The story of legendary choreographer and director Bob Fosse in any other era might have been told in a very different way. But in 2019, during a Trump presidency, in a post-#MeToo world creating a show about a straight white man making it big would have likely been met with Internet outrage. So FX’s Fosse/Verdon picks a different path — as indicated in its title, it’s not the story of one man’s journey. It’s not even the trials and tribulations of a couple. It’s a show equally about Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and his wife, Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). Fosse is portrayed as the flawed anti-hero (truly a testament to Oughts entertainment trends), and Gwen as an uncredited auteur, to whom more credit is due.
Fosse is known for his obsessive attention to articulating, isolated body parts, a fascination that could yield spectacularly challenging choreographic results. The flick of the wrist, the tap of the heel, the roll of a shoulder, all refined to separate the part from the whole — for better in dance, for worse as a director. Fortunately, Fosse has his wife, Gwen Verdon alongside, to coach the actors through the emotional “why’s” behind each the “how” of the movements. The pair are first seen collaborating on Sweet Charity (1969), where it is quickly laid out just how ruthless Fosse can be — he coldly cuts two hard-working dancers from the film to correct for a framing issue. Later, on Cabaret (1972), where it becomes abundantly clear that Fosse’s success as a director is actually dependent on his wife’s involvement in the project. This could not be said of Verdon, who is so immensely competent that it becomes abundantly clear that is is she who should be at the helms of these projects.
Fosse’s genius is his choreography — in nearly all other areas he falls short. He cannot see the big picture, cannot separate the parts from the whole. In integrated flashback sequences like when the night club set of Cabaret becomes the stage where he performed as a child, Fosse’s abusive childhood unwinds. The same relentless obsession with perfection that Fosse demands of his dancers were drilled into Fosse himself by his father. “I could replace you with a hundred other people,” Fosse’s father reminds him, instilling a psychologic narrative of scarcity that fuels Fosse’s adult ambitions. Even after the flop of Sweet Charity, Fosse hounds the studio until he is granted the project.
Fosse/Verdon feels like a musical — a credit to executive producers Lin Manuel Miranda (In the Heights, Hamilton) and Thomas Kail who directed both of Miranda’s original Broadway shows. Classic Broadway show tunes from the late 1960’s and ’70s serve as a nuanced underscore to more than a few scenes in the first episode. When the celebratory show tune “If They Could See Me Now” plays euphorically in the background of Sweet Charity‘s release party, viewers familiar with Fosse’s body of work experience the irony of know the film is a flop. While hardworking Gwen is flying for 72 hours to and from Germany to pick up a costume, “Life is a Cabaret” is juxtaposed with shots of her flying with a gorilla head on her lap, while her husband cheats on her with a translator working on the film Gwen is working so hard to save. The choreography is stunning, and the montages are nostalgia factories that could very well inspire more than one class movie musical binge.
Fosse’s treatment of women also reflects his mental synecdoche. He sees women as tactics or tools to get what he wants. In a subtle, disturbing scene outside a studio executive’s office, Fosse attempts to charm the secretary into letting him in. He is successful ultimately, but it’s unclear whether he charmed his way in, or just made her so uncomfortable that she relented. When Fosse meets Liza Minnelli on the set of Cabaret, he jokes that perhaps she should not have cut her hair for the film. Sam Rockwell’s unparalleled work makes it unclear whether he’s actually joking, or if it’s a power play — probably the latter. The film’s translator is for language, and later for sex. The dancers are vessels for his choreography. His own wife is someone he can call in a pinch to come to fix his film. The women, in Fosse’s eyes, are not full people — they’re tools.
“People aren’t going to the movies to escape anymore,” Gwen says during the filming of Cabaret, “they’re going to find the truth.” This shift in what people demand of their art is also a hallmark of our current cultural moment. The showmanship, the flash, the choreography… These are icing, but icing alone will make you sick. What Fosse/Verdon has done well is set-up a framework to tell this story. It’s as though FX gave the writers a list of trends in 2019 entertainment — an anti-hero star, a disenfranchised feminist narrative, a sense of impending doom (some time jumps are titled with how many years or minutes are remaining… to what, the show will reveal later). It’s certainly compelling television, especially if you’re a musical theatre fan.
Fosse/Verdon continues Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. ET on FX.
Photo and video credit: FX – Featured image – FOSSE VERDON — Pictured: (l-r) Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon, Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse. CR: Pari Dukovic/FX.