One major criticism directed at Fosse/Verdon so far is that no matter how conscientiously the show’s writers try to be about balancing their attention between the two title characters, they can’t help but be awed by Bob Fosse’s mystique … when they should be debunking it. I don’t entirely agree with any of this, for two reasons. First off, dismissing one of American theater’s most influential choreographers as merely some manipulative creep who leeched off women would be just as gross of a distortion of history as the more common perception of Fosse: that he was only a mildly mischievous Lothario, whose worst deeds were outweighed by his enormous contributions to popular culture. The truth is somewhere in the middle, and producers Steven Levenson and Thomas Kail have done a good job of representing that.
Secondly, maybe it’s because I’m more familiar with Fosse lore, but I’ve been more impressed by the Gwen Verdon material in these early episodes. I’ve read Sam Wasson’s Fosse biography, and a lot of scattered Verdon pieces, but I’m discovering new things about her each week — especially in this latest episode, “Me and My Baby.”
All of that said, I have to admit that this week’s Fosse/Verdon — more focused on Verdon than Fosse — is the first one where the show’s free-associative, chronology-jumping structure doesn’t work as well. It’s still a fine 40 minutes of TV, with multiple highlights. But at times this chapter strains the mini-series’ whole “the past lives alongside the present and the future” conceit.
And frankly, I blame Bob.
For three episodes now, even as the story has bounced around from the ’40s to the ’80s, Fosse/Verdon has circled back to 1971 and 1972 — and for good reason. Not only was that when Fosse worked on Cabaret, Pippin, and Liza With a “Z,” winning (spoiler alert) an Oscar, two Tonys, and three Emmys, but it’s also when Bob’s extramarital affairs became so intolerably brazen that he and Gwen separated.
These weren’t the best years for Verdon. While continuing to nurture her increasingly reckless husband’s creativity, she had to adjust to her decreasing physical stamina by shifting from musical theater to TV guest appearances and straight drama. A lot of “Me and My Baby” is about Gwen’s desperation to land a part in the thriller Children! Children!, a notorious flop that opened and closed the same night, on March 7, 1972.
“Me and My Baby” is credited to director Adam Bernstein and screenwriter Debora Cahn, who along with star Michelle Williams do an outstanding job not just of detailing the petty humiliations Verdon suffered while working on Children! Children!, but of putting them into the larger context of her life and career. In the audition process and the rehearsals, the director lets Gwen know he thinks that her kind of musical theater acting is too broad and too rehearsed. “You don’t need to charm the room,” he says. “You need to find something active to play.” When she asks for more specific pointers, he smugly smiles and says, “Like choreography?” It’s heartbreaking to see her talent so diminished.
As with the previous two episodes, the main action in 1972 gives way to moments where the characters pause to reflect on their pasts. Here, Gwen recalls the major setbacks she faced on her way to becoming a star. As a promising teenage dancer, she’s coerced into sleeping with newspaper reporter James Henaghan, which leads to an unhappy marriage and a neglected baby boy. She suffers Henaghan’s abuse, and her own father’s snide comments that she “has one skill, shaking her behind.” Then, after working up the courage to ask gruff choreographer Jack Cole for a job, Verdon dances her way up to a showcase Broadway role in the musical Can-Can, where her big number literally stops the show (and literally involves her shaking her behind). “Me and My Baby” pointedly contrasts the adulation of the 1953 theater audience with Verdon’s 1972 Children! Children! struggles.
This episode also keeps inserting the sound of Verdon’s first child crying into the background of the soundtrack, implying that perhaps the real tragedy of her rise and fall was that she had to abandon her son to succeed. Honestly, this is less fruitful thematic ground than the material about her having to endure being leered at and pigeonholed by multiple men.
