ALL THAT JAZZ
‘Fosse/Verdon’ Is Saved by Michelle Williams’ Razzle-Dazzle
The new FX series respectfully dramatizes the lives of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, the woman behind his creative genius. In the end, though, you kind of wish it was just about her.
A good, show-stopping production number builds to its climax. No one knows that better than famed choreographer Bob Fosse and Broadway triple-threat phenom Gwen Verdon. “You don’t want to give anything away. Let them come to you,” Bob tells Gwen in their first meeting during the latter’s audition for Damn Yankees in a pivotal early scene in the new FX series Fosse/Verdon.
The question with the splashy new drama, which premieres Tuesday night, then becomes whether viewers—not the captive audience in a Broadway theater, and in fact with more than 500 options of other TV shows to watch—will be willing to wait for the good stuff.
Fosse/Verdon is a seduction, to be sure. How could it not be? But it’s a slow dance at first, one with a few stumbles in the choreography—and one with a misunderstanding of who should be taking the lead.
There’s a lot of meaning packed into that brisk title. Fosse/Verdon is about a partnership, one that, over the course of three decades completely reinvented musical theatre and film, all the while taking a great toll on the conflicted lovers and performers at the center.
He choreographed and directed, and his work on Damn Yankees, Cabaret, Sweet Charity, Pippin, The Pajama Game, and Chicago is indelible. She was a performer and muse, winning four Tony Awards in five years, and creating some of the theater’s greatest roles: Charity in Sweet Charity, Lola in Damn Yankees, and Roxie Hart in Chicago.
The slash mark in the title, though, suggests something more, both a blurring of and a tension between the two icons, played by Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams. Fosse/Verdon spotlights just how much of Fosse’s creative output is owed to Verdon’s input.
When she shows up to the troubled Cabaret film shoot to offer her eye and her ideas, she rescues a doomed production, in turn minting a cinema classic. “I just know how to speak Bob,” she shrugs. “It’s my native tongue.”
When he is in a rut while choreographing a Damn Yankees number, an all-night rehearsal emerges at sunrise with Verdon dancing a Broadway triumph—moves that are indelibly hers, but the credit for which are given to him. “That’s what Bobby does,” Verdon, his wife at the time, says. “He takes what’s special about a girl and he makes it his own.”
The life and times of the tortured artist is a story that’s been done. In fact, it’s been done about Bob Fosse, with his 1979 semi-autobiographical film All That Jazz. So when Fosse/Verdon hits those beats—the affairs, the drugs, the insomnia, the crushing pressure of creating, the demons threatening brilliance—the series starts to feel rudimentary and stale. What’s fresh, and timely, is the reminder that he was no independent genius.
He was brilliant, but it was Verdon’s brilliance right beside and in tandem with his that made the work transformative, and caused the seismic shift in dance, performance, and cinematic style that he is exalted for. Celebrating that partnership certainly resonates in a #MeToo era.
The show indicts Fosse as a philanderer, training a near-constant empathetic lens on Verdon’s plight: one of the most talented performers and creative minds in Broadway history, who steps out of the spotlight to raise her daughter and feels the constant pull back to the stage. She channels that desire through willingly collaborating with her husband, with her vital contributions a veritable open secret in the business.
Negotiating the pleasure derived from her work and the indignities of Fosse’s reputation for mistreating her, we learn, became maybe her life’s most impressive dance.
But this, the series’ most captivating narrative and the reason to watch, ironically exposes its biggest shortcoming. If we’re properly exasperated with hearing about the talented woman behind the male savant, isn’t time we just made the story about the woman already? The thing I walked away with after watching the batch of critics’ screeners for Fosse/Verdon is that, in the end, I’d rather just be watching Verdon.
To that end, Williams gives my favorite performance of her career in this.
Williams is an obvious talent—four Oscar nominations certainly attest to that—but for many, she’s an acquired, if not polarizing one. Her performances, especially memorable recent ones in My Week With Marilyn and All the Money in the World, tend to be mannered and theatrical in a way that can be jarring. But what better venue for a skilled theatrical actress than playing one of the greatest Broadway performers of all time?
Williams charms with her singing and dancing here. (This is a bit of meta casting. She recently played Sally Bowles in the Broadway revival of Cabaret.) But it’s a scene in the third episode that represents the high point of the series—at least as much as we have seen, and which we can’t imagine being topped.
It’s during a flashback to Gwen’s breakout role in Can-Can. On opening night, she exits the stage after a dance to quick-change for her next scene, but the applause is so rapturous she must come back out, covered with a towel, to acknowledge it.
Williams cycles through the emotions of a person transformed with moving precision. This is a dancer who left her then-husband and baby son to pursue a dream. At first, she’s shell-shocked by the response, then acknowledges it, understands it, and, finally, relishes it. It’s the moment that she realizes the stage is where she belongs—and understands the negotiations with her personal life she would have to make to stay there.
For a theater lover, these scenes are a dream.
Fosse/Verdon in part plays like a game of “I Spy” of cameos of Broadway legends, many played by current Broadway stars. It’s Shirley MacLaine (played by Laura Osnes)! Neil Simon (Nate Corddry)! Joel Grey (Ethan Slater)! Chita Rivera (Bianca Marroquin)! Ann Reinking (Margaret Qually)! “Uncle Paddy” who babysits Bob and Gwen’s daughter? Ha, it’s Paddy Chayefsky, played by Norbert Leo Butz! And Kelli Barrett, performing a full-throated “Mein Herr,” is a phenomenal Liza Minnelli.
The making of these classic pieces is an integral aspect of the series, and it’s a blast to watch the creation of “Whatever Lola Wants,” or the staging of “Big Spender,” or the corrections of the shoulder from here-to-there on a Kit Kat Club dancer during the filming of scenes from Cabaret.
Fosse and Verdon’s work is synonymous with smoke, sex, sweat, and style. Sometimes these scenes remind you how much you wish there was more of it in the show.
The more surreal, stylistic elements come when the series jumps back and forth, often dizzyingly, in time. In one episode, we’re chronicling the Cabaret film shoot in 1972. In the next, it’s 1955 and we’re watching rehearsals for Damn Yankees and the beginnings of the couple’s affair. We flash forward to their old age, flashback to the respective performers as children, and stop over in telling moments through their professional careers and personal lives.
But a sense of smoky darkness is absent in the series’ more polished production aesthetics. You miss some of the sex that Fosse’s choreography intrinsically telegraphs. You want the sweat that drips with the raw pheromones of these inextricable personalities, or from the grueling precision of their work. You want more style. More razzle-dazzle, if you will.
To that end, there’s a specter haunting Fosse/Verdon, and that’s the ghost of Ryan Murphy.
Most people assume, based on the subject matter and the fact that this is a FX series, that it is a Ryan Murphy series. It’s actually from the creative team behind Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, and Andy Blankenbuehler all have roles behind the scenes. The series is certainly competent, one collaboration that changed the face of American theater telling the story of another.
But you’re looking for more of a Fosse shoulder roll, the extra tap in the time step, the unexpected contortion in the jazz number—the kinds of quirks that made Fosse and Verdon singular and unique. Their relationship was anything but by the book, and you wish this dramatization wasn’t afraid to go a little more off-script.