Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams go beyond the razzle dazzle for Fosse/Verdon
A minute ago, Sam Rockwell was sitting in his dressing room on the New York set of Fosse/Verdon, discussing his role as the legendary choreographer-director Bob Fosse in the FX limited series (premiering April 9). As he talks, the actor rises from his chair to nimbly demonstrate a few of the iconic Fosse moves made famous in the likes of Chicago, Damn Yankees, and the Oscar-winning film adaptation of Cabaret. Rockwell, 50, does a bit of the so-called Manson Trio soft-shoe from Pippin before pivoting to mimic the hat trick (sans headwear) seen in The Pajama Game’s “Steam Heat” and Fosse’s “Alley Dance.” “Those are my favorites,” the Oscar winner says, sliding back into his seat.
In another corner of midtown Manhattan, Michelle Williams is finishing a dance rehearsal for her role as Gwen Verdon, Fosse’s wife and one of the greatest Broadway dancers to ever grace a stage. “It’s our last dance, but I’m ready for this,” the Oscar nominee, 38, says of the number she’s working on. “It is bittersweet because it’s our last one.”
Partner them up and you have a whole new pas de deux: two acting powerhouses playing a pair of incredibly influential creative forces, on a series crafted by the vanguard of theatrical stars. The creative team boasts Hamilton alums Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail, as well as Dear Evan Hansen book writer Steven Levenson; the ensemble cast also features several Broadway stars, including Kelli Barrett, Ethan Slater, and Norbert Leo Butz. But while Fosse/Verdon explores the couple’s decades-long romantic and professional relationship, it also challenges the myth of the solo auteur — why Fosse has achieved single-name status while Verdon, despite her own remarkable career and contributions to her husband’s artistry, isn’t as well known.
Case in point: Sam Wasson’s 700-plus-page biography, on which the series is based, is simply titled Fosse. Here, their names get equal billing.
“It’s fun to correct the record with her, and what her contribution to his choreography involved,” Rockwell says. “This show will hopefully do that. I think people will be aware that it’s not just Bob; it’s Gwen that put together some of these [dances], that contributed to this legacy.”
For Kail, it’s an opportunity to reinforce the concept that it takes many people to create art, whether it’s Broadway shows, films, or, say, a TV series about a pair of legends. And that also makes telling their story (and specifically Verdon’s part of it) all the more important in this current era. “This notion that one person — often, one man — can do this alone is untrue,” says the executive producer/director. “It doesn’t devalue the work, it just acknowledges what actually goes into making it.”
Fosse/Verdon depicts Verdon as a muse and interpreter for Fosse — instrumental to how he created his art, able to communicate his needs in a way that he couldn’t. “They were sort of connected at the hip,” Rockwell says. “It’s even more than a love story, it’s like a symbiotic thing that they have.” It also pirouettes forward and backward in time over the course of 50 years to chronicle all facets of their relationship — showcasing their respective creative triumphs but not shying away from darker elements like Fosse’s drug and alcohol abuse and extramarital affairs. (Fosse and Verdon separated in 1971 but remained married until his 1987 death, in her arms; Verdon died in 2000.)
“That’s definitely something that Sam, and Sam as Bob, and the writers and creators have had to wrestle with — how do you tell the story of this man whose behavior, now that we are having this conversation, is really problematic?” Williams says. Exploring their relationship at a moment when stories are viewed through the lens of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements isn’t lost on Rockwell, either: “We show it all.… He did abuse his power, and he did [have] addictive behavior. He misbehaved quite a bit. He’s a complex guy.”
Bringing that complexity to life required Williams and Rockwell to do a tango of their own, one that encompassed more than the choreography both had to learn for the show. “I feel like we have a real partnership with true equality,” says Williams. “We always check in with each other: ‘Is there something that I can do for you? Are you getting what you need from me in this scene?’ He shares the space, which they don’t all do.”
Both also got crucial intel from Fosse and Verdon’s daughter, Nicole, who is a coexecutive producer and creative consultant on the eight-episode series. Before production started, Nicole Fosse, 56, read through the first three scripts with the stars, sharing insight about her parents and her memories of that time. (She is also depicted by different actresses in the series across a span of years.)
“Sam and Michelle do such a wonderful job of [bringing] emotional authenticity to Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, but also to Bob and Gwen as parents, and it’s so fascinating to me,” she says. “I couldn’t have hoped for anyone [better], not only great actors but wonderful people, to take this on.”
On a surface level, Nicole Fosse hopes that audiences will get to know her mother — beyond just “the lady who played Lola” in Damn Yankees — and that the show “opens up conversations” about the inherently tangled nature of families, in show business and beyond. “It’s so hard to pinpoint that there’s an antagonist or protagonist, that the roles just keep jumping around, like in life.”
That’s the spine that runs through Fosse/Verdon: all of their emotional intricacies, all of those dance steps, and all that jazz. “I hope people understand the complexity and nuance of this kind of relationship,” says Kail. “I hope that people understand that it’s not just one person doing anything. I want the world to know who both of them are.” So come to the cabaret, old chums, and you will.