If the prospect of a miniseries about two giants of American musical theatre sets off your automatic flinch response, then you must not know about Bob Fosse, or the sex, drugs, and inner demons that powered his work as a choreographer and film director even as they made a mess of his personal life. In short: This is seriously juicy material.
And this lavish FX production doesn’t stint on any of it. But, crucially, it gives equal weight to the experience and perspective of Fosse’s one-time wife, muse, and creative collaborator to the end, Gwen Verdon, who tore up Broadway in Tony-winning roles but never could parlay her stage success into film stardom. Maybe that dual focus was always the intent, or maybe it’s a byproduct of casting; when you lure the Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams back to television, it’s not just to play The Wife. Regardless, the result is both a correction to the historical ledger, finally giving Verdon her due, and a thumbed nose to so many valorizing portraits of Great Men and their perfunctory asides to the women backing them along the way.
In adapting Sam Wasson’s 2013 Fosse biography, the creative team behind Fosse/Verdon (a stacked deck including executive producer Lin-Manuel Miranda, stars Williams and Sam Rockwell, and The Americans co-creator Joel Fields) smartly translate that book’s organizational device, time-stamping scenes in a story that jumps backward, forward, and into the realm of fantasy: “263 days since Gwen’s first Tony”; “13 months before Fosse’s heart attack.”
There’s a lot of subtle information embedded in those chyrons – Verdon was a hit first, Fosse burned the candle at both ends – and the series as a whole excels at delivering essential information without it feeling like an infodump. The first episode, written by Steven Levenson and directed by Thomas Kail (both of whom also produce), lays the groundwork for everything to come.
As Fosse (Rockwell) choreographs a scene for his 1969 film version of Sweet Charity, the viewer comes to understand him as an obsessive technician and catches the essence of his style: the rolled shoulders, tucked-in chins, angular lines, and isolated movements like a single finger snap. Williams’ Verdon, at his side throughout, coaches the dancers, building a story for them and coaxing out their performances. The viewer picks it up without it being spelled out: Fosse and Verdon are a team, even if only one of them gets the credit. Later, at a party at their house on the eve of Sweet Charity’s box-office debut, Bob regales the crowd with an amusing, obviously practiced anecdote about Bob and Gwen “way back when,” telegraphing that his star is rising even if hers used to shine brighter, and that he’s no longer “Mr. Verdon.” Oh, and Bob cast Shirley MacLaine in the part Gwen won a Tony for. The viewer gets it: This marriage comes with more baggage than a Samsonite showroom.[image-1-right]
That marriage, their enduring partnership, is chewed six ways to Sunday over the course of the series (the first five of eight episodes were made available to press). I hardly know what constitutes a spoiler – it’s all on the public record, and Fosse put a lot of it through a funhouse mirror in his final film, the nakedly autobiographical All That Jazz – but the plot isn’t the point, anyway. It’s the exceptional performances. Nothing in Rockwell’s CV suggests he’d make a plausible song-and-dance man, but he gives an indelible performance as the tormented artist. Williams does come to her part with musical experience – she won acclaim as Sally Bowles in a 2014 revival of Cabaret – and she’s a dazzler. She plays a star like, well, like she was born to it. More affecting yet is how she can turn that star quality on and off, putting on a bright face for the public then quietly bottoming out when no one is watching. When Williams is onscreen, though, you never want to stop watching.
Fosse/Verdon premieres on FX on Tuesday, April 9, at 9pm.
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