What if meeting Gwen Verdon was the best and the worst thing ever to happen to Bob Fosse? For the most part, Fosse/Verdon has been painting Gwen as Bob’s long-suffering, under-appreciated partner, who helped nurture some of his most enduring creations while losing some of her prime performing years in the process. But a sneaky subtext has begun creeping into this series: What if — even if just from his perspective — Verdon were also Lola from Damn Yankees, seductively whispering dark suggestions?
In last week’s episode, Gwen visited Bob at the Cabaret editing suite and told him he looked terrible, and should pop more pills. In this week’s “Glory,” when she sees him mistreating one of his Pippin dancers, rather than sympathizing with his latest victim she hovers over his shoulder like the proverbial devil, wickedly asking, “Lousy dancer or bad lay?” It’s almost like she wants him to make bad choices… perhaps to punish him for being such a thoughtless, self-absorbed creep so much of the time.
“Glory” is set during the most phenomenally successful year of Fosse’s career — a stretch so successful that Fosse/Verdon’s producers and the episode’s credited writer-director team of Tracey Scott Wilson and Jessica Yu can only do it justice with raw numbers. They replace the usual “years remaining” countdown with a rapidly increasing ticker of Cabaret’s box office take. Every so often they fill in Fosse’s personal awards haul from 1973: one Oscar for Cabaret (beating The Godfather’s Francis Ford Coppola for Best Director, in a major upset), two Tonys for Pippin, and three Emmys for the concert special Liza with a “Z”.
Yet throughout this year of absolute dominance — in the TV version, anyway — Fosse has voices in his ear, pecking at his ego. He has Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin lyrics, warning him about a man whose “search for meaning and fulfillment were doomed from the start.” He has his buddy Paddy Chayefsky, riding shotgun at all the awards shows, insisting that what’s cool about Bob is, “You learned at an early age that life is bullshit. … If you’re bullshit, and they’re giving you an award, they’re bullshit.”
And he has Gwen, who — in the same scene where she seems to enjoy seeing a young dancer get humiliated — effectively pushes Fosse toward his next great love, Ann Reinking (played by The Leftovers’ Margaret Qualley). As she watches Ann pick up his choreography effortlessly, Gwen taunts Bob, saying, “She’s too good for you. She doesn’t have to visit your hotel room to get the solo.”
This is a more nuanced take on Gwen Verdon than the typical spurned-lover routine. This is a version of Verdon that acknowledges certain undeniable, unflattering truths — like her partnering up with Bob while he was still married — and then extrapolates from there regarding her feelings about Fosse’s ongoing infidelity. Maybe she wasn’t mad at him for screwing his way through the chorus and crew of each of his shows. Maybe she was just upset that, unlike when he left Joan for her, or when he left Mary Ann Niles for Joan, his early-’70s love affairs had nothing to do with trading up.
“Glory” is a more Fosse-focused episode than last week’s “Me and My Baby,” and does a good job of getting inside of the man’s head — where, to put it mildly, things are messy. But there’s more to Verdon’s story here than just her preying on her loutish husband’s worst impulses. We see her spending some of her last days with her friend Joan Simon, who’d die of bone cancer in 1973. We see her romping around in bed with an “exhausting” actor/athlete named Ron (played by the charmingly hunky Jake Lacy).
More importantly, we see the frustrating power imbalance in her relationship with Bob. Yes, he makes her feel needed — justly — when he asks her to help him fine-tune some of his Pippin numbers. But he doesn’t return the favor when she asks him to use his clout to help save Children! Children! from becoming a disaster. (“It’s not a play anymore, it’s a skit,” she warns, while pleading with him to come to one of the previews and give notes.) She also starts pushing him to help her mount her dream show, Chicago, although he barely pays attention to what she’s asking.
Fosse comes off more callous and cruel in “Glory” than he has in any of the previous three Fosse/Verdon episodes. Feeling cocky after the success of Cabaret, he regales his Pippin cast with anecdotes about how producer Cy Feuer doubted his instincts on that movie. Meanwhile, he lines up dates with his dancers, taking them to see Deep Throat and then asking them to reenact it with him back in his hotel room. He chain-smokes cigarettes and chain-swallows stimulants, and when he tries to pressure one of his cast into sleeping with him, his escalating demands (“I want to talk more about the number” … “I’m tired too, let’s lie down” … “Just give me a kiss goodnight” … “No, a real kiss”) are as hard to watch as they should be.
My one big beef with “Glory” is that there’s not enough about the Fosse process, in a year where he made three of his most enduring contributions to popular culture. This episode blows past Liza with a “Z”, a radical reimagining of the glitzy ’70s variety special, fusing Broadway sophistication with docu-realistic filmmaking. “Glory” does gets a little more granular with Pippin, showing Bob micro-managing the dancer’s movements and expressions. (“Smile! Just the mouth, not the eyes!”) But it only alludes to all the ways that he refashioned a hippy-dippy allegory into something with depth and “blood,” capped with an ambiguous ending that subsequent productions have sometimes tried to make more definitive.
Still, even the few minutes of behind-the-scenes Pippin squabbles here are well-used, put in the context of Fosse’s life and career as 1972 gave way to 1973. He took the show in the first place to hedge his bets in case Cabaret flopped, which he was sure was an inevitability. Instead, he hit the jackpot, three times over.
So this episode ends with Fosse’s mind and body effectively shutting down, paralyzed by substance abuse, physical exhaustion, and the nagging questions — Gwen’s and his own — that keep pinging around in his head. For a man whose best work was motivated by a fear of failure, how does he press ahead after three once-in-a-lifetime successes in a single year? And for a man who thinks ambiguous endings are more realistic, what happens when his own story threatens to end happily?
Once More, From the Top…
• One of the most ecstatic experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater happened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2005, when the fest premiered a restored version of Liza with a “Z”, with Liza Minnelli in attendance. The special hadn’t been seen in decades, and for a time was thought lost. I doubt very many of the people at the Elgin Theatre that afternoon had seen the show. (I sure hadn’t. I would’ve been about 2 or 3 years old the last time NBC had rerun it.) The place went bonkers when Minnelli walked onto the stage. Then the lights dimmed, the music swelled, and for the next hour a few thousand folks in a cavernous historic theater were steamrolled by sly Kander and Ebb songs and Fosse flash. Reader, I was in tears by the end. (Oh who am I kidding? I was in tears by the middle, when Liza hit the twist ending of “Ring Them Bells.”)
• “That awful show” that Joan Simon refers to in her conversation with Gwen about their time being pregnant together? That’s Little Me, which opened in 1962 and ran for 257 performances, picking up 10 Tony nominations and one win (for Fosse’s choreography, naturally). It’s been revived a few times since then, and has fans. But it’s mostly a historical curiosity, remembered for the all-star team involved in the original production: Fosse, Neil Simon, star Sid Caesar, director Cy Feuer and Sweet Charity composer Cy Coleman.
• During Pippin rehearsals, while guzzling too many Tabs, Nicole Fosse is reading a Nancy Drew mystery. The title? The Clue of the Dancing Puppet, of course.