Gwen’s story also loses some of its emotional oomph because the focus keeps shifting periodically over to Bob, who’s feeling overwhelmed and racked with self-doubt during the editing of Cabaret. Even the pre-credits sequence this week is fully about Fosse, beginning with colorful optimism as he dances his way into the editing room on day one, and ending with him being swallowed up by his surroundings. It’s a spectacularly expressionistic opening, but it’s misleading, given that this chapter is mainly about Verdon. (Similarly, the scene of Bob seducing a stranger by phone while sexy images from Cabaret run through his head is well done, but distracting.)
“Me and My Baby” comes together best when the Fosse scenes inform what’s happening with Verdon. It hits hard when Bob leaves Nicole in a hotel room with Paddy Chayefsky for an hour, giving Gwen PTSD flashbacks to the adult males who slobbered all over her when she was a kid. It’s more subtly telling when Gwen works hard to sell a nutritious dinner of broccoli and rice to Nicole only to have her husband — who’s not even supposed to be coming home anymore — swoop in with a sackful of greasy sesame chicken. It’s even poignant when Nicole answers the phone with the greeting, “Fosse residence…,” making her mother wince a little, knowing that even in her own apartment, by society’s standards, she’s a nonentity.
The most devastating sequence in this episode comes after Bob thoughtlessly recommends that Gwen ask for a rewrite of her big speech in Children! Children!, to make it about a little girl instead of a little boy, because she never raised a son. Furious at his callousness, she ends up drawing on her memory of leaving James Jr. with her parents to pursue her career, and in rehearsal she delivers a soulful monologue about abandonment … only to have her director respond with minor notes about blocking.
It’s no wonder that she eventually finds herself helping out in the Cabaret editing room, where her opinion is valued by a man who openly expresses his need for her. This is the grounded, plausible explanation of the Fosse–Verdon dynamic that Fosse/Verdon has been doing best, where she does get something out of the relationship, even if it’s nowhere near what she deserves. In a final, fitting coup de grace, “Me and My Baby” ends by — for the first time — putting the years left in Gwen’s life onto the screen. It’s a reminder that she too only had so much time on Earth to get work done … and damnably few people lining up to ask her to do it.
Once more, from the top …
• By the way, here’s literally everything Wasson’s Fosse has to say about Verdon’s marriage to Henaghan:
“James Henaghan was a journalist: witty, older, dashing. Six months after they met, the couple drove down to Orange County, and Gwen told the justice of the peace she was twenty-two. The new Mrs. Henaghan tossed her tap shoes into a cardboard box and locked the box away. It was time, she told herself, to work at being a wife. But Henaghan drank. He lost money. When he woke up in Kansas City with no idea how he got there and a column past due, he called Gwen in the middle of the night and she wrote the piece and filed it for him. Gwen didn’t love the job, but she loved loving him, and for a while she was sure she could survive on the crumbs of tenderness he transmitted by cable. For a while. Soon, they had a son.”
• Peter Shelley’s 2015 biography Gwen Verdon: A Life on Stage and Screen, meanwhile, notes that the couple were married “exactly nine months” before James Jr. was born, which doesn’t quite fit the definition of a shotgun marriage, by the usual parameters of human gestation. Let me clear here: I’m not saying anything in this episode (including Henaghan’s implied sexual assault) is a case of questionable dramatic license on the Fosse/Verdon writers’ part. Nicole Fosse is a consultant on this show, and it’s possible Gwen told her daughter more about her first marriage than she ever told any reporter. I’m only saying that even theater geeks who know a lot about Fosse and Verdon are likely to be startled by what this episode depicts.
• Say hello to Newhart’s Peter Scolari as Gwen’s agent! Telephiles may also recognize Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s (first) Greg, Santino Fontana, playing Henaghan, and Jeremy Shamos (from Nurse Jackie and Better Call Saul) as Children! Children! director Joseph Hardy.
• The banter between Bob and Gwen in this episode reveals how they bring out the best and the worst of each other, in terms of both their wit and their facility with passive-aggressive insults. He runs down her acting ability, saying that in a drama, “You can’t just put on a funny walk and call it a character.” But when he asks, “When’s the last time you acted?” she snaps back, “An hour ago, when you walked in the door. How’d I do?”