Choreographer Bob Fosse rehearsed a dance routine with his star,...

Choreographer Bob Fosse rehearsed a dance routine with his star, Shirley MacLaine, for the film "Sweet Charity" in 1969. Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS Anonymous

FOSSE, by Sam Wasson. Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 723 pp., $32.

Lesser mortals measure out their lives with coffee spoons. The extraordinary career of Bob Fosse -- choreographer, dancer, director, screenwriter, actor -- might best be gauged by the number of cigarettes he smoked. While choreographing "The Pajama Game" in 1954, Fosse "worked through the nights and napped in the days, burning through cigarettes -- as many as six or seven packs a day," according to Sam Wasson in his lively, fluid biography of the man who in 1973 won a Tony (for "Pippin"), an Emmy (for "Liza with a 'Z'"), and an Oscar (for "Cabaret"), all for Best Director.

He quit smoking briefly after open-heart surgery (a near-death experience that would inspire the largely autobiographical film "All That Jazz"), but resumed the vice, puffing on Hav-A-Tampas and cigarillos, a few months later during rehearsals for "Chicago." Chita Rivera, one of the stars of that show, threatened to walk off the stage if he didn't extinguish his ciggie. Fosse would, but "when she went away, he'd light another."

As Fosse himself once said, "I drink too much, I smoke too much, I take pills too much, I work too much, I girl around too much, I everything too much" -- and this excess caused his ticker to stop for good in 1987, at age 60. It is precisely this too-much-ness that Wasson, author of a book on Blake Edwards and an in-depth study of that director's "Breakfast at Tiffany's," captures so sharply in this volume -- which, at more than 700 pages, might also seem immoderate. But, with few exceptions, Wasson's prose is so supple and limber, its momentum rivaling Fosse's own awe-inspiring velocity, that the reader consumes it avidly.

Unlike countless biographies of artists and performers, "Fosse" does not rely on dime-store psychoanalysis in explicating its subject and his flaws. The years when a teenage Fosse was performing as a dancer in the burlesque halls of his hometown of Chicago, though, did leave a searing imprint. The object of excessive sexual attention from "feathered gorgons" who "pulled [him]from his Latin conjugations onto their laps," Fosse would later turn the desperate ambience in these dives into an aesthetic principle. As Wasson shrewdly notes, "Seeing firsthand the human component in sleaze, Fosse felt the beginnings of a question he would ask his audiences, and himself, for the rest of his life: What is filth? If it makes them smile and hard, how bad could it be?"

That query certainly drives "Sweet Charity," the 1966 Broadway musical and 1969 film adaptation that Fosse directed and choreographed, as well as "Cabaret," "Chicago," "All That Jazz" and "Star 80," his last film, from 1983, about the short, horrible life of Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten. As for how those unseemly backstage nights affected Fosse's love life, Wasson presents the messy particulars of his subject's prodigious erotic entanglements without ever moralizing. (Fosse himself did much the same in "All That Jazz.")

Fosse held his numerous romantic partners to a double standard: He could "girl around" all he wanted, but he had to be their one and only. Gwen Verdon, Fosse's second wife and longtime muse, collaborator and dancer, endured his infidelities until she couldn't, separating from -- but never divorcing -- him. And yet Verdon would never wholly sever herself from Fosse; as Wasson explains, their "commitment to each other, to the work, went deeper than sex and bad behavior." Or as Ann Reinking, another lover and dancer of Fosse's, explains to the author, "Love is total acceptance, and the only way for me to totally accept him was as his friend. Gwen ultimately saw it the same way. The best way to be with him was to not be with him."

Wasson, so skilled at providing a macro overview -- he seamlessly outlines the history of both the American stage and the American movie musical to better foreground Fosse's transformations of each -- has also written a book filled with dazzling aperçus. His description of Liza Minnelli, whom Fosse met when she was 23, is spot-on: "Liza had a big voice, one that conveyed the punishing truth about making entertainment: It was mean. It was messy. It was a C-section and she was both mother and baby." And Wasson's piquant description of Fosse as "Ahab with an ashtray" perfectly sums up his tremendous drive and focus -- a lust for life, which he burned through like a cigarette.

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