Thursday, November 21, 2013


I didn't want to write about another book, but it seems like most of my recent reviews have been negative and I thought I should share my positive reaction to this one, a biography of dancer, choreographer and director Bob Fosse by Sam Wasson called simply Fosse. I read a previous biography, All His Jazz by Martin Gotfried, which did a nice job of presenting the surface of Fosse's life and achievements, but this book really brings him to life, talent, quirks, foibles and all.

Though Fosse died in 1987, his dance style (both on stage and in movie visuals) has remained influential: dancers with bowler hats, making sharp angular movements, pulling their bodies in then opening out, portrayed on film with quick jagged editing. Not all of his hit Broadway shows (Pippin, Sweet Charity, Chicago) have aged well, though all have had successful revivals, and Chicago became a record-breaker in its 1996 revival, still running and ranked as the 3rd longest-running Broadway show in history. But as far as pop culture memory, his movies will probably be his legacy, and two of them, Cabaret and All That Jazz, remain major movie musical milestones, as well as two of my favorite all-time movies.

Fosse was a classic Type A personality: a competitive workaholic who was never happy with his achievements. He was a womanizer who nevertheless inspired loyalty in most of his conquests, and a hard-driving taskmaster who inspired fervent loyalty among his dancers and actors. This book shows his full range of personality, from talented genius to petty belittler of others, from promiscuous playboy to steady partner (he remained close friends with his wife Gwen Verdon after their separation in 1971; they never divorced and she was at his side when he died in 1987).

Though Wasson didn't get to interview Fosse or Verdon (who died in 2000), he did get information from several lovers (including Ann Reinking) and buddies, and the book presents a well-rounded picture of the man. I knew that All That Jazz was autobiographical--the story of a driven choreographer and director (played by Roy Scheider, pictured above) balancing finishing editing on a movie while he gets started on a new Broadway musical--but I didn't know exactly how precise the movie's details were, and the section on the making of the movie was my favorite part of the book, but if you have any interest at all in Fosse and his works, this book will be catnip. My one complaint: like All That Jazz, the book stops abruptly at Fosse's death, without a wrap-up chapter showing how important his legacy was and is. Otherwise, a wonderful read.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Blue Christmas, indeed

My first seasonal book this year was a big disappointment. Every bit of the title of this book by Ronald D. Lankford Jr. is misleading: Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells & Silent Nights: A Cultural History of American Christmas Songs. First of all, "Sleigh Ride," "Jingle Bells," and "Silent Night" are not mentioned in this book--certainly Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" belongs here. Second, this is not a history of American Christmas songs, it is an quasi-academic survey of a handful of such songs; maybe 15, if that many, are written about in any detail. The "cultural" part of the title is accurate; the author does a nice job throwing a net around Christmas popular culture of the past fifty years as he sets up context for the discussion of songs, but material on the songs is weak and unfulfilling.
His thesis is interesting: the genre of American Christmas pop music, which was born during World War II and largely ended in the 1960s, is not about any of the religious aspects of Christmas, but instead focuses on domesticity, nostalgia, romance, and commercial consumption. Each chapter covers one of these areas, and when he writes on music of the 40s, he's on solid ground, with songs such as "White Christmas," "Winter Wonderland," and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." His conclusions are fairly obvious but his reflections on the songs and their reception are fun to read.

But by 1965, and "Christmas Time Is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas, he loses steam. He includes that particular song in his chapter on "blues and hard times," but I don't think he makes a strong case for that. The show, yes, is certainly about being depressed as Christmas, but that song doesn't seem to me to be about holiday blues. There is a tension between the happy lyrics and the slow plodding performance, but that tone strikes me more as mild nostalgic melancholy, ending as it does with, "Oh, that we could always see/Such spirit through the year."

After that, he has a chapter on satire, focusing on "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" (the popularity of which seems more tied to shock value than to any major disenchantment with Christmas itself), and that's it. He doesn't discuss songs such as "Jingle Bell Rock," "Holly Jolly Christmas," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Little Drummer Boy," "Silver Bells," "Do You Hear What I Hear," "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," "Please Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas," "Please Come Home for Christmas," or "All I Want for Christmas Is You." I know that he's not intending to cover British songs, but I could write several paragraphs on Elton John's "Step Into Christmas," a lyrically interesting song which was and remains popular in America, not to mention John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)."

The academic prose style is clear, and there has been a lot of research done, but ultimately, as obvious as his points are and as much as he has left out, I doubt that this would pass muster as a dissertation in a university English department. And as it doesn't seem pitched at a average music buff reader, I'm not sure who would be satisfied by this half-baked presentation. I hope there are better holiday books to be read before the 25th of December rolls around.