In the premiere episode of “Fosse/Verdon,” the FX miniseries set to begin airing on April 9, director Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) is in crisis during his filming of “Cabaret.” He implores Gwen Verdon to fly from New York to Munich.
“I need you here, Gwen,” he says, gloomily, by phone to his wife, muse and invaluable adviser.
“Will I be unhappy?” she replies.
“No, why would you be unhappy?” Fosse says, disingenuously, since the reason for the question is obvious: lying in the hotel bed next to Fosse is Hannah, the German translator on the film.
In another time, Fosse, particularly in the seductive guise of Rockwell, might have been inoculated within the trope of the flawed genius. But the creators of the miniseries realized they had the opportunity to probe deeper into a relationship as destructive in personal terms as it was creative in artistic output.
“We felt we could shine a light on the many inequities and abuses men have inflicted on women, we could participate in the conversation started with the me-too movement,” said Thomas Kail, who is an executive producer and directed five of the eight episodes in the series.
The director initiated the project in 2016 when, fresh off his success of “Hamilton,” he picked up a copy of “Fosse,” Sam Wasson’s biography on which the series is based. The book celebrated the dazzling collaboration and complicated marriage of one of Broadway’s legendary couples. It began with 1955’s “Damn Yankees,” achieved a pinnacle two decades later with “Chicago” and continued even after Fosse’s death in 1987, when Verdon helped to guide the musical compendium “Fosse” to Broadway success in 1999. The marriage didn’t last as long; the couple separated in 1971 but never divorced.
Kail brought the book to his “Hamilton” colleague Lin-Manuel Miranda who, along with Joel Fields (“The Americans”), signed on as executive producer. They, in turn, sought out writer Steven Levenson (“Dear Evan Hanson”) to determine how to bring a new angle to a story that Fosse himself had told in his acclaimed 1979 autobiographical film, “All That Jazz.” A consensus quickly developed that Verdon held the key.
“It’s telling that in ‘All That Jazz,’ the character of Gwen is a tertiary character who isn’t given huge dramatic weight,” said Levenson. “There was a blind spot we could fill in. Gwen didn’t get the spotlight she deserved and a lot of women in that era were in a similar positions. ”
The miniseries makes the case that what allowed Fosse and Verdon to do their best work was a shared vision fueled by ambition, ferocious energy, competition and a mutual addiction to applause. Their tenacity was forged in the respective challenges they overcame through sheer will. For him, it was growing up fast dancing in tawdry burlesque strip clubs; for her, it was years of painful leg braces and orthopedic boots to correct misshapen legs.
“Gwen was the only person who could match Bob’s exacting and meticulous perfectionism,” said Levenson, adding that the line between romance and work was always blurred between them. “With Gwen, he found a vehicle. She could take the half-formed ideas in his head and make them real. As she once said, ‘I speak Bob.’”
Part of that language was a bitter, mordant, often jaundiced view of humanity. Throughout his career, Fosse was unwavering in his desire “to bring the stink of truth” to his work, which is how film director Joseph Mankiewicz puts it in a Fosse biography by Kevin Winkler. The creative team of “Fosse/Verdon” was determined to bring that same ruthless honesty to the miniseries itself. Aiding that goal was the couple’s daughter, Nicole Fosse, who served as creative consultant as well as a co-executive producer on the project.
“Nicole is very wise about her parents and had no illusions,” said Levenson. “She’s somebody who had a career in New York and walked away from it. She saw that it came at a terrible cost. As much as Bob and Gwen loved their child, as much as they wanted to be there for her, when it came to choosing between the child and applause, it was a hard choice to make.”
While “Fosse/Verdon” soars in recreating production numbers under choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (“Hamilton”), it offers a fairly brutal appraisal of show business. Explicit in the series is the thin veneer between success and failure that could drive someone like Fosse to be a cynical, pill-popping, self-flagellating artist who was not loathe to spread that misery to others. One of the cruelest scenes occurs when Fosse attempts to seduce yet another one of his dancers. Walking her home after a rehearsal, he presses his advantage. She refuses. He becomes aggressive. She knees him in the balls. The next day Fosse cuts her number.
“We do see some troubling behavior with the women in the show,” said Levenson, “but the women aren’t able to voice the kind of things that women today, thankfully, are able to voice. If they had voiced them, nobody would have listened. Bob did overpower people with his will and personality, and one of the struggles is how does Gwen get out of that orbit, or can she?”
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Or does she want to? In another revelatory scene, Verdon offers advice to Ann Reinking (Margaret Qualley), who by that time has taken her place in Fosse’s Svengali-like affections. Verdon outlines the Faustian bargain she has made: his serial infidelities and thoughtlessness in exchange for roles of a lifetime — Lola, Anna Christie, Charity Valentine, Roxie Hart.
Joel Fields, the executive producer, said that the miniseries leaves it up to the audience to decide whether or not that has been a fair exchange. “If there’s some sense of Gwen trying to excuse parts of Bob’s behavior in that moment, to me, that by no means gives absolution,” he said. “If that’s the feeling, then we would have failed. The success would be in seeing how complicated the pressures were on everyone at that time, particularly women.”
Those intense pressures yielded moments of glory. In the course of her career, Verdon collected four Tony Awards. In one year alone, Fosse won one Oscar, two Tonys and three Emmys. The stunning achievements are nonetheless mocked through the character of Fosse’s best friend, Paddy Chayefsky, played by Norbert Leo Butz. In a darkly amusing scene, Chayefsky and Fosse are riding in a limousine and the director, buzzed on nicotine, cocaine and alcohol, holds the Oscar he has just won for “Cabaret.”
“It’s not that the world is bullshit, it’s that you’re bullshit,” Chayefsky amiably tells his friend. “If you’re bullshit, that means they’re bullshit, too. You could win a hundred of these and it’s bullshit all the way down.”
Chayefsky’s fertile philosophizing notwithstanding, the world of show business evoked by “Fosse/Verdon” still has very enticing charms. “It doesn’t make sense if you don’t understand just how seductive that world could be,” said Levenson. “There was something so damned appealing and charming about this man and this woman and it was important to us, as writers and producers, to realize that we would’ve been tempted to make a deal with the devil, too. We’re not innocent either.”
Top Image: Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse and Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon in FX's "Fosse/Verdon." Photo courtesy Eric Liebowitz/FX.