At the end of my review of the premiere of Fosse/Verdon, I wrote that I was not sure if the series has much to offer to an audience that doesn’t have a requisite interest in musical theater, dance, or film. Seven episodes later, I still feel that major elements of the series will appeal the most to that crowd, but I believe the show’s storytelling mission was grander and more human than merely to be a “behind the scenes” imagining of some great works of mid-century theater and film.
By the end of the final episode, “Providence,” it became more clear that they wanted to tell a story that is, at its core, quite simple: the story of two people who could never leave each other. These people just happened to be artists. This becomes a narrative of what it is like to be an ambitious artist and performer, driven by forces inside of them to pursue possibly selfish interests ahead of things like “stable relationships” that other people may value more. What “Providence” shows us in the unraveling of Bob and Gwen’s long-term partnerships with Annie (Margaret Qualley) and Ron (Jake Lacy), respectively, is that some people just don’t prioritize relationships that way.
In this final hour, Bob is preparing his autobiographical film All that Jazz (the episode follows real life by how many people close to Bob can’t even pretend that this isn’t his life on film, despite Bob protesting), and casting the roles. He makes Ann Reinking audition to play “Katie,” the younger girlfriend who is fed up with his infidelity. He runs a scene with her that has Katie and “Joe” (Bob) confronting each other about infidelities and he makes her run it again and again. Everyone in the room knows that this is a recreation of a personal moment between them, and Bob pushes Ann until she gets angry enough to yell at him as herself. He responds with a cool smile, almost psychotically pleased that he simultaneously succeeded in drawing out a raw performance from his actor, and pushed Ann into giving him the scorn he deserves.
Later, we see Gwen lose her sweet, normal boyfriend Ron because she has been offered—by Bob, of course—the opportunity to reprise her role as Roxy Hart in the touring company of Chicago. Jake Lacy is often playing either The Nicest Guy (The Office, Obvious Child), or the Guy You Think is Nice But Is Actually Toxic (Carol, Girls, Ramy); in this mini-series, we get the Nicest Guy, which was great for Gwen. Through several episodes, and several years of story time, Ron puts up gamely with Bob and the stress he puts on Gwen and Nicole and their lives. He was often the only one trying to be a supportive paternal influence to poor Nicole (while Ann had a sweet bond with her as well, theirs was more sisterly), and he stood by Gwen’s side through the struggles and challenges of the original Chicago production.
But, with her acceptance of the tour—after discussing an idyllic home life with Ron in the country—he knows that it’s never going to stop. She’ll find reasons to extend the tour, saying “Bob needs me to,” but Ron knows that it is just as much Gwen who has the hunger for work and is allergic to settling down. He fully lets Gwen know that if she accepts the tour, their relationship is over, but her decision seems to come very easy to her. Bob and Gwen both let go of long-term, relatively healthy and endlessly forgiving partners for their work, their art.
All the while, their child Nicole who, as we saw in the penultimate episode “Nowadays,” was a hard-won miracle, is growing up by herself and resorting to getting drunk and high alone on her Dad’s liquor and pills in the hopes that he will care enough about her state to set aside his own concerns for a night and take care of her. While the unexpectedly extensive peeks into Nicole’s life do feel a bit disconnected from the main story, and as a demonstration of Nicole’s influence on the show as a producer, they are not by any means unimportant. This is a story of two semi-toxic ambitious people and how their personal drive affects those around them. Who would it affect more than their child?
She isn’t just a “and then they had a child” footnote to the story of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, she is an actual person who had her own life to live and who was only given one set of parents to rely on. The bitter truth is that often while Bob and Gwen were making art; Nicole is left alone, emotionally at the very least. The show, to its credit, doesn’t sharply underline Nicole’s neglect but lets us just see it for ourselves. The most subtly heartbreaking moment occurrs when Bob, convincing Gwen to fly out to supervise the revival of Sweet Charity, reminds her that “it’s our baby.” What is sad is that it is, but their real live baby could have used as much detailed attention as the revival did.
And so, by the end of “Providence,” and the series of Fosse/Verdon, Bob and Gwen work together again to bring up the best version of one of their shows, or their babies. They have been left by their stable, nurturing love interests and are thus left to be alone, together, with their work. In his final scene with Bob, Paddy (the great Norbert Leo Butz), basically outlines Bob’s life for him, and while it is one of the more obvious moments of the show telling you what it’s doing, he also speaks the truth that Bob and Gwen are essentially destined to be together. While their romantic connection burned out many years ago, their creative connection never stopped. It’s rare to see these kinds of partnerships dramatized, in which any romantic motives are ultimately less important to the partners than a more practical connection they share. It’s refreshing and is a rich example, and examination of, a classic, idealized belief of the “Artist-Muse” connection. If you want to claim Bob or Gwen as the others’ Muse, I think you could argue either combination at various points in their lives together, but ultimately that binary is much too simple to describe how they worked together.
