The season-and-series finale of Fosse/Verdon opens with the familiar choreography of Bob Fosse and Paddy Chayefsky strolling through a park. For the last time, they revive the steps we don’t even need to see to know exist: a softshoe on Bob’s health, a tango over theater, dueling jives on the state of Fosse’s romances. But here, as Bob and Paddy discuss the upcoming not-a-biopic biopic All That Jazz, which Bob has taken it upon himself to craft, the masterful move in their pas de deux revue introduces a big new question into the repertoire: Is Bob Fosse capable of changing? And if so—has he?
The short answer to Chayefsky’s finale query is no. Bob Fosse hasn’t changed, not in the way that an epic hero or a rom-com rebel might conclude their arc. No, in the waning decade of his life, busying himself with another outlandish passion project (which will ultimately prove successful) and a cavalcade of mistresses (which won’t), Bob shows himself to be skating along the same broken and reconstituted ice that has left his life’s relationships on shaky ground.
His daughter, unclear in age these days if not in attitude, fields the same inconsistent foundational parenting Bob has always offered her. His new girlfriends are younger and hungrier; his old ones are older and wiser (Ann, in her last Fosse/Verdon appearance, storms out after auditioning for—and getting—the role of herself in All That Jazz). And though Bob is still molded by the applause of an audience, as displayed when Lin-Manuel Miranda cameos as a Roy Scheider who impels Bob to perform a dreamy run-through of his very own death song, the applause fades and we realize that perhaps the only thing that’s really changed about Bob Fosse over the years is that he’s finally realizing they’ll clap just as hard for the artificial as the authentic. There’s a show being performed on both sides of the proscenium, and Bob may even be on the verge of slowing the grand oscillations of his willingness to internalize what the actual people in his life think about him. In his research on his own life for All That Jazz, it’s an imperious Gwen who offers him a haunting truth about the self-mythologizing constant in her life. “I don’t think you changed at all,” she tells him when he asks about rumors that he’s become even more of an asshole since his health downturn. “I think you became more yourself. You stopped pretending to be anything else.”
At the same time, Gwen is on the cusp of creating a new pretend life in the suburbs, a life where her stalled career would not be a scarlet letter but a buried memory, a second shot at domestication where show business would be reduced from the explosive whizbang city symphonies of any particular New York hour to the mild rumble of a railcar that takes Gwen into town once a year for an audition. “What’s keeping us here?” she muses to Ron, her quiet love, who agrees to escort her into her next act. As far as we can tell, or at the very least guess, Ron just may have built her the happy home she deserved for the twilight decades of her life.
But then Bob offers Gwen the role of Roxie on the forthcoming tour of Chicago. “It’s your show,” he coos. “It’s always been your show.” And suddenly Gwen is feuding with Ron in their bedroom, telling him that she’s already accepted the six-month job, explaining to him that her miserable time in Chicago wasn’t all that bad, taking back what she said about moving out of the city, rewriting the instructions of the very escape plan she just proposed. Gwen Verdon does not lie, she just workshops truths in rehearsal. Conversations are scenes she cuts after previews. With all fire and no shame, Gwen once again makes the choice to reroute her entire life for one chance to perform, and it’s Michelle Williams’ masterful interpretation that once more redraws the imperceptible line of where the performer ends and the real Gwen begins. If Bob Fosse hasn’t changed, Gwen Verdon, thankfully, hasn’t either.
And so it’s with this understanding that the rest of the show’s finale plays out as a series of vignettes from the last few years of both Bob and Gwen’s lives. The superficial highs of Bob’s bedroom Rolodex growing and his health fading, of Gwen echoing her childhood with tragic painted-face party performances of Charity and Yankees. The heartbreaking lows of Gwen cooking a complex meal for one in the most depressing pasta-making montage ever filmed, of Bob somberly performing at Paddy Chayefsky’s funeral as he once promised his friend he would. (A quiet marker of Fosse/Verdon’s achievement is in the way Sam Rockwell’s funereal tap dance registers as one of the series’ most wholly believable emotional moments—a hell of a feat to pull off.)
Years later, a revival of Sweet Charity brings Bob and Gwen back together yet again for what would be their final collaboration, a gig that falls somewhere between desperation and duty for both of them. Showing a young Debbie Allen how it’s done, Gwen glows on the rehearsal stage with the afterburn of something that was once a supernova. And when she hands over her hat and cane, we know that it’s the last time she’ll show her mastery in movement, and the last time Bob will take credit for it, too.
It’s on the night of Sweet Charity’s eventual opening on September 23, 1987, that Bob Fosse collapses, cradled in Gwen Verdon’s arms, just feet away from a theatre where an audience is summoning the electric energy that awaits the rise of a curtain, a grand theatrical ritual practiced by groundlings and nobles for millennia. And it’s on that energy that Bob Fosse, fittingly, rides the wave and takes his dramatic exit with marquee lights still bearing his name.
Thirteen years later, at her daughter’s home in Vermont, Gwen Verdon dies peacefully, quietly, alone in her sleep.
Future television storytellers, take note: Let Fosse/Verdon be a beacon for how we pass on legends, for how we turn apocryphal tales into meaningful moments and forgotten lives into richly realized personae. Particularly in dealing with a sphere of American pop culture often unrecognized by the very audiences who patronize it, Sam Wasson’s biography and countless others have played their part in recording the vital history of two of Broadway’s greatest names, but to preserve the art of Fosse and Verdon through the creation of new art was a bold risk that involved wild swings toward great fences. And Fosse/Verdon, with its crack team of writers and museum-docent showmanship, with its committed soul from Sam Rockwell, with the role of Michelle Williams’ career, hit so many of them, sending its targets hurtling through the metropolitan air with the same impossible, spectacular élan as Gwen Verdon kicking toward the heavens.