On paper, the premiere of FX’s new “pop culture history miniseries,” Fosse/Verdon, doesn’t have too much going on. We see Fosse experience disappointment with one film, so he fights to make another that will be better. Verdon takes care of their daughter and looks for ways to support the family when Bob’s scheming doesn’t pan out. Surprisingly, Fosse is hired to direct the adaptation of Cabaret, and he goes off to shoot in Munich. While there, he takes up an affair rather quickly and soon calls in Gwen to help communicate his ideas on set. Fosse comes off as an extremely precise and demanding director, a bull of a man to be romantically involved with, while Verdon appears to be a woman with way more talent than she’s given credit for, and has way more patience and understanding for Bob than he deserves.
That is what happens in this episode, and what appears to be the situation for these characters, but there are hints and hopes that those involved in the creation of this series are going to dive much deeper into this complex relationship in the ensuing weeks. The series is produced by, among several others, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail (who also directed this pilot), as well as Nicole Fosse, the daughter of Bob and Gwen. Those three alone come in with enough theater and musical knowledge, as well as personal knowledge of the two leads, that it’s reasonable to expect something more than a superficial transcription of events from this series.
The casting of this series is pretty good so far. Sam Rockwell portrays Bob Fosse, and he is so much more muted than expected, much to my relief. He can be quite a ham and it’s better that he is playing this grounded (despite the sometimes distracting comb-over and the less-than-perfect old-age makeup) version so far. Michelle Williams portrays Gwen Verdon and she embodies the fiery red hair of Verdon as well as the elastic limbs that go on for miles. Williams is nearly always the secret to success to every project she’s in, so I have very few worries about her performance. If you are worried about how Rockwell might be as a dancer, don’t be.
The premiere, “Life is a Cabaret” begins with “old Bob” getting ready for some event. It then flashes back with a title card that is distinctly dark, albeit humorous, which reads “19 years left” rather than the year of action (which would be 1968). Later in the episode, after Bob leaves with Gwen somewhere, we see the marker “eight minutes left.” The series is leading up to—or counting down to—Bob’s death in 1987, from a heart attack and in Gwen’s arms on the street (the writers got lucky with that detail).
However, for most of the episode, we are anchored in relatively chronological time between 1968, with the shooting of Fosse’s first film, Sweet Charity, and the early 1970s with the filming of his great success Cabaret. Initially, upon seeing that the series hops around chronologically and that they chose to start with “the Cabaret episode,” the cynic in me figured it was primarily a grab for the audience who is likely most familiar with Fosse via Cabaret, and so would be most interested in this episode now rather than later. And that could be true. However, as the episode progresses, it becomes clear that this structural choice has other benefits that aren’t related to viewership. For instance, starting here at what is the beginning of Fosse’s peak of success (due to his work on Pippin, Cabaret and Liza with a Z that he won directing Tonys, Oscars, and Emmys awards for in one year), we can witness the pair “at their best,” hypothetically.
There are earlier collaborations in which Gwen is more involved—and actually, their initial Broadway staging of Sweet Charity is a much truer partnership—but here Fosse is finally having the full control he yearns for, as well as the chance to prove himself after the fumble of the Sweet Charity film, and Gwen is using her years of “speaking Bob” to help this project be the best it can be. For an extra ironic cherry on top, the lyrics to a few notable Cabaret songs happen to apply themselves easily to this part of the Fosse/Verdon story as it is written. “Life is a Cabaret, old chum” might as well be Fosse’s motto (and he basically pitches it as such during his meeting with producer Cy Feuer), while “it was a fine affair, but now it’s over” as sung by Kelli Barrett as Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles can be equally appropriate for Gwen and Bob on the precipice of their final romantic break.
My main concern with the series is whether it will do Gwen Verdon justice. I will admit that until this series was announced, I was not aware of Verdon and her work or even her noted collaborations with Fosse. I think the same could be said for a lot of people. In particular, a lot of people born after Cabaret and Sweet Charity and Chicago were sensations. But, just dipping my toe into the research pool for this series has yielded information on a strong, talented woman who was more than her relationship to Bob Fosse. One of the most popular entertainers (and arguably, dancers) of today, Beyoncé, has referenced “Bob Fosse’s wife” as an inspiration for her “Single Ladies” dance and music video (the greatest music video of all time, lest we forget), but hopefully this series will elevate the work and legacy of Verdon a bit more so that she can be referred to by name and people will know who you’re talking about, without having to label her as “Fosse’s wife.”
While reading about the titular pair, I also got the impression that the two were separated during the making of Cabaret, which is not completely implied in this episode. In fact, Verdon never officially divorces Fosse, even as he has other long-term and collaborative relationships (like with with Ann Reinking in the late 70s). Of course, I don’t know what their dynamic was through their years of separation, but I hope the series doesn’t fall into the easy trap of having Verdon be continually surprised, disappointed, or heartbroken over every affair or relationship that he has in the future. The ending of this episode points to Verdon finding Fosse with the German translator he’s been sleeping with, but yet her spotting of his hand on the woman’s waist earlier in the episode simultaneously indicates that she is not surprised at the idea of him having blatant affairs. I also am wary of the series painting their relationship as something unsustainable for an insecure Fosse, because of Verdon’s apparent ease with her talent.
