I have, in the past, whilst standing in the metaphorical back of the mezzanine observing the ghost lights of Glee, Smash, and Rise, declared and do hereby reiterate again my longstanding belief that any theater TV show, quality or authenticity notwithstanding, is better than no theater TV show at all. Fortunately, fabulously, and even miraculously, it’s evident by now that Fosse/Verdon is not just another theater show to fit that bill, but a theater show we may actually deserve.
In my true dream world, every musical that Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon ever touched during their careers would be the subject of its own eight-episode FX miniseries, but Fosse/Verdon has nevertheless proven by its third episode that its decentralized structure is the next best thing. Our weekly time-steps through the pair’s résumés offer just enough of a tease (Gypsy Rose Lee could never) of what you need from each classic musical title to feel as though justice has been done to both the show and, presumably, the broad strokes of Gwen and Bob’s emotional headspace while making it. And in any event, Fosse/Verdon already does feel like a dream world anyway, a hazy sepia-toned Manhattan memoryscape that feels like every frame of footage already actually exists in a Polaroid photo hidden somewhere in a waterlogged box deep beneath the Drama Book Shop.
To that end, here’s a snapshot of “Me and My Baby,” in which Gwen swallows her pride and Bob swallows pills with more or less matched frequency.
If the episode title excited you to the idea that we’d finally reached the Chicago portion of the program, then please join me in… the disappointment of realizing that not only were there no merry murderesses this week, but that the week’s onstage focus was—gasp—a straight play. (I’m still recovering from this.) And unlike every middle and high school ever, it’s NOT just a Shakespeare comedy that tides everyone over until spring.
The year is 1972-ish and Gwen is looking for work while fielding fans who are still spouting Damn Yankees quotes to her a decade after she made the movie (which, all things considered, is better than what she might have heard if she actually did the Sweet Charity film). But like an insomniac Evan Hansen, she’s anxiously craving a new role, and she thinks she finally found it in a play called Children! Children!.
Her agent initially rejects the part wholesale based on the director’s outrageous request that Gwen audition. Whether in an act of defiance or desperation, Gwen puts aside her ego and reads for the part (and thankfully lands it). But as rehearsals begin, it’s clear that the Gwen Verdon who brought down the house in Yankees is not the Gwen Verdon who excels in the quiet abstract silences of a kitchen-sink drama.
It’s not entirely her fault, though, as she’s overwhelmingly plagued by self-doubt painfully elicited by a variety of should-be-supportive sources: Bob, who finds out about the play and scoffs at the sheer idea of Gwen acting in a non-musical; her agent, who delivered the good news that she booked the role with an unnecessary salty aside that she wasn’t everyone’s first choice; the director, who sternly (but not unkindly) guides Gwen to the realization that she is overly dependent on specific, exact instruction (a.k.a. choreography); and of course, herself, an immortal wellspring of that brand of glorious self-doubt that only comes from one’s own well-flashbacked memories.
During one scene in the play, Gwen’s character must tell a story about an angel boy, and it’s a jab from Bob—”What do you know about boys? You never raised one!”—that sends her spiraling into a vision of her past: Teenage Gwyneth Evelyn Vernon performs party tricks in Culver City, Calif., a promising entertainer who’s unexpectedly thrown into a life she did not seek when a family friend forces himself on her, gets her pregnant, and propels her into an engagement. Suddenly Gwen’s life has fractured into an abusive husband, their meager household, their screaming toddler, and whatever remains of her dreams of dancing—which miraculously manifest one day out of the blue. When she meets choreographer Jack Cole at an opportune moment, Gwen snags a job with him on tour, and what she ultimately does with that moment—leaving her toddler with her parents and never looking back—is the sacrifice that consistently haunts her. Even in the present, it’s hijacked her psyche into thinking that her teenage deal with the devil was so tremendous that every moment not spent chasing her career rewrites her decision to be in vain.
I wish I could say that Gwen Verdon went Strasberg all over that stage, then. I wish that she fueled her performance in Children! Children! with such powerfully unparalleled emotional recall that the play was subsequently met with critical acclaim upon its opening and revolutionized her entire profile as an actress. I really do wish I could say that. But perhaps it’s a spoiler for next week’s episode, then, to say that Children! Children! opened and closed in one night.
You can take the adulterer out of Berlin, but you can’t take Berlin out of the adulterer. Bob is living alone in a hotel room in New York in the wake of Gwen’s discovery of his German affair, and the aftereffects have sent him into a spiral. He chooses not to seize his Eloise-at-the-Plaza moment and instead belligerently barges back into his and Gwen’s apartment at random moments, drunk with depression over the paltry state of Cabaret (now in the editing phase) as well as the general dissolution of the institutions in his life.
