When we first meet the main characters of FX’s new limited series Fosse/Verdon, stage and screen director-choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) assumes such control over his wife, the dancer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), that he moves her body into the position he wants. She tries it his way, then moments later does her own version. “Yours is better,” he admits.
That scene, along with the use of both their names in the title, suggests that while Fosse/Verdon will depict the triumphs, tragedies and bad behavior of the legendary Fosse, it will not be yet another stylish celebration of a brilliant but damaged male antihero from a pre-#MeToo era. Yes, Fosse (Cabaret, Chicago) was a temperamental, philandering genius, but the eight-episode series is initially framed as a story of a true partnership onstage and off, one that illustrates the many ways in which Verdon (Damn Yankees) was the uncredited genius behind the cultural icon. In the bigger picture, it’s also about the fact that this dynamic has been present for as long as there have been men and women.
“That’s what Bobby does,” Fosse’s previous wife, actress Joan McCracken (Susan Misner), tells Verdon when they first meet. “He takes what’s special in a girl and makes it his own.”
“That’s what they all do,” Verdon replies.
But the longer Fosse/Verdon goes on, the harder it becomes for its superstar creative team — including Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail, Dear Evan Hansen’s Steven Levenson and The Americans’ Joel Fields — to maintain the balance promised by that title and opening scene. Within a few hours, the show become exactly the kind of familiar, difficult-man tale we’ve seen so often before, albeit one elevated by spectacular performances from the two leads, and by certain bold stylistic choices.
The storytelling blurs lines between past and present, the couple’s home and work lives, the musicals that made them icons and the traumas that went into the work. It’s all happening at once, in ways that enhance our understanding of Fosse and Verdon as individuals and as a couple, rather than distracting with the “flash” for which Fosse was often derided. The second episode, for instance, features Fosse and Verdon’s tense first meeting, where he teaches her the “Whatever Lola Wants” choreography from Damn Yankees — and she inevitably improves his work as they go along. Soon, the full company is rehearsing the show, intercut with the two of them (both in committed relationships at the time) having sex. There’s no attempt to display the moment when they decide to go from being co-workers to lovers, because it was decided for them in that seductive opening encounter. Everything after is details, best left unspoken in favor of focusing on their messy hearts and minds.
The show has spiritual echoes of Fosse’s lacerating semiautobiographical 1979 film, All That Jazz, while stylistically feeling entirely like its own bold thing. There are re-creations of classic moments from the couple’s stage and screen work, but these usually focus on what the audience couldn’t see. When Verdon is kept out of Fosse’s movie production of Sweet Charity, despite having starred in the Broadway rendition, we see her not only coaching the dancers but mouthing the words to “Big Spender” as she watches them perform it without her. When Fosse reports for the first day of editing Cabaret, he imagines himself into a version of one of the numbers.
Williams and Rockwell seem completely comfortable and credible as dancers; Rockwell is particularly convincing in the way Fosse carries himself even more like a hoofer than his Tony-winning wife, because he can’t let go of his dream of becoming the next Fred Astaire. (He feels compelled to show off in ways that she doesn’t, because everyone already knows how well she can shimmy.) Fosse’s ever-thinning hair makes it easier to place Rockwell than Williams in the correct era as the story bounces around, but the stars are equal in their intensity and commitment. Williams has a dazzling moment in the third episode where Verdon is asked to take a mid-show curtain call during an early performance of Can-Can. The entire scene is filmed in a single take, not to show off the camerawork, but to highlight the vast spectrum of emotion that goes across Verdon’s face as she realizes what’s happening (and as she thinks about everything it cost her to get there).
That scene, unfortunately, is the high point for Verdon’s presence in the narrative across the five episodes that FX made available for review. A lot of it is lather-rinse-repeat of Fosse abusing women, abusing friends and abusing his own body through overwork and drug and alcohol use. The fifth episode is a particularly theatrical hour set entirely at a Long Island beach house where Fosse has gathered Verdon, new dancer girlfriend Ann Reinking (Margaret Qualley), Verdon’s boyfriend Ron (Jake Lacy) and best friends Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz) and Neil Simon (Nate Corddry). As Bob is on the verge of flying off the rails again, Verdon warns Reinking about the emotional cost of being his caretaker, while suggesting it’s worth it to exist under the halo of Fosse’s brilliance. It’s the sort of enabling defense brilliant assholes have received forever, and by this point in the miniseries, it barely needs articulating at all.
Williams and Rockwell are fantastic (Patricia Arquette might not want to be clearing mantel space for her Escape at Dannemora Emmy just yet), and there are moments when Fosse/Verdon really sings. But it feels like too much talent and potential not properly presented in an eight-episode format. There’s a sequence in the third chapter where Fosse despairs after watching a four-hour assembly cut of Cabaret, convinced every choice he made was wrong and that the film is unwatchable. The final cut of the movie (with help from Verdon) clocks in at slightly over two hours, and it won Fosse the directing Oscar in the year of The Godfather. Fosse/Verdon never comes close to the disaster Fosse felt he was witnessing in that Cabaret screening room. But it could have benefited from its own version of Gwen Verdon standing over the editing bay offering advice — particularly when it came to making sure her presence in the story matched her billing.
Fosse/Verdon debuts April 9th.