The last stunning scene of them at work has Bob once again directing Gwen in a Sweet Charity scene. This time though, Bob steps back and lets Gwen show the new performer the “way to do it” in a long-earned recognition that Gwen was just as much of an author of their major works together—Sweet Charity high among them—as Bob was. Michelle Williams’ subtle voice and body work here expertly evoke the image of a much older woman performing steps through muscle memory, like she’s being carried along by her creative force inside of her. Her body is just barely able to keep up, but her inner something-or-other is lighting her up from inside, making her nonetheless enchanting. Bob looks on at her performance, looking equally and suddenly as old and relatively feeble, but he is pulled to her magnetically just the same. They are parents of this work, helping it be born once again. At that moment, despite so many others which illustrate their disconnect and their discord, we see them as a single unit, inextricably connected and necessary to each other.
The show ends, rightly, when the partnership ends, as it must, with Bob’s death. So many moments of this series actually happened, it’s sometimes incredible how ready Fosse’s life was for dramatization. In “Providence,” we see the real ending with Bob in Gwen’s arms, as well as the saddest tap dance by Bob at Paddy’s funeral. While the latter moment is a select anecdote that lets us see a warm, loving, kind side to Bob, the former is a moment which underlines just how much Gwen and Bob were wrapped up in each other. Who else would he be with at the moment of his death? Who else was always “there,” even if she wasn’t right next to him?
The final sequence sees Gwen and Bob staring into each other’s eyes, essentially seeing their partnership and life together “flash” before their eyes. It’s a slightly maudlin touch, especially with the music, which only grows stronger, but it is striking to see just how much these people have been through together and even more so how their feelings for each other continually evolved. It’s striking, almost breathtaking, to go back to their first meeting. The sight of young Gwen and Bob is jarring, as is the apparent electricity between them, and the hint of fear in both of them, or a sense of premonition, that they’ve just met someone that is going to be very important to them.
Fosse/Verdon was a series made by primarily theater artists, about primarily theater artists, as well as by the only child of those artists and I think the series reflects those interests very well. While the series works as a general examination of what two people can mean to one another over many years, it is also more keenly examining a particular kind of lifelong, non-romantic partnership that many artists experience, and may seek out as much as or more than a romance. Producer Lin-Manuel Miranda is on his third collaboration here with director Thomas Kail, and although I’m sure that’s a less intense bond than Fosse/Verdon had, I’m sure it is a bond which they value.
In addition to looking at Fosse/Verdon through that lens, the input of Nicole Fosse has helped prevent hero worship of these artists. They were incredibly influential figures, but a daughter knows best how flawed her parents can be. It’s clear Nicole has, with age and maturity, learned to sympathize with her parents as we all do, but she is able to look at them with clear eyes, and therefore so are we.
I was simultaneously devouring as much media and information about or by Fosse and Verdon as I could while watching this series, so I don’t know exactly how informative it would be on its own. What I do know is that before it started I had only known two of Fosse’s films, and next to nothing about the rest of his career or his personal life. I had never heard of Gwen Verdon. I am glad that, if nothing else, this series has inspired me to seek out information on both of these compelling, and truly influential, people, and to listen to and watch their work. They created a healthy chunk of popular theater and film from the late ‘50s to mid-‘70s and deserve their reputations. The structure of making each episode (except the pivotal turning point of a bottle episode that was Episode Five, “Where Am I Going?”) the “x episode” (The Lenny, Pippin, Chicago episode…) makes it easy to stoke an interest in viewers, and was a smart choice by the writers, one which was digestible and coherent.
Fosse/Verdon is perhaps a bit niche, but it has a deft touch and a lot to say about the creative process, the life of an artist, the power and curse of ambition, and even trickier subjects like the ignorance about male victims of rape and the impossibility, especially in the 1950s, of being a mother and pursuing your own goals and desires. I feel the series affecting me more as I sit with it and I like that. There’s a lot to chew on here: the story of two lives, lots of work, and the endless influence they all have on more work and more art that is being made today.
- Oh, right, that’s Lin-Manuel popping up in brief scenes as Roy Scheider, playing Bob’s alter ego in All That Jazz. This was a supremely delightful moment, and one of the best low-key casting choices in a series full of them.
- Regarding All That Jazz, one of the best scenes of “Providence” has Bob getting Nicole’s help with practicing a few moves for the film, moves which will be used in the Anne/Nicole “Katie/Michelle” number, as well as the rehearsal scene between “Joe and Michelle,” father and daughter in the film. The bittersweet difference is that, while this scene between Bob and Nicole is genuine enough and sweet, it only comes about because Bob is working out the choreography for his film. The scenes in the film are therefore a touch sweeter and more genuine, albeit between fake-Bob and fake-Nicole.
- The hazy border between Bob/Joe and reality/All That Jazz is even hazier when, after running through the finale “as Joe” for fun, a crew member calls the set to prepare for a take of “the real thing,” shaking Bob out of his briefly attained satisfaction.
- The final montage running through Bob and Gwen’s life together also illustrates how subtle the age makeup was, as well as the acting and shifts in voice and body posture by both actors. They gradually shifted into middle and late-middle age, and it never felt cartoonish or hack.
- A lot of work by Bob and Gwen is readily available. The soundtracks to their productions of Redhead, New Girl in Town, Sweet Charity, and Chicago are streaming on Spotify. Lenny is streaming on Amazon Video, a recording of the original Pippin production is available to rent on Amazon, and Cabaret is hitting Netflix in June. You can probably find (as I did) Damn Yankees, All That Jazz, and Sweet Charity at your local library. Pick your poison!
Bye, bye! This clip is long, but this song rips: