Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome…to our very first recap of Fosse/Verdon.
As FX’s buzzy limited series dives into the decades-long partnership between director-choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and dancer-actress Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), EW will be doing a double-bill of its own to chronicle these eight forthcoming episodes, which no doubt will be filled with artistic triumphs and frustrations, philandering auteurs, and lots of very specific dance movements. I’ll be kicking things off for the series premiere, and then my colleague Marc Snetiker will hit the stage next week, and so on.
The opening episode, “Life Is a Cabaret,” jumps in assuming you know who Bob and Gwen are — or at the very least, have a level of familiarity with Bob and his work. If that’s not you, there’s a bit of a learning curve to contend with. But the show also leads (smartly, I think) with one of Fosse’s biggest hits, the Oscar-winning film adaptation of Cabaret…and, as this episode contends, that success is due at least in part to Verdon’s behind-the-scenes contributions and their collaborative style of working together.
So, without further ado, let’s pull back the curtain on this first installment.
Before Fosse/Verdon turns its focus to Cabaret, it looks at Fosse’s feature directorial effort, 1969’s Sweet Charity. It’s based on the Broadway musical of the same name, which was a Fosse-Verdon joint production (he directed and choreographed, she starred as lead character Charity Hope Valentine), but the film adaption doesn’t repeat that one-two punch. Instead, Shirley MacLaine was cast in the title role, and Verdon was sidelined to helping her husband test out choreography, teaching steps to MacLaine, and helping him sort out how to frame the famous “Big Spender” number. She’s an important part of the film but not, you know, in the film.
Charity flops, with The New York Times specifically calling out Verdon’s absence in its review — “a movie haunted by the presence of an unseen star.” Bob points this out to his wife before imagining himself jumping off their balcony in the wake of the film’s box-office disaster, one of the many times the show plays with what viewers are really seeing versus what’s inside Fosse’s mind. (His mind, at least at this point, has a lot of flashbacks to Young Fosse tap rehearsals and sharp reminders that no matter how good you are, in showbiz there’s always someone better, a mentality that clearly still fuels the now-adult Bob).
He doesn’t stay down for long, though. He pitches himself to producer Cy Feuer as the perfect person to direct and choreograph the film adaptation of Cabaret, which is a tough sell post-Charity. Cy says he’s too flashy for what’s supposed to be a darker, more adult film, but Fosse says he knows what this needs to be — he lived it while performing at army bases and hospitals in the South Pacific during World War II, putting on a show and entertaining people while the world was falling apart outside. Just like Sally Bowles sings, right? “What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play…”
Of course, he gets the job, which means he jets off to Munich to film while Gwen stays back with their young daughter, Nicole (the real Nicole Fosse, it’s worth noting, is a co-executive producer on the series, in addition to featuring as a character). There, he meets the film’s star, Liza Minnelli (a round of applause for Broadway actress Kelli Barrett, who takes on playing Liza with a Z), and a translator named Hannah, who ends up, ahem, doing a lot more than just translating for him.
But as he preps to shoot the big “Mein Herr” number, things just aren’t coming together. He doesn’t like the extras who are playing Kit Kat Klub-goers, so he scouts more authentic ones from a local brothel. He makes Liza and the dancers rehearse the choreography over and over, he hasn’t decided on costumes, and Cy is butting heads with him at every turn. The solution? He needs Gwen there, and stat.
Just like with Sweet Charity, Gwen’s presence and insight are the things Bob needs to unlock his creative vision, and she’s able to explain it to others in ways he can’t. (“I just know how to speak Bob,” is how she puts it to Cy. “It’s my native tongue.”) When he calls and asks her to fly over, she agrees, but asks that loaded question: “Am I going to be unhappy when I get there?” Fosse denies it, but he’s literally on the phone with his wife while another woman is in his bed, so…you don’t need to be a director to know this won’t end well.
Gwen sorts out the costumes (including Liza’s iconic Sally Bowles vest ensemble), among other things, but she really goes above and beyond when it comes to the gorilla costume for the film’s “If You Could See Her” number — the one they have won’t work because it doesn’t serve the song’s gut-punch final twist, but it’s apparently the only gorilla suit in all of Germany. Again, it’s Gwen to the rescue: she understands Bob’s concern about the costume not working, is able to explain the reasoning, and then she literally flies to New York and back in a matter of days to bring him the perfect one.
But when she gets back to Munich and she knocks on her husband’s door — after going above and beyond to get him the exact thing he needed — he’s in bed with the translator. (This story, by the way, is apparently true! But according to Sam Wasson’s biography Fosse, which is the basis for this series, she actually walked in on him with “a couple German girls.”) Yeah, you’re gonna be unhappy about that, Gwen.
The Curtain Call
— The episode bookends itself by jumping forward decades in time to Bob’s final minutes alive (Spoiler warning: Bob Fosse died in Washington D.C. in 1987 — by that point, he and Gwen had separated, but they never divorced). Props to the hair and makeup department that had to age Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams by 50 years!
— We get glimpses of Gwen trying to carve out things for her own career, like rehearsing lines for a play. But she’s also willing to leverage their collective star power (remember, she was a Tony-winning actress in her own right and one of the greatest Broadway dancers ever), like when you hear her talking on the phone about how great it would be to do something with Chicago…
— Not surprisingly for an artistic power couple, Bob and Gwen’s circle is filled with plenty of other big names from Broadway and Hollywood. Their house party guest list includes the likes of writer Paddy Chayefsky, playwright Neil Simon and his wife Joan, and prolific Broadway director-producer Hal Prince, who shares the lowdown on “Steve’s new musical.” (Yes, that’s Steve as in Sondheim, and Bob does not seem intrigued by the idea of Company.)