Welcome back to our Fosse/Verdon recaps. Last week, EW’s leading theatrical lady Jessica Derschowitz promised you a double bill for these recaps between her and Marc Snetiker, but he is otherwise engaged this week so you’re getting his understudy, a.k.a. me. Because after all, the show must go on…
While last week set us up to see the creative partnership that fueled Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse’s personal and professional relationship, this week delves more deeply into the beginnings of their association — on the 1955 Broadway production of Damn Yankees, in which she starred as seductress Lola. Fosse was the choreographer. The episode continues to play fast and loose with time, never giving us exact dates, but only moments in relation to milestones in the characters’ lives. Whereas the premiere structured time around the number of years (and minutes) until Fosse’s death, this episode turns to several signposts, including the number of days since Verdon’s first Tony award.
Directed by Thomas Kail, the episode continues the series’ genius approach of editing the action so it plays with the signature rhythm of a Fosse number, bookending the start of Fosse and Verdon’s relationship with the first significant break in it. So with a few twists of the wrists and a 5,6,7,8, let’s jump into the second episode…
I’m Irresistible You Fool
Fosse and Verdon met rather famously while rehearsing Damn Yankees for its 1955 Broadway premiere. Verdon was already attached to the project when producer Hal Prince (Evan Handler) brings Fosse onboard, a man she disdainfully refers to as “the one with the hats” (which is perhaps both the purest and most reductive distillation of Bob Fosse’s choreography ever made). Despite having only ever choreographed The Pajama Game for Broadway, Bob wants to “audition” Verdon for the role and she agrees but keeps him on his toes with inquiries about his wife Joan McCracken (Susan Misner).
It’s time for Fosse to teach her a number and he’s chosen a seduction song, “Whatever Lola Wants,” which he has choreographed as a striptease. The two banter like musical comedy lovers and the spark is instantaneous. From their first moments, Verdon is not just a perfect executor of Fosse’s work, but a creative partner — picking up what he lays down and improving upon it.
There are nods to his signature dance style, including his asking her to slouch, which she points out is something no choreographer has ever asked her to do — but while he’s teaching her the dance of seduction, he’s performing one himself. Soon, we see them diving into rehearsal as his wife Joan asks suspiciously after her — and with good reason since we almost immediately see Fosse and Verdon in bed together. Their sex scene is cut the way a Fosse number is choreographed — the camera quickly cutting between isolated body parts — hands, arms, feet, faces. Shout out, yet again, to director Thomas Kail, for telling the story of their creative and personal partnership through the very methods that made them stand out in musical theater history.
Who’s Got the Pain?
There’s one hiccup in Gwen and Bob’s relationship — and it’s not so much that they’re both involved with other people as it is that in his case, the “other people” is a dying wife. Today, she’s not terribly well-known, but the series gives Joan McCracken her due — as a Broadway star in her own right, and the person instrumental in convincing Fosse to become a choreographer (she got him his first job on Pajama Game). After Joan comes to a rehearsal and must be carried out because she can’t walk, Gwen breaks down. She can’t take away a dying woman’s husband. They’ve kept the extent of Joan’s health problems secret to avoid her losing her career, but now that Gwen knows the truth she can’t handle the guilt of the affair. Bob tries to convince her otherwise, telling her he loves her, but Gwen makes a show of going back to her boyfriend Scott Brady (Nicholas Baroudi).
But the pairing of Bob and Gwen is inevitable and their relationship continues to develop onstage and behind-the-scenes as they dive into Damn Yankees out-of-town tryout in New Haven, Connecticut. Bob is adamant he doesn’t want a number cut and insists the song will work if they put him in the show. But when he overhears Hal Prince and writer George Abbott discussing their decision to cut it through the hotel room wall, he feels betrayed. Like other lionized creative male “geniuses,” Bob Fosse apparently does not respond well to constructive criticism. No one can calm him down except Gwen, the only one who truly understands him, and she follows him out of the hotel in the middle of the night to talk him down.
Back in the rehearsal room, they plunk through new options for a number before trying out a mambo (for West Side Story fans, this suggestion merits a winking Jerome Robbins reference). Gwen doesn’t think the mambo number, “Who’s Got the Pain?” meets the creative team’s request for something “fun” — but it inspires Bob. And he insists they’re not going to hear the lyrics about pain because they’ll be too busy watching her smile so wide. “We take what hurts and turn it into a big gag, and we’re singing and dancing, so they don’t realize all they’re laughing at is a person in agony,” Bob says in a very on-the-nose summation of his own work, mid-century musical comedy, and the very act of dancing.
You Gotta Have Heart
We get to see the number in action, complete with the memorable yellow Spanish style costumes, intercut with Joan’s confrontation of Gwen backstage. It’s a literal demonstration of Bob’s comments about musical numbers masking a person’s pain, flipping between the two extremes. Joan astutely points out what makes Gwen so essential for Bob’s work (and why she deserved more credit before this show), saying, “It’s like watching him up there, but it’s more like watching what he wishes he was.” Joan subtly calls out Gwen and Bob’s affair by talking about meeting Bob on a show and taking him away from his first wife, a chorus girl. But she warns her that Bob will never be happy until he’s a star — Gwen might be the vehicle to make that happen or it could prove their downfall.
It’s time then for an ultimatum. Gwen draws Bob into a backstage embrace, and they both demand the other leave their current partner. And it works — Joan is packing her bag and Gwen is offering to let Bob move into her place for a while. There’s one catch though — he needs Gwen’s financial help to continue to pay for a nurse to Joan. So, he’s not completely abandoning her, just asking his new lover to pay for it. Gwen agrees, and we see a portion of the quartet singing “Heart” from Damn Yankees. She goes to take her bow as Lola to thunderous applause, while Bob watches from the wings.
Two Lost Souls
The story of Gwen and Bob’s coming together is interlaced with one of them coming apart. At the end of last week’s episode, Gwen found Bob in bed with the German translator, Hannah, and now they’re in Majorca, purportedly trying to save their marriage — though we later discover it’s because Bob threatened suicide if she didn’t come. Fosse should honestly be as well remembered for his emotional manipulation as his choreography. Yeesh.
Gwen grapples with the fact that Bob feels insecure about their careers being in competition with each other but also confronts him about his infidelities. He makes a show of saying he couldn’t think without her on set. But he also confesses he’s in love with Hannah and he wants to be able to go on seeing her and also come back home to Gwen and their daughter. He needs her, but he’s not willing to give up what he wants either.
But Gwen is tired of performing the same tired dramatic scene — and at episode’s end, she gets in a car to leave Bob (he had it coming, he had it coming — oh wait, we’re not there narratively yet). She tells him that she’s informed Nicole he won’t be living with them anymore — and drives off, leaving him in the sand, as we cut between her taking that bow and knocking on his hotel room door with the gorilla mask. She can’t give up her dancing, and she can no longer accept Bob’s insecurities over her creative success and input — all of which swirls around her first momentous onstage triumph alongside him and that thunderous applause.