Fosse biographer speaks on the importance of music in movies

Sydney Foreman

 During a short break while guest teaching performing arts teacher Ted Walch’s Cinema Studies class March 10, Sam Wasson ’99 learned that his book “Fosse” about choreographer-director Bob Fosse was awarded Best Biography at the Los Angeles Festival of Books.

Wasson, a Fosse expert, visited all of Walch’s Cinema Studies classes to discuss how to make a comedy musical serious, such as Fosse-directed “Cabaret,” which the Cinema Studies classes recently watched.

Wasson introduced the  first topic of his lecture, the purpose of music in movies, with a clip from the film “500 Days of Summer.”

“Sometimes songs are used when words aren’t enough,” he explained.

His lesson then focused on the idea of songs replacing words, specifically in reference to Fosse’s work.

Wasson first became interested in Fosse after watching Fosse’s autobiographical film “All That Jazz.”

“I loved his story,” Wasson said. “From there I just wanted to learn more.”

The book Wasson wrote chronicling Fosse’s life and works was published in 2013.

Fosse, who grew up in Chicago during the Great Depression, was sent to earn money for his family at the age of 12. Fosse found work in burlesque houses where he was molested. A lot of his experiences during this time working in burlesque houses heavily influenced the works he choreographed, directed and wrote. Burlesque shows, Wasson said, were similar to what strip club entertainment is today.

“It was mean, and it was dirty,” Wasson said.

Wasson demonstrated how this early exposure to burlesque influenced the dance numbers Fosse directed and choreographed by showing clips of some of Fosse’s work, such as “Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees,”  “Sweet Charity,” “All That Jazz” and “Cabaret.”

Using these clips, Wasson asked students to consider how musical comedy can be serious.

“That [question] became the project of Bob Fosse’s life,” Wasson said.

Wasson emphasized the importance of serious content, dance and style in achieving a realistic musical comedy.

“[Musicals] allow us a very unreal way to express very real emotions,” Wasson said.

Wasson was once a student himself in Walch’s Cinema Studies class when he was at Harvard-Westlake.

“I enjoyed having a cinema studies teacher who was once himself a Cinema Studies student,” Lieberman said.

After graduating from Harvard-Westlake, Wasson studied film at Wesleyan University and the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Since graduating from USC, Wasson has written four books about film including “A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards,” “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M., Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Dawn of the Modern Woman,” “Paul on Mazursky” and “Fosse.”