broadway revival of Chicago starring Bebe Neuwirth (Cheers/Frasier‘s Lilith) and Anne Reinking (former companion of Fosse and choreographer of this revival). Chicago was originally a 1975 vehicle for Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon but the message about media, murder and mayhem was way ahead of its time. The show didn’t hit its stride until the revival hit a nerve with a public already cynical from the OJ Simpson trial … gallows humor, ‘liquor & jazz’ and a sexual verve – all informed by Fosse’s (and composer/lyricists Kander & Ebb’s) vision.
This clip includes the opening number, ‘All That Jazz’, and the ‘Hot Honey Rag’ finale that the cast presented at the 51st Tony Awards.

Of course, later the revival was the basis for a movie musical that swept the Oscars with its own classic version of ‘All That Jazz’.

Let’s watch another example of his famous choreography, the ‘Rich Man’s Frug’ from the movie musical Sweet Charity (starring a pre-New Age Shirley Maclaine):
Video clip of ‘Rich Man’s Frug’ from Sweet Charity (5 minutes, 45 seconds).

After watching these video clips, what do you notice?

Lots of hunched over shoulders, hats, pelvic action, lots of detail – especially in the hands, minimal movement with massive dynamics as a counterpoint.

‘Big Spender’ (also from Sweet Charity) is one of those iconic sequences that is referenced in movie after movie, performance after performance. Have you ever seen the full thing? Take four-and-a-half minutes and watch the full ‘Big Spender’ sequence.

Sexy, ain’t it? Minimalist. It takes its time. A single hand can communicate aggressive, cynical sexuality that was one of the hallmarks of Fosse’s work.

After seeing these video clips, you’ll agree that his style is singular and unmistakably his. The hats, the shoulders, the hip action, the gloves and canes… but these weren’t just elements Bob Fosse liked, they were his weaknesses.

Bob Fosse was balding. That is why he used hats so often in his work.

Bob Fosse didn’t like his hands. That is why so much of his choreography includes gloves. (He called that loose hands gesture ‘soft boiled egg hands’ or ‘teacup fingers)

Bob Fosse had hunched over shoulders. You can see that hallmark throughout his dance style.

And he was also a bit cynical as well – divorced from the usual happy-face Broadway sentiments. Once he found composer and lyricist Kander and Ebb he was quite at home in this anti-Broadway point-of-view.

 

Bob Fosse created a style and grammar of dance that used his perceived weaknesses as a foundation that has influenced dance and entertainment from the 1960s onward.

Bonus Video #1: Dame Shirley Bassey Sings ‘Big Spender’ (with fellow Welsh, Tom Jones). She just about ba-bumps his head clean off! Bonus Video #2: Some mix-master took a Fosse piece with Gwe Verdon from the 1960s and re-wrapped it with a hip-hop sheen. 

How can you take your weaknesses and not ignore them or deny them or hide them but integrate them as essential parts of you brand, your blog, your profile?

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About Andy Wibbels

Andy is an award-winning blogger and author of the book Blogwild! A Guide for Small Business Blogging. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Entrepreneur, Wired, Business Week, Forbes, and other national and international media. He was worked at several San Francisco startups including Get Satisfaction, SAY Media, InMobi, Keas, and Mindjet. Currently, Andy is Director of Marketing at Lucidworks. Tw · Fb · G+ · Li

10 thoughts on “Branding Lessons from Bob Fosse

  1. Jean Cannon

    I hate bullshit, unnecessary paperwork and red tape. This has enable me to develop a series of training programs to help people build straightforward and effective management systems to save money and grow their business. The real WIN-WIN is that when they use my “easy to be green” module they build a system that helps the world at the same time.
    My clients call it the “mo Bullshit EMS” (EMS is Aussie for environmental management system.
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    Jean

    Reply
  2. Jeanne

    What an absolutely inspiring piece on Fossey. Being true about yourself is one thing….being true to yourself is another. Fossey is a wonderful role model for being oth. Thanks for sharing Andy!

    Reply
  3. Cathy Chatfield-Tayl

    Thank you, Andy, for posting these clips! As a one-time dancer, I felt may jazz hands twitching the whole way through.
    I never knew about the Fosse flaws. An apt analogy for how to capitalize on your weaknesses.
    If I had been a Fosse dancer, I could only have done the sloooowwww moves with the group. As a freelance writer, I move a lot faster–solo. And that’s my weakness, I guess. Something to ponder.

    Reply
  4. Scott Sheperd

    Incredible insight. Perhaps one of the best messages I have gotten from marketers on the web. I am a musician as well as a speaker and writer and I love Fosse. I have two daughters heavily involved in Musical Theater and appreciate your comments. So much of the stuff coming from marketers such as yourself is such BS but you make a point and really back it up while all the while showing you have quite a bit of class yourself. Thanks
    Scott Sheperd

    Reply
  5. hans

    Compelling storytelling that brought me in to the game. Flowing metahphor that shows that wholeness is greater than the sum of its parts. Thank you

    Reply
  6. Kyle Whitford

    Nice post, Andy.
    Eubie Blake talked of an artists limitations defining style. He mentioned his fingers and the hands of others who played piano as a
    unique signature to each artsists sound.

    Reply
  7. Maryam Webster

    Exceptionally classy exposition Andy, compelling copy and masterful take-aways. There’s flaunting your quirks for lunch and making it count. Fosse was a constant in my acting training, we had a teacher who trained with him and it was All That Jazz all the way to the dressing rooms. And Dame Shirley – OMG, what a pip. She almost DID pop Tom’s cork! As one of the commenters to that video said “take note ladies, class beats ass any day”.
    As always, a pleasure and privilege to learn from you…

    Reply
  8. Martha Garvey

    What a good question, Andy. Did you manage to see Martin Short’s “Fame Becomes Me?” One of the actors does a hilarious (and mean) Bob Fosse, complete with ashy cigarette, which…well, y’all should go see it.
    I try to lead with my flaws when I can, because I have gotten too old and too crabby to hide!

    Reply
  9. Erin Curran

    Cool! I just heard the dude from Bravo’s “Flipping Out” say that he chose a profession that celebrates his “weaknesses”/obsessive-compulsive habits: home renovation. He insists that all his water bottles face the same direction… it’s his attention to detail and quality that sets him apart from other home flippers that just slap on new paint and flooring.

    Reply

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