Interview10 Original Fosse Company Members Share Backstage Broadway Secrets, Fosse/Verdon Lore, and MoreRachelle Rak, director Richard Matlby, Jr., and more remember the unconventional casting process, backstage (and onstage) pranks, showmances, and more behind the Tony-winning Broadway revue.
April 16, 2019
Twenty years ago, the musical revue Fosse opened at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theater, and in the eyes of many, including Tony voters which awarded the show Best Musical, it was a revelation.
Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr., and conceived by him along with Bob Fosse protégés co-choreographer Chet Walker and co-director and co-choreographer Ann Reinking (who was also Fosse’s romantic partner), Fosse dynamically showcased the choreography and vision of the famed director and choreographer.
Dance reconstructions were handled by Lainie Sakakura and Brad Musgrove, with Gwen Verdon serving as overall artistic advisor. It was a dance showcase like never before seen.
One of Maltby’s favorite memories—and one that he feels had a profound impact on Fosse—is when the song “Mr. Bojangles,” which originally occurred early in the show, moved to the 11 o’clock number.
“Fosse, in almost all of his career, didn’t really have 11 o’clock numbers, so by re-costuming it and putting it at the end of the show, it became a metaphor for the shortness of a dancer’s life and how the spirit of dance kind of protects dancers when they get too old,” he says. “It seems an absolute ending to the story that was being told.”
Casting Notes Another great memory for Maltby was the decision to emulate what Bob Fosse did with his companies, and cast average people as background and ensemblists, expressing the legendary theatre luminary’s drive to have dance connect to real life.
“Instead of a cookie-cutter chorus of the same people—the red head, the blonde and the brunette—he cast people of different ages, different shapes; if you were a gay man, then be a gay man. He wanted a company of dancers who were individuals and that was the shocking thing he did first of all in Pippin and it reached its climax in the movie of All That Jazz. It was a complete revelation and it was a turning point for dancers, who were not just pretty people who moved around but were now seen as people.”
That’s why when it was time to cast the show, Maltby and casting director Arnold J. Mungioli did it in two phases. The first involved bringing a company of dancers into a room and teaching them numbers; the second was bringing in those of different ages and body types and reflecting Fosse’s vision.
“Bob’s work was being recreated even in the audition process, as I explained to each and every dancer that we would like them to wear plain black tights for the dance portion, as we were interested in the silhouette of their body in this work,” Mungioli says. “I reminded them that it was not about steps, and to bring their fully present selves into the room—it was about ‘personality with a capital P.”
One of those trying out was Elizabeth Parkinson, a concert dancer, who had recently left the Joffrey Ballet and started taking theatre dance classes with Walker.
“Through that class at Broadway Dance Center, I was brought into these training workshops that were happening with Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking, where we learned the repertory, and that is how I got cast,” she says. “It was really thrilling to be introduced to the energy of Broadway in this show, as it’s very different than ballet. There was so much enthusiasm.”
Jane Lanier remembers she had essentially retired and hadn’t danced in five years when Verdon reached out to her. She was convinced to try out and was cast soon after.
“One of my favorite memories was going to New York and getting to learn ‘Steam Heat,’ and we called ourselves the Steam Team,” she says. “I’m glad that Gwen convinced me to do this.”
I Gotcha Many of the performers in Fosse remember the close bond between the dancers—so close that five weddings actually came out of the original production.
Parkinson was one of those five. The ballerina found comfort that Scott Wise, who had been a scholarship student at the Joffrey Ballet when she was there, was also in the cast. “We knew each other through our circle of friends, but didn’t know each other well,” she says. “When we were on the road with Fosse we started to date and now we’re married and the rest is history. And we have a 14-year-old son.”
When Marc Calamia was cast in the show, he was dating his now-wife Lynne Calamia, and she came on as a replacement in Fosse several months later after ending a run in Cats.
“We didn’t have time to leave the stage and go back to the dressing room, so everyone was very comfortable with one another,” Marc Calamia says. “We had been involved in all the trials and tribulations of getting there, and we became an unusually close group of people. You mention the names now, and smiles come to both our faces.”
Other married couples that came out of the show are performers Lainie Sakakura and Alex Sanchez; performer Mark Reis and dresser Phil Dominguez; and performer Dede LaBarre and stagehand Brent Oakley.
