“I speak Bob” and all that jazz
“Fosse/Verdon” pulls back the velvet curtain on this dynamic dramatic duo
Having recently discovered that Bob Fosse’s father was a Norwegian American—and as a lover of dance—my anticipation of the announced FX series “Fosse/Verdon” last April was palpable. I wanted to delve into the life and work of Fosse and the impact he has had on American culture.
Of course, his story would not be complete without including Gwen Verdon, his partner in life and work. The incomparable Verdon took the world of musical theater by storm and reigned for decades, evidenced by the famous seven-minute ovation in response to her 1953 dance performance as Eve in Can-Can, returning to the stage in her bathrobe to receive it.
Born in 1927 to a Norwegian-American father and Irish-American mother, Bob Fosse was the fifth of six children. Verdon was born in Culver City, Calif., in 1925. Both started dancing early and performed in burlesque houses at ages 13 and 14, respectively, and both were inappropriately sexualized at a young age, affecting them for life.
Their exploitation by both of their families likely drew the two of them together, sharing experiences that only they could understand. “Fosse/Verdon,” derived from Sam Wasson’s biography, Fosse (2013), and developed by Steven Levenson and Thomas Kail, does not shy away from the ugly, sometimes gory, details of their lives.
These two big personalities require heavyweights to portray them, and this series does not disappoint, starring Michelle Williams as Verdon and Sam Rockwell as Fosse. Both melt into their characters credibly, earning the show 10 awards.
The progression of the series uses iconic productions as pivot points. This format could be jolting to the unfamiliar, but the flashbacks provide insight into the two main characters’ interconnected psyches. A moment can thrust them both into many past joys and sorrows.
In the first project they worked on together, Damn Yankees (1955), Verdon played the seductress, Lola, and Fosse was choreographer. Williams and Rockwell provide the audience with a clever game of cat and mouse. Their initial encounter in the performance studio is a charming scene. Rockwell tries to act nonchalant, jumping into a chair, when he hears the elevator bell announcing the arrival of Williams, who pretends to be deeply engaged in a magazine as she enters the room.
Verdon was a big star by then, and Fosse had only one show under his belt as choreographer. They sniff at each other skeptically during this power play, healthy skepticism ending in flirtation, understanding, and creation. Later in the series, Verdon explains to producer Cy Feuer, “I speak Bob,” which best sums up their connection.
Quickly, their passion for dance turned into an affair, but Fosse was married to dancer Joan McCracken, and Verdon was involved with an actor. Eventually, Fosse divorced his very ill wife (who had been the other woman in Fosse’s first marriage) to marry Verdon. His pattern of cheating, especially with his dancers, continued throughout his life, though he and Verdon never divorced.
Indeed, the tragic tale in “Fosse/Verdon” is Verdon’s decline as the star in the family. Fosse’s star was rising as hers began to fall, even as she was a skilled advocate for Fosse’s talent.
This shifting balance of notoriety hits a silent crescendo in 1973 as Fosse is at his pinnacle of fame, winning a Best Director Oscar for the film Cabaret, two Tonys, and three Emmys. No other person has ever won all three in a single year. Verdon’s career was going in the opposite direction. It had been 14 years since her last Tony.
Williams portrays Verdon’s descent with subtlety, showing her Cheshire cat smile as she remains gracious and helpful during each of Bob’s accomplishments, but with pain in her eyes.
Fosse, on the other hand, was the right man at the right time. After his projects Dr. Doolittle and Sweet Charity flopped, Williams’ Verdon explains insightfully to Feuer why Cabaret, filmed during the Vietnam War, would work: “Kids are in the jungle and being zipped into body bags on the evening news…. People aren’t going to the movies to escape anymore, they’re going to find something true.” Fosse’s stark, ironic vision spoke to the times.
On balance, Fosse’s was the more selfish side of the relationship: womanizing, boozing, and popping pills. His deep insecurities leading to a nervous breakdown made him myopic and a bottomless pit of need, with Verdon ready to drop everything when he called for help. Williams’ tender touches and soft encouraging coos when he is in a dark place make the emotional sustenance Verdon provided concrete.
However, that does not mean that Verdon was beyond manipulation and ambition. Watching her goad Fosse into dropping the Dustin Hoffman collaboration, Lenny, to focus instead on the play Chicago, was disturbing, mostly because it seemed so unlike her. But then, maybe Fosse owed her for all she had given him and all of his infidelities.
But, for all these manipulations and the time it took her to invest in bringing Chicago to production, in the end, Verdon was only able to play the lead role of Roxie Hart for about two months before she wound up with a throat infection. Liza Minnelli replaced her until she recovered, and Renee Zellweger went on to play the role in the 2002 film.
Yet, in the end, Verdon never abandoned Fosse. Actor Norbert Leo Butz, as Paddy Chayefsky, describes what kept Verdon and Fosse together best: “She was the one for him from the start, because she was the only woman who was ever his true equal as a creator, as an artist.” Verdon was with Fosse to the very end, even as he suffers his fatal heart attack, cradling him in her arms in a beautiful moment shared between these two actors whose connected eyes tell of all the love, regret, and gratitude they had for each other.
Overall, the series successfully focuses on both the grand story and the intimate parts of the couple’s life, seen through their friendships and the many gatherings at their New York apartment or in The Hamptons. Their lives are filled with fascinating friends from the New York creative scene, portrayed by a supporting cast that is natural and nuanced.
One sees, of course, the collateral damage left in the wake of these driven creators, not only in Fosse’s sexual predation of many of his dancers, but also in the life of their daughter, Nicole. She seems like a secondary character, forced to navigate between these two behemoths on a tightrope, pouring beer for the guests (and sneaking sips) and keeping her father’s cigarettes constantly lit (puffing on many along the way). However, Nicole Fosse served as co-executive producer and creative consultant for the show. Clearly, though she was often lost in the sauce, she was loved.
In a time when dance has gained the recognition as a vital art form, whether with experts or those who are not so adept (think of Dancing with the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance), “Fosse/Verdon” delivers, pulling back the velvet curtain. But it is also the first depiction of these two giants as a collaborative unit. Verdon, so long overshadowed, finally gets her due.
Executive producer Levenson perhaps says it best in an FX promo for the show: “What we’re hoping to do is to explore, as artists, what it’s like to make art. And not only the joy of that and the triumph when you get it right, but the pain of getting it wrong, and the sweat and tears that it inevitably requires to make something great.”
“Fosse/Verdon” is available to stream on Hulu (by subscription), or to rent on several digital streaming services.
This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.