By all accounts, it seems that Fosse was a very ambitious person, who was never satisfied with success or his own work and always looked for improvement even when it meant he was harder on himself than he maybe should have been. This feels evident with the way he yearns to prove himself after the Sweet Charity flop, but the little moments in which he gripes about Verdon being mentioned so often in a review of the film, or he cringes at Cy’s desire to sell a Fosse/Verdon work instead of a solo Fosse film point to a path down which the series writers could try and argue that Fosse’s insecurity became more inflamed around Verdon and that was one reason it “couldn’t work.” And, maybe it was, but I hope that they explore the seed of that insecurity which is more about Fosse’s universal dissatisfaction and ambition rather than his insecurity with being “less than” one of his romantic partners. As of now, I have hope that they will skirt these pitfalls, but the traps are there for someone to trip into if not careful.
On top of the obvious love of theater and the work of Fosse and Verdon, the specificity of recreating each project gives the series a rich texture that already pushes it beyond other “pop culture history series” which simply gathers a bunch of character actors and puts them in wigs. This isn’t just about the fun of seeing these iconic theater and film pieces re-created in a “behind-the-scenes” context, but also about the interest of seeing two great artists and collaborators like this work in their specific ways, because they have a passion for their art. Fosse/Verdon doesn’t want to just examine a romantic relationship, but also the working lives and legacies of two highly influential figures in a grounded, real way that accurately represents life in showbiz.
Stylistically, the series also shows a lot of promise. I, perhaps unfortunately, saw Bob Fosse’s last great film All That Jazz right before watching this premiere, so I was primed to see connections between the two. Jazz is a drama that is heavily inspired by Fosse’s life, told in a stream-of-consciousness style that sets us right in the lead character’s mind. It wasn’t hard to see some influence of that film in the way that Fosse’s memories are ever-present and coexisting with him in the present. The sound of his tap shoes resound in his head, while his younger self performing in the Navy appears on a small stage within the restaurant present-day Fosse is eating in. It’s a fresh and creative, and ultimately pretty Fosse, thing to do and I look forward to more experimentation like this in future episodes.
In general, I am looking forward to the rest of Fosse/Verdon. Apparently, each episode focuses on a different production in their careers, and I like that concept a lot, both as a concise way to track their working partnership alongside their romantic one, as well as an easy and accessible way to introduce new fans to their work. I’m not sure if the series has much to offer to an audience that doesn’t at least have a baseline interest in theater, dance, or film but I also don’t think everything should be for everyone. A couple of days ago, I only really knew Fosse for Cabaret, but watching this episode and reading coverage for the series has excited an interest in both Fosse and Verdon that I’m happy to pursue. The pair only danced with each other on film once, in Damn Yankees, and it’s an absolute joy to watch. If the series can capture an ounce of that excitement in watching top artists be their best, and if they can make Gwen anything more than yet another long-suffering woman tied to a male “genius,” I think Fosse/Verdon could be a great way to spend a few weeks.
- I will only be covering the premiere and finale of this series, so please watch along with me and check back in at the end to see how things shake out! In the meantime, I will be devouring the Criterion edition of All That Jazz and reading Sam Wasson’s biography Fosse, because yes I need to know everything now!
- This episode was written by Steven Levenson and Sam Wasson and directed by Thomas Kail.
- One of Fosse’s early breakthrough Broadway numbers was “Steam Heat” from The Pajama Game, which I encourage you to watch because it really is so great.
- Gwen’s first thought when hearing Liza Minelli’s casting: “Can she act?”
- I suggest you browse the IMDb full cast list for this series because it is so fun and intriguing seeing which old Hollywood figures are going to be appearing, and who they will be played by. I, for one, was very excited by the appearance of Aya Cash (Gretchen from the just-finished You’re the Worst) as Neil Simon’s first wife, Joan. And Nate Corddry as Neil Simon!
- Kelli Barrett’s introduction as Liza had me thinking of Kristen Wiig here, and of course here.
- This recent article on Hazlitt by Alexandra Molotkow is a pretty great primer on the Fosse and Verdon “thing,” as well as a clear-eyed examination of Fosse’s “demons” and his hubristic pursuit of his last film, Star 80, about the murder of Dorothy Stratten. I have seen it, and it is indeed very unpleasant and it would’ve been fine if it never existed.
- I am going to leave you with this clip from All That Jazz, which features the aforementioned Anne Reinking (who will be played in future episodes by Margaret Qualley) because I didn’t want to wait until the finale.