Every Step She Takes

Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

Ann Reinking, the actress and choreographer, appears to be too pragmatic to believe in ghosts. But she smiles softly when asked whether she thinks the spirit of Bob Fosse, the late, great director and choreographer of stage and film who was both her mentor and lover, has presided over the extraordinary success of the current Broadway revival of “Chicago.”

“I think he’s been there with us,” says the 48-year-old performer who re-choreographed and initially starred in the reprise of the 1975 John Kander-Fred Ebb musical that Fosse directed, choreographed and co-wrote with Ebb.

“From the beginning, it’s been this pure effort just to do good work, which is what Bob was all about. Then it just blossomed into this wonderful thing. Now I don’t sleep much.”


And how.

“Chicago” opens Wednesday at the Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre in a touring production starring Jasmine Guy and Charlotte d’Amboise as the pair of merry murderesses whose naughty exploits in 1920s Chicago are presented in a vaudeville of “murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery--all the things we hold near and dear to our hearts.”

It is one of four productions worldwide of the smash musical, soon to be joined by three more. The Broadway flagship continues to be a virtual sellout 18 months after opening, not bad for a show that began life as a limited four-day engagement as part of the New York City Center’s popular low-budget revival series, “Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert” before moving to Broadway in the fall of 1996.

Greeted by rapturous reviews and long lines at the box office, “Chicago” went on to garner six Tonys the following spring, including one for Best Revival and wins for stars James Naughton and Bebe Neuwirth and director Walter Bobbie. Reinking, who starred opposite Neuwirth as Roxie Hart for the first eight months of the Broadway run, also won a Tony for her work as choreographer--on top of a fistful of other theatrical honors.

Now Reinking is responsible, along with Bobbie, for casting and choreographing each of the national and international productions, racking up frequent flier miles while balancing professional duties with being a wife and mother. As if that were not enough, she has just accepted overseeing “Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance,” an elaborate dance revue of the late director-choreographer’s oeuvre that Livent will present in Los Angeles this summer at the Ahmanson before a planned Broadway bow in the fall. Reinking also is artistic director of the Broadway Theatre Project, a Tampa, Fla.-based organization that uses professionals to nurture gifted young people in stage craft.

Little wonder, then, that she arrives a half-hour late for lunch at one of her favorite dining spots on the Upper East Side, not far from the apartment where she lives with her fourth husband, a sportswriter, and her son by a previous marriage, whose privacy she guards fiercely.

With an apology and a sigh, she slips her lithe, black-draped frame into a seat and orders a hearty chef salad, a glass of chardonnay and a cup of coffee. With her hair tightly pulled back and her tasteful yet expensive jewelry, she easily could be mistaken for one of the chic matrons lunching around her. She has a hard, angular look, which director Stanley Donen exploited when he cast her as Troubles Moran in his “Movie, Movie” in 1978. Yet once she revs up her distinctive gravelly voice and raucous lusty laugh, sardonically recounting moments in her professional life, she calls to mind her description by Joel Grey, one of her co-stars in the Broadway company of “Chicago”: “She really has the heart of a vaudevillian.”


“She’s almost a channeler of [Fosse’s] particular oeuvre,” says Grey. “I think it’s very much alive in her, what his vision was, and she’s moved on to make it particularly her own. She’s put a balletic spin on that vaudeville sensibility and she has a kind of obsession and perfectionism that is what has made ‘Chicago’ so unique.”

Reinking describes her work on the revival as a “reinterpretation” of her mentor’s steps, an updated tribute to his choreographic genius. One number, “The Hot Honey Rag” is exactly as Fosse originally staged it. “There is a great deal of improvisation in Bob’s dances,” she says, and she should know. Reinking starred in a number of Fosse shows, including taking over as Roxie Hart from Gwen Verdon in “Chicago’s” original production. “So I use a lot of his staging, I think my choreography is maybe more balletic, more lyrical. Bob’s work was very simple, in the very best sense of the word, clean brilliant lines. The parts where I really deviate is in [adding] this fugue quality to the numbers. For better or worse, my style is more complicated.”

Says Verdon, the ultimate Fosse performer, who is also his widow and artistic advisor to his estate, “When Annie came to me and asked me if she could use Bob’s vocabulary to create her dances, I said ‘Of course’ because she has a very good eye, can see the kernel of a movement that makes Bob’s choreography different from everybody else’s and can make a body do that. She’s very good at imagery, so she can give a dancer an image to get people to do what she wants.”