Maltby feels he’s something of a director’s version of Cupid, as in almost all of his shows, at least one marriage has come out of it: Liz Callaway met Dan Foster doing Baby; Sally Mayes met Bob Renino doing Closer than Ever.
“I don’t know if it’s just an accident or the way we look at feelings in show, but I was not surprised that couples came out of this show,” Maltby says. “There are some wonderful couples and I think it’s just great.”
Backstage Shenanigans Rachelle Rak says the show not only changed her life, it changed the way she danced, how she told a story, and even the way she thought about steps.
Rak remembers going on to perform “Sing, Sing, Sing” and when she got to the center of the stage, the conductor had vanished and nothing was happening, so she did a slow burn look to the upper mezzanine, trying not to panic.
“I was trying not to lose it and all of a sudden I hear noise in the pit, and then the associate conductor comes up in the conductor’s place,” she says. “The music starts and it’s in the wrong key. I had two choices, either leave the stage or sing it in this key. The entire song is in the wrong key and I did whatever I could do hit that last note and everyone in the wing starts dying.”
Scott Jovovich remembers Verdon working with a group of dancers on “Who’s Got The Pain?” from Damn Yankees. In the middle of the number, she would ran at Fosse and step up on his thigh, while grabbing his hat and head for leverage, and hook her left leg around his left shoulder.
She was going to demonstrate the move with Jovovich and just before she was about to run at him, she stopped and asked, “Wait a minute. Is your hair real?”
“Gwen had such a dry sense of humor that it was often difficult to tell when she was joking, which was all the time,” Jovovich says. “I turned to the mirror and looked at my hair thinking, OMG do I look like I have a toupee? She then said the last time she did this lift, the guy she did it with had a toupee and as she stepped up on his leg and grabbed for his hat and head, the toupee came off and she went flying. She then said, ‘So is your hair real or not?’ We all laughed for five minutes and I’m pretty sure we never got around to doing the lift.”
Lynne Calamia remembers one night when she and Marc called in “sick” to enjoy an evening out, and Ben Vereen left a message on their answering machine howling for them to come in.
“It was such a funny message and we saved that message for a really long time because how often do you get something like that from a legend on your machine?” she says. “He went on and on, and it was totally tongue and cheek.”
One thing Marc remembers fondly from the early rehearsal period was when it was time for Parkinson to come do her famous trumpet solo in “Sing, Sing, Sing,” but she was doing a costume fitting at the time, so he jumped in.
“Gwen Verndon was there and I very jokingly did the trumpet solo for the run-through and did it my own style of these iconic moves that Liz and Ann had made famous,” he says. “It’s a big strong memory for me to have this huge celebrity in the front of the room and she was appreciating the fun I was having with the cast, doing this male version of this very sexy female solo. The whole company was laughing and screaming along.”
It was also not unusual for the performers to play jokes on one another and Calamia says Scott Wise was particularly gifted at being the “class clown.”
In what became a running gag, Wise would fill the dancers’ pockets with little trinkets backstage, and—in one number where they are supposed to reveal a empty pockets onstage—they would often need to improvise to keep it all hidden.
“Once, in the baseball number from Damn Yankees, Sergio [Trujillo] and Scott were rehearsing in the hall, and I didn’t know what they were doing, but they decided to go the opposite way so it would look like Eugene Fleming was wrong,” Lanier says. “It was hysterical.”
Lanier and Trujillo also had a little prank war; he once sewed her costume together so she couldn’t put her hands in her pockets, and he once grabbed her hand for the bow with a handful of shaving cream.
“Once he even took my keys and moved my car,” she says. “It was a lot of harmless fun but I got him back by moving everything in his dressing room.”
“The real laughter occurred downstairs in the quick-change room—especially with Sergio and Brad Musgrove’s dry humor. We had so much fun,” says Mark Reis.
Looking back, LaBarre says that the lifelong friendships that developed are really what made the experience extra special.
“You can’t work on a show like we did, being in the studio eight-plus hours [a day], being so intimate and a part of each other’s lives for as long as we did and not develop a deep connection,” LaBarre says. “The work was hard and really intimate and you had to be able to trust your fellow castmates. It was intense, but such a special time.”