Stories about addiction and abusive behavior tend to lean hard into the scenes in which the antagonists are raging monsters, at the expense of the moments when they’re more normal — and likable, even. Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born was a good corrective to this, showing how a smart, talented young woman could see all the red flags waving around her drunken mentor-boyfriend but plunge straight ahead and love him anyway. This confounding contradiction is explored just as well in this week’s Fosse/Verdon episode, “Who’s Got the Pain?”
In episode one we saw Bob Fosse cheat on his wife, Gwen Verdon, lie to her, and exploit her talent to boost his career and reputation. Why would anyone stick with a creep like that? That’s one of the questions this miniseries is going to try to answer, given that Verdon stayed surprisingly devoted to Fosse and his work even after their romance fizzled. (And it wasn’t just her: Fosse’s later partner Ann Reinking is still keeping the Fosse flame alive, though they broke up nine years before he died.)
“Who’s Got the Pain?” answers the question by jumping back nearly two decades from the Cabaret years and landing in the mid-’50s, when Gwen met Bob during the original Broadway production of Damn Yankees and they forged a connection immediately. In one long, absorbing scene about five minutes into the episode, Tony winner Verdon reluctantly agrees to let the show’s feisty young choreographer “audition” her for the role she has already gotten: the devilish seductress Lola.
Just like last week’s “Life Is a Cabaret,” “Who’s Got the Pain?” is credited to screenwriter Steven Levenson and director Thomas Kail, the miniseries’ core creative team. And just like the first episode, the second one borrows some of Fosse’s All That Jazz style with impressionistic montages meant to give a sense of the characters’ interior lives and memories. But Levenson and Kail are theater people first and foremost, and they — along with Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell — pour everything this episode’s about into that one audition scene, which runs for about seven minutes. It’s seven minutes of Broadway heaven.
The scene’s content is simple: just Verdon and Fosse in a studio space, getting to know each other while trying out some early choreography for the future showstopper “Whatever Lola Wants.” Earlier, Damn Yankees producer Hal Prince tried to talk Fosse up, telling Verdon, “He has a real sense of humor, a real joy … but sophisticated, like Chaplin … like Verdon.” She, meanwhile, dismissed Fosse as “the one with the hats.” So she walks in with a chip on her shoulder, questioning his suggestions and needling him about his comparative lack of big-time dance experience.
But he disarms her by being self-deprecating and subtly working pieces of her personality and biography into Lola’s exhausted, slouchy striptease. As they swap stories about working in burlesque and about their encounters with world-class choreographers Michael Kidd and Jack Cole, Verdon starts picking up on what Fosse’s asking her to do and begins improvising her own flourishes.
All of this plays out in real time, and when it’s over, it’s easier to understand not just how the pair fell in love but why they would spend so many years chasing — and occasionally even reliving — the high of that first meeting. From the instant they met, they communicated with each other on an almost intuitive level and then translated that conversation into something creatively fulfilling.
The rest of “Who’s Got the Pain?” covers the grinding process of bringing Damn Yankees to the stage, telling the tale with a combination of snappy montages and gripping set pieces. The title sequence is a bit of both. Tasked to come up with a “fun” new number to transition between acts (to which Fosse grumbles, “How much more ‘fun’ can this fuckin’ musical take?”), he and Verdon work up a comic mambo with the composer, ignoring his lyrics about pain and instead making something delightfully cartoonish. “That’s what we do,” Fosse says. “We take what hurts and we turn it into a big gag.”
Levenson and Kail do the opposite. While showing how the new number quickly becomes a crowd-pleaser, the episode keeps cutting back to Fosse’s sickly second wife, Joan McCracken (played by Susan Misner), as she realizes that Bob is trading her in for Gwen just as he’d dumped his first wife, Mary Ann Niles, for Joan. On her way out the door, McCracken undercuts Verdon’s moment of triumph by warning her that her new man “takes what’s special in a girl and makes it his own.” “That’s what they all do, isn’t it?” Gwen says with a shrug.
“Life Is a Cabaret” framed Fosse’s rebound from the Sweet Charity film debacle with glimpses into the final minutes of his life as a reminder that, even at his career peak, he was living in the shadow of death. Similarly, “Who’s Got the Pain?” frames the birth of the Fosse-Verdon relationship with the couple’s later, failed attempt at reconciliation shortly after she caught him dallying with another woman during the production of Cabaret. For good measure, Levenson and Kail intercut the scene of Verdon leaving Fosse for good with the scene of McCracken leaving him during Damn Yankees. (McCracken gets maybe the funniest line of this episode when Fosse tries to tell her, “It’s a complicated situation,” but she cuts him off with a curt “It’s not.”)
The point this episode is driving home is that the end of the Fosse-Verdon romance was in plain sight even when they first hooked up. Perhaps the most telling — and most horrifying — scene this week comes when Bob goes on tilt after Hal Prince and George Abbot talk about cutting one of his numbers. He starts ranting in self-pity in front of them and his wife before storming down the hall to knock on Gwen’s door. She’s with her boyfriend; he’s with Joan. But she decides to go off with Bob anyway, while their partners look on in stunned disbelief.
This is a tricky moment to finesse: capturing Fosse’s all-consuming ego and neediness while also making Verdon’s decision to rush to his aid plausible. In another narrative context — in a romantic comedy, say — their passion for each other might play as sweet. But “Who’s Got the Pain?” makes sure we don’t forget who’s getting hurt.
Once more, from the top …
• It’s such a treat to watch Williams as Verdon taking the basics of what Rockwell as Fosse is giving her and adding her own interpretations and additional moves. (“Scooping ice cream! Diamonds and pearls!”) McCracken nails what Verdon brings to the collaboration, saying it’s “like watching what he wishes he was.”
• The opening scene in Majorca between Verdon and Joan Simon is well done not just because of the easy rapport between Williams and Aya Cash but because it clarifies how atypical Verdon’s life is. Simon talks about how “every marriage goes through rough patches,” which doesn’t even begin to describe what Gwen’s dealing with. As an ex-dancer, Simon at least knows how special her friend’s talent is, though. When Verdon asks if she ever misses the stage, Simon says with a sigh, “I was never Gwen Verdon.”
• Your Fosse/Verdon reading assignment of the week is Isaac Butler’s Slate interview with Levenson, which digs into the difficulties of telling a story about a great artist without overlooking (or overemphasizing) the dark side. Also, just as a reminder for those who need a refresher on the chronology of Fosse’s and Verdon’s lives and careers, I have written just such a thing for you, right here on this very website. This timeline includes some video clips relevant to this episode, including the pair on TV, breaking down the steps to “Whatever Lola Wants,” and in the film version of Damn Yankees, dancing to “Who’s Got the Pain?”