When “Chicago” first bowed in 1975, many people found it too black and cynical, with its raw send-up of jaded, ambitious sirens and oversexed lawyers making a mockery of the justice system and doing cartwheels around fame. With the revival, some critics were quick to point out that American society in the post-O.J. era had finally caught up with the musical. But others pointed out that Reinking’s revision, both as performer and choreographer, was softer, warmer, more lyrical--less sleazy than the original production. Funnier, too. While the actress herself is hard-pressed to define exactly how she imposed her perspective on the revival, she does note that the show is a reflection of the personalities of the actors, as much as the characters.

“There’s no way that a person who inhabits a role doesn’t permeate it,” she says. “And I’ve encouraged every actor that I’ve worked with to do that. ‘Make it you,’ I tell them, because that’s the only way it will work. Charlotte [D’Amboise] was scared to death at the beginning and I could see it, but then she just flew.”

The 29-year-old D’Amboise, who plays Roxie at the Ahmanson opposite Jasmine Guy’s Velma, says that when she saw Reinking perform on Broadway she was “blown away,” but the choreographer has encouraged her to be as different as possible in her interpretation of the role. “I think she’s done that with all the Roxies,” says D’Amboise. “She’s an unusually good listener. She focuses on what you have to say and helps you to incorporate that into the character’s movements.”


Indeed, Reinking sees her work in musical theater, particularly as it pertains to the Fosse legacy, as the fulfillment of an artistic and moral responsibility. “Theater, where dance is involved, is still a hands-on profession,” she explains. “There’s an unspoken law that you pass it on. It’s something you can’t learn in a book, you can’t even learn it off of a video. You need to feel that human touch. Feel it and learn it. I find there’s something comforting in that.”

Reinking’s destiny as a keeper of the flame was set on course fairly early. One of seven children born to a middle-class Seattle couple of Scotch-Irish and German Catholic ancestry, she says that, at age 11, she discovered dance as her ticket to distinction in a competitive environment.

“We were like a bunch of puppies vying for attention, and it was my way to squeak,” she says with a husky laugh. A Ford Foundation scholarship saw her through three summers as a student with the San Francisco Ballet, and, after apprenticing with Robert Joffrey and graduating from high school, she moved to New York and found a job with the corps de ballet at Radio City Music Hall.

She performed in the choruses of “Cabaret” and “Coco,” and in 1973 joined the cast of Fosse’s “Pippin.” Fosse and Reinking’s attraction to one another was immediate, strong and mutual. She would go on to appear in three more of his shows, including the revue, “Dancin’ ” (1978) and the revival of ‘Sweet Charity” (1986).

“When Annie first started working with Bobby, she learned one of his cardinal rules, and that was you must act in order to dance,” says Verdon. “You just can’t kick your feet up and put them down. And she never forgot that lesson.”

When they met, the brilliant, mercurial Fosse was amicably separated from Verdon, and Reinking was on the rebound from a brief marriage, her first. They began a relationship that would last six years and which would be thinly-veiled in Fosse’s 1979 semi-autobiographical film, “All That Jazz”.


In the movie, a self-destructive musical theater director, played by Roy Scheider, is working on a “Chicago”-like musical, popping speed, drinking to excess and relying on the nurturing women in his life, Kate (Reinking), his wife Audrey (Leland Palmer), and even the alluring Angel of Death (Jessica Lange).

“When I see ‘Jazz’ now, I get all these different emotions,” says Reinking. “I remember asking Bob, ‘Why did you make Joe Gideon this way? That’s not really you. There’s so much more to you than this.’ He told me that it was because he had a moral to tell that glamour kills. Joe had made a Faustian bargain, he had sold his soul to show business and paid for it. All of the characters had a certain classic side and he didn’t want to complicate that. ‘Besides, I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me,’ he said.”

“So people tend to have this one-sided picture of Bob,” adds Reinking. ‘They see his conflict, his rage, his confusion. But they don’t see his tenderness, his good, kindly true self, his broken heart.”

What people also saw, of course, was Fosse’s theatrical genius and Reinking had a front-row seat, particularly during the creation of “Chicago” when, as she puts it, three brilliant men--Fosse, Kander and Ebb--sat down around the dining room table and started sketching out a musical that would emerge as one of the blackest jewels in musical theater history.

“Chicago made you itch,” says Reinking. “It made you itch because everybody’s so bad, and yet there is such tremendous truth and morality in it. We do glamorize bad people, and there is irresponsible press and rampant consumerism. But Bob was at a stage in his life when he was very mad. His life had been threatened [by a serious heart attack] and he had long been this maverick fighting for what he believed in. He pushed people’s buttons and he didn’t care whether they liked him or not. So it was an uncomfortable experience for a lot of people because you couldn’t like these characters. And yet it was so entertaining that you had to laugh and have a good time. And that made you itch, too.”

In 1977, Reinking, then Fosse’s girlfriend, replaced Verdon, still Fosse’s wife, in “Chicago,” thereby creating one of the more intriguing branches on the Broadway family tree. It is a measure of Reinking’s complicated personality and protean talent that just prior, she had played Joan of Arc in the 1975 musical flop, “Goodtime Charley” opposite Joel Grey, and Cassie in “A Chorus Line”--the humanistic musical, which opened the same season. The Michael Bennett show, with its generous spirit made “Chicago” seem even more bitter by comparison, robbing it, too, of all the honors that year.


“I went from saint to mortal saint to sinner and I had a ball,” says Reinking, noting that Roxie was the toughest role she’d ever played because it was important not to veer too far afield with the character’s nastiness. “If you go too dark, then she’s just cynical and it gets in the way of people getting the satire of the piece, that these people have sacrificed way too much for way too little. You have to keep in touch with Roxie’s innocence. It’s a bizarre, perverse, misguided innocence, but it’s genuine.”

At about the time of “Dancin’,” Reinking says her relationship with Fosse reached a “stalemate.” She wanted marriage and a family, he remained tortured and noncommittal about the relationship. They split toward the end of the run of “Dancin’, “ and Reinking went on to make films (‘Annie,” “Mickey and Maude”), choreograph for various ballet companies and productions, and marry, first investment banker Herbert Allen and then a Florida businessman, the father of her child, who was born in 1990.

In 1986, Reinking re-teamed with Fosse for a revival of “Sweet Charity,” co-starring Bebe Neuwirth. It would be Fosse’s last work; he died while the show was on pre-Broadway tryout. Reinking did not return to the work of her late mentor until 1992, when director Rob Marshall invited her to choreograph a revival of “Chicago,” starring Bebe Neuwirth and Juliet Prowse, for the now-defunct Long Beach Civic Light Opera. Reinking says that the limited engagement there was “a warm, good time,” a reunion of sorts because so much of the cast had worked with Fosse. But no one seemed to think that the time was necessarily ripe for a full-blown Broadway revival. Indeed, afterward, life went on for Reinking in much the same manner as it had before: performing, choreographing and devoting as much time as possible to her son.

Four years later, however, at the request of her manager Lee Gross, Reinking met with Bobbie, who was then mounting a concert production for “Encores!” Eager to concentrate just on choreographing, she says that she initially turned down his request to play Roxie opposite Neuwirth, but eventually caved in when he persisted. Little did she know that what she thought of as a three-week gig would dramatically and fundamentally change her life.

What she is struggling to do now, she says, is to keep from becoming “a jerk” by remaining aware of Fosse’s warning that success can be even more insidious than failure. “Glamour does kill,” she says. “It’s sometimes hard to maintain your equilibrium, particularly if you’re creative and you’re constantly fearful that the gift will be taken away. The two most powerful pulls in my life have always been to be an artist and to be a mother. Keeping that in balance is the most important thing in my life right now.”

No doubt, there’ll be more challenges in the future in that regard. Reinking will also choreograph a revival of “Pal Joey” for Livent for the 1999 season, and there seems to be no stopping the proliferation of “Chicago” companies. Not to mention the demands of “Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance,” on which she will work with Richard Maltby Jr., Chet Walker, Verdon and Verdon’s daughter by Fosse, Nicole. Despite Reinking’s virtual immersion in Fosse’s legacy, she says she is not worried that her professional career will be eclipsed by his work.


“It’s a privilege now, with the Fosse project, to become acquainted with Bob’s early work at such close range,” she says. “People forget that the same man who did ‘Star 80,’ and ‘All that Jazz’ also did ‘Pardon Me Miss.’ I just want to keep my mind free of any preconceived notions and stereotypical ideas of what makes a good dancer for his work. I’m used to things not coming in the packages you expect.”

She adds that exploring all of Fosse, as well as the human condition, is what is keeping her excited about the future, no matter how sleep-deprived she is likely to be.

“You know, Shakespeare was right, ‘What a piece of work is man,’ ” she says. “We’ve got all these ragged edges in us. And in the theater, we have this safe haven, this big excuse to express all of that. ‘Hey, we’re just acting, that isn’t really me!’ It couldn’t be better.

“You just gotta know when the work stops and the life begins,” Reinking adds with a wry smile. “That was one of Bob’s big lessons. I’m not sure he ever really figured that out to tell you the truth, but he kept trying.”


“Chicago--The Musical” opens Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. (through June 14), 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; also June 18, June 25, July 2, 2 p.m. Ends July 5. $25-$70. Also at Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 740-7878, (213) 365-3500. July 7-11, 8 p.m.; July 12, 7:30 p.m.; July 11-12, 2 p.m. $21-$52.50.