Bob has also reluctantly accepted work on Pippin, a show he passed on six months prior but has since revisited thanks to Stephen Schwartz’s success with Godspell. “You said it was terrible,” Gwen points out, and Bob knows it’s true but he swears he’ll fix it anyway. (Narrator: He didn’t.) Gwen is doubly surprised that he accepted the job without telling her, but her surprise is much the same as his when she reveals she’s doing a play. Bob’s adultery has already wedged them so far apart that at this point, they wield their career developments like weapons, passive-aggressively playing them like theatrical chess pieces on the checkerboard grid of Midtown.
It’s primarily the editing of Cabaret that’s forcing Bob to do to prescription pill bottles what Sweeney Todd did to unattractive baritones in their mid-40s. Giddy with excitement at his cinematic comeback, Bob had literally rolled out the red carpet for himself in a state of musical euphoria as he headed into the production office to begin editing the footage, but his dream turned disastrous when he found out (A) that someone had already pieced together a rough film cut and (B) that the footage was “unwatchable.” Classic Fosse overreaction, but still—it’s a conclusion that convinces Bob that only Gwen’s keen eye can salvage Cabaret and stop him from falling through a trapdoor that even act-two Elphaba couldn’t knock her way out of. Bob begs Gwen to help, but she’s busy with rehearsals for Children! Children! and leaves him (with a hint of pleasure) to face the editing room on his own—a dangerous decision, given the attractive assistant editor he gets to see every day at work.
All this time, poor little Nicole Fosse has been relegated to nothing more than a hot potato to her mother and father, a prop with occasional dialogue who gets handed off to and by either parent whenever they’re in need of a power play. That carelessness comes to a head when Gwen, caught up in a dinner with her agent, forgets to pick up Nicole after relishing dropping her off with Bob earlier, leaving him to babysit much later into the evening than he planned. Since Bob has decided he simply must let the hot editing assistant sally his bowles, he calls Paddy Chayefsky to come babysit at the hotel, and Gwen is horrified when she discovers Paddy and her daughter hanging out. Despite Paddy’s familiar place as a friend of the family, the very fact that Bob left young Nicole alone with a grown man prompts the vision that reminds Gwen of the very predatory trauma (by a family friend, no less) that forced her into a horrifying status quo in the first place. Moreover, Bob’s absence is further evidence of both another adulterous dalliance in Bob’s personal life and his inability to spend extended time with his daughter.
Yet here’s where Fosse/Verdon shows its deft understanding of creative people: As Gwen and Bob’s personal relationship diverges dramatically, it’s a mere few scenes later that Gwen’s professional arc forces her back into Bob’s. Sinking to her absolute nadir of self-confidence in play rehearsals, Gwen swallows her pride again, pinches her cheeks, fixes her hair, and pops into the Cabaret editing bay with more conviction in her performance than she was ever going to give in Children! Children!. “What are we working on?” she chirps, sprightly, slyly, sadly, and if Michelle Williams doesn’t win major awards for that line delivery alone, it’ll be a bigger disservice to collaboration than when the Baker refused to let his Wife follow him into the woods.
And of course, despite the bitterness, despite the passive-aggressiveness, despite the irresponsibility they’ve both shown with Nicole, Gwen and Bob fall back into their magical partnership almost immediately. She’s completely on his level and he’s right there on hers, finishing each other’s suggestions to help make Cabaret the classic it would become. Afterward, in the same hallway where they each spiraled alone, there’s a spark of levity together: “Maybe it’s not so terrible,” one says. “No, maybe not,” muses the other. And of course you realize it’s not about Cabaret but about Gwen and Bob themselves, and the endless cycle of antagonistic affection that has defined and will continue to define their entire life together, a perpetual cycle of rainbows emerging after storms, shining bright and buoyantly for as long as it can until another hurricane is beckoned by the torrential rain dances of Bob Fosse.
THE CURTAIN CALL
There is, quite literally, a curtain call this week, and it’s an unexpected one in the final moments of the episode. We flash to the 1953 Broadway opening of Can-Can, in which Gwen found her breakout role. After her big ballet number set in the Garden of Eden, she runs offstage to change for her next act, but the reception is so rapturous that the whole production grinds to a halt—truly, a showstopper—until she returns to the stage in her skivvies for another bow, more adulation, and the beginnings of what she will look back on later in life as the first night she ever spent a star.
But years later, alone in her apartment, Fosse/Verdon tells us that what keeps Gwen Verdon up at night is not some desperate memory of her former glory, not the applause of Can-Can that she hears when she can’t sleep. It’s the cries of the child she left behind, decades earlier, to become the person she wanted to be. If you’re paying attention, it’s what we see her getting dangerously close to doing all over again to Nicole, affectionate and caring as their relationship may be. If you’re really paying attention, it’s those distant cries that fuel her to subject herself to the endless storms of Bob Fosse, to endure his lows for the creative highs she’s devoted her whole life to chasing.
And if you’re really, really paying attention, it’s Michelle Williams’ Emmy episode—and there are still five more